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Reflections for the III Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the third Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the readings teach us that Christ has brought us from the darkness of sin into the Light of God by calling us to repentance and the acceptance of God’s rule over us.

Is 8: 23- 9:3; I Cor 1:10-13, 17; Mt 4:12-23

Introduction:  Today’s readings show that the early Christians understood how Jesus fulfilled the expectations of ancient Israel.  Describing the humble beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, today’s Scripture readings teach us that Christ has brought us from the darkness of sin into the Light of God (4:16) by calling us to repentance (4:17) and the acceptance of God’s rule over us.

Homily starter anecdote: Light and darkness:  Terry Anderson, a journalist for the Associated Press, was seized and held hostage in Lebanon for seven years; blindfolded almost all of that time, Anderson described his experience in this way, “Deepest darkness, fumbling, uncertainties are frightening. More frightening is the darkness of the mind, when outside light makes no impression and inner lights go dim. . .” [Den of Lions, Crown Publishers, Inc. (New York: 1993).] In November of 1965, a power failure plunged seven northeastern U.S. states and Ontario, Canada, into a darkness which lasted for more than thirteen hours. About thirty million people living in eighty thousand square miles of territory were affected. In 1977, another, less severe, power failure darkened New York City for fifty-two minutes. Losses due to accidents and looting were in excess of one billion dollars. In the Holy Scriptures, light and darkness serve as symbols for good and evil. In today’s first reading and in the Gospel, Jesus is presented as the One sent to remove the darkness of sin from the world. Through Isaiah, God promises that His people will see an end to the darkness of oppression and separation. Today’s Gospel shows us how the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled in Jesus. ( ).

Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading contains the prophetic reference to Christ as the Light that dispels darkness. Matthew wanted his readers to recognize that the Light of which Isaiah spoke had finally appeared with the coming of Jesus.  The refrain for today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 27) reminds us, The Lord is my Light and my Salvation.  The second reading advises the Corinthians to live as children of the Light, avoiding divisions and rivalries, because several factions had arisen among the Corinthian Christians, each claiming allegiance to its first Christian teacher or to a particular Apostle.  In today's Gospel passage (Mt 4:12-23), Matthew explains that what Isaiah prophesied has been fulfilled through the preaching and healing ministry of Jesus. By his ministry of inviting people to the Kingdom of God through repentance, Jesus has brought Light to peoples living in darkness, thus fulfilling God’s original promise.  In addition, the Gospel describes the call of the first disciples (4:18-22), and Jesus' own preaching,  teaching, and healing ministry which has led people to repent of their sins and accept the Good News of God’s rule (the Kingdom of God).  He has also chosen ordinary fishermen with no formal training in Mosaic Law to preach the Good News, and they have been very effective instruments in the hands of the Holy Spirit, continuing Jesus’ mission to the world.

First Reading (Is 8: 23- 9:3) explained:  At the time of Isaiah the prophet, Israel was split into a northern kingdom called Israel, with the city of Samaria as its capital, and a southern kingdom known as Judah with Jerusalem as its capital.  Assyrian, Babylonian, and Roman invaders always came from “the north” – meaning they followed the trade routes and river routes. Two of Jacob’s sons, Zebulun and Naphtali, were apportioned territory west and north of the Sea of Galilee. Therefore, they would be the first to feel the brunt of an attack from an invading force. In fact, when Assyria destroyed the kingdom of Northern Israel around 720 BC, Zebulun and Naphtali were the first tribal lands to fall into the hands of the enemy. Later the Roman army would occupy the territory. Note that this area would include the towns of Nazareth and Capernaum. The people in the region around Galilee were overcome by gloom when their enemy, Assyria, conquered them and began among them the process of enculturation and paganization. The Assyrians forced intermarriage in the northern tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali. The descendants of these intermarriages became the despised Samaritans of Jesus' day.  But Isaiah declares that God’s power is greater than the powers of darkness and assures them that “a great light” will lead them into “abundant joy.”  Jesus is “the great light” who leads us all out of the land of gloom.  By His death and Resurrection, He has assured us that darkness can never have the last word.  In his prophetic mind, Isaiah sees this as if it has already happened: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great Light…"  The Light he is talking about is the Light of God, which scatters the darkness of ignorance and sin.  No wonder Matthew quoted this very passage from the great prophet when he described the time Jesus went to the area around the Sea of Galilee and "began to preach"! Matthew wanted his readers to recognize that the Light Isaiah spoke of had finally appeared with the coming of Jesus.  Although the Judean Jews considered the Samaritan women unclean from the womb and their men godless blasphemers, Jesus came to them as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, bringing them light and salvation. Jesus shows that he is the “light” of hope, evident to all through his deeds of power (healing), preaching the Good News (about the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven), and calling his first disciples (the apostles). His message is very clear and has two main elements: Repent because the kingdom is at hand and Follow Me to learn how to spread the Good News and live this new life of love and service. The message is the same for us today, a timeless message that calls for immediate action from each of us.

Second Reading (I Cor 1:10-13, 17) explained:  Since Corinth was a wild and woolly place, Saint Paul needed to wield his authority there quite severely.  Throughout this letter, he is very concerned with preserving the unity of the Christian community. Several factions have arisen among his Corinthians, each claiming allegiance to its first Christian teacher or to a particular Apostle.  Paul wants the Christians to rise above these immature rivalries and to follow the humility and obedience of Jesus who emptied himself for them all.  Paul argues that people who live in the Light must avoid divisions and rivalries.  Christ cannot be divided, nor can his message be changed to suit its hearers.  So, Paul urges his readers to heal all divisions in their community so they will be able to bear united witness to the Lord.  They need to keep their focus on Jesus Christ.

Gospel exegesis (Mt 4:12-23): The center of Jesus’ public life.  After John was arrested, Jesus chose Galilee as the base for his teaching, preaching and healing mission. That choice fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah (9:1-2).  Nazareth and Capernaum of Galilee were in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali. It would seem that Jesus' trip to Capernaum was made, not just as a missionary trip, but to establish Capernaum as his home base.  Capernaum by the sea was a small agricultural and fishing village of Galilee on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Galilee was a small region with a large, mixed Jewish and Gentile population. Major trade routes passed through it. Hence, the Galileans were more open than the residents of Judea to new ideas. In addition, the western shore of the sea was occupied by many small but prosperous cities and towns. This provided Jesus with the chance to minister to many people within a reasonable walking distance.

Light in darkness: Matthew tells us that the people to whom Jesus brought his ministry had been sitting in darkness, but that Jesus' coming had brought them a great Light.  The area was called the "Galilee of the Gentiles" because there was a large population of Hellenistic pagans mixed in with the Jews who had only recently begun to resettle a land devastated by earlier wars.  As a Jew in Roman-controlled territory, Jesus had located himself among the marginalized, with the poor not the wealthy, with the rural peasants not the urban elite, with the ruled not the rulers, with the powerless and exploited not the powerful, and with those who resisted Imperial demands rather than with those who enforced them. Thus, he began his ministry among the apparently small and insignificant places and people who, nevertheless, were central for God's purposes. We, too, need to introduce Christ’s Light into the darkness of prejudice, war, abuse, social injustice, hunger, poverty, ignorance, greed, anger, vengeance, and apathy.

Invitation to repentance:  Jesus used exactly the same words John the Baptist had used:  "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near." ‘Repent ’usually means to be sorry for or to regret some wrong actions we have done in the past. Jesus, however, is asking for much more than that. The call is not just to be sorry for past sins and to avoid them in the future. It is a call for a change of direction from now on and into the future, a right about turn from sin to God. The Greek word for repent is 'metanoia,' which implies a radical change in one’s thinking. It means looking at life in a completely new way. It is only when we begin to make this radical change that we begin to become part of that Kingdom and God starts ruling our lives.  When we come before God confessing, "I can't do better," then we are dying to self.  We are giving up control of our lives.  We are throwing our sinful lives on the mercy of God.  We are inviting God to do for us what we can't do for ourselves -- namely to raise the dead -- to change and re-create us.  "Repent" is in the present tense -- "Keep on repenting!"  "Continually be repentant!"  Repentance is the ongoing lifestyle of the people in the kingdom. We may not neglect the first step into the net of Jesus, the step of “repentance” – which is also the first teaching of Jesus (CCC#1989).

The Kingdom of Heaven is the theme of Jesus’ preaching. Matthew consistently uses the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven" instead of "Kingdom of God."  Though the terms are synonymous, many Jews in those days preferred the use of "Kingdom of Heaven," because of scruples about using God's Name. The kingdom of God is when the will of God is established on earth, when the world becomes the way God wants it to be. (In Our Father prayer we pray: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.)”  That day will be good news for all of us because when we do God’s will, His kingdom is established, evil is destroyed, poverty, war, hatred, injustice, corruption and violence will disappear. There will be abundance and peace, love and kindness, harmony and justice.  Hence, to be in God’s Kingdom or the Kingdom of Heaven, is not to be in a particular place, either in this life or the next. Rather it is to be living one's life - wherever we are - under the loving Kingly and Fatherly power of God. It is to be in a relationship of loving surrender to one's God and Lord and to be in an environment where values like truth, love, compassion, justice, freedom and peace prevail. In telling us that the Kingdom has come near, Jesus is telling us that we can dwell in this Kingdom right now, provided we repent or turn away from the idols that crowd our lives in order to let God reign in our lives.

The call of the Apostles: While the Evangelists Luke and John allowed time for the disciples to find out more about Jesus before they were called, Matthew did no such thing. He immediately shows Jesus calling two set of fishermen brothers — Simon (later renamed Peter) & Andrew and James & James. And except for telling them "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men," He gives no indication about what following him will entail — where they are going and what they will do. Matthew is not concerned with those details. His concern is that Jesus, about to begin his public ministry chooses to need help so that he can become the 'great light,' and shine on the people. Jesus invites these four to become his disciples, and they respond immediately, leaving their nets, their boats, and their father to follow Jesus.   Usually rabbinical students sought out their teachers and attached themselves to the rabbi they had chosen.  However, Jesus, as rabbi, takes the initiative and calls what are apparently less-than-ideal candidates to be his students. The disciples are simple working people with no great background.  In Cicero's ranking of occupations (De Off 1.150-51), owners of cultivated land appear first and fishermen last.  What Jesus needed then were ordinary folk who would give him themselves.  What Christ needs today is not our ability, but our availability.  What Jesus taught his first disciples was not a course of study, but a way of life to follow. Hence, he offered these men the opportunity to observe him close at hand on a daily basis.   How did the first four disciples respond to Jesus' call? In St. Matthew's words, "At once they left their nets and followed him." Even though they had no previous knowledge of Jesus, they put their total trust in him, leaving behind everything, their fishing nets, their parents and family, not knowing where it would all lead. Given the relatively small size of Lower Galilee and close proximity of the Galilean places named in the Gospel, there is no need to assume that those who followed Jesus never returned home again. The Church responds to Jesus by reminding us that the call from Jesus is “personal” for each one of us. It is then our responsibility to be a personal witness within the common mission of spreading the good news (CCC#878).

Fishers of men: In the ancient world, fishing was a metaphor for two distinct activities: judgment and teaching.  Fishing for people meant bringing them to justice by dragging them out of their hiding places and setting them before the judge.  Fishing as teaching people meant leading them from ignorance to wisdom. Both cases involved a radical change of environment, a break with a former way of life and an entrance upon a new way of life.  We are the fish dragged out of the water in the nets to die so that God may give us  a resurrection, a new life, a new family, a new future, all under God's control, all within the Kingdom of Heaven which has come near in Jesus.  We have very little control over our own lives, but as fish caught in the net of God's love, we can trust that we are under God's control.  We have to believe that being captured by God's love, being commanded by Him to repent, die to self and obey Him, and being raised to a new life by God, is not only right for us, but is a message we need to share with the entire world. . For the moment, 'Jesus is the Light' which the people in darkness are rejoicing to see; but he will soon say to his followers, 'You are the light of the world,' and that is his purpose in choosing his followers.

Jesus’ teaching ministry: "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people." For Matthew, Jesus' teaching was of much greater significance than his miracles.  Indeed, his teaching took precedence even over preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom.  Jesus taught in their synagogues.  There was only one Temple, located in Jerusalem, but every village of any size had a synagogue where people gathered to worship and to learn.  Teaching was at the heart of synagogue life.  The service consisted of prayers, readings from the Scriptures, and an address.  The ruler of the synagogue could invite any qualified man to give the address.  The synagogue, then, was the natural place for Jesus to begin His teaching ministry.  The last two verses (24-25), of this chapter, not included in this lesson, emphasize Jesus' healing ministry and the effect it had on people.  Great crowds came from near and far to follow Jesus.  The activities of Jesus are summarized in the last verse of our text: teaching, preaching, and healing -- perhaps in simpler terms: words and deeds.  Our words and deeds need to be addressed, not just to Church people or to our parishioners, but to all with whom we have contact.

Life messages: 1) We need to appreciate our call to be Christ’s disciplesEvery one of us is called by God, both individually and as Church members. The mission of preaching, teaching and healing which Jesus began in Galilee is now the responsibility of the Church.  Our own unique vocation and relationship with the risen Lord is never separated from the Body of the universal Church.  Be we monk, priest, married or single lay person, male or female, we are all called, and in this call we become what God wants us to be.   Our response to the call begins with our Baptism and the other Sacraments of Initiation. That response is strengthened through the years by the Eucharist and Reconciliation and is made manifest in Matrimony or Holy Orders. We are healed and consoled in the Anointing which also prepares us for death.  In addition, God is relentless in calling us back to Himself when we stray from Him.  Let us make personal efforts, then, to see the Light of Christ and to grow in holiness by learning the truths that are revealed through the Holy Catholic Church and its Sacraments.  Let us be shining lights in the world as Christ was, and let us and make a personal effort to bring others to the Truth and the Light, so that they may rejoice with us in the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, the present, developing form of the Kingdom of God. 

2) God sends us to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom: "Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people" (Mt. 4:23). Equally today, the Word of God, the promoting of the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven, heals all kinds of ills. The Word of God transforms hearts so that victims may forgive those who have harmed them, those who have physically abused them, those who have sexually abused them, and those who have psychologically abused them. When we receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, we are sent forth to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom and to defend the Catholic Faith. Like Peter, James and John, we are asked by Jesus to take on the work of discipleship; we are asked to leave our “fishing nets” -- our own needs and wants -- to follow the example of love and servanthood given to us by Jesus; we are asked to rebuild our lives, homes and cities in the justice and peace that Jesus proclaims. As we continue with the celebration of the Holy Mass, let us ask the Lord Jesus to give us the strength and perseverance to answer his calling so that we may faithfully serve the Lord according to his Divine Will. (Fr. Antony Kadavil

23 January 2020, 11:06