Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

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. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

- Matthew 4:18-25

As Jesus comes upon those who will be his apostles, we must recall the great fame and influence of John the Baptist. This was considerable enough so that the historian Josephus felt Herod Antipas' execution of John was due to his fear of an uprising, should John instruct his followers to make one. These earliest chosen apostles, who respond immediately to Jesus' call, have already heard the preaching of John the Baptist, which prepared them to accept the Messiah. John's preaching concerned the imminence of that kingdom, and the One who would be the deliverer. Jesus himself, according to Luke, for example, has already been preaching and so is already known. According to my study bible, verse 19 may indicate the second time three of these men are called by Jesus to follow (see Luke 5:10).

In the second paragraph, we are given a summary of Jesus' early ministry. He goes throughout Galilee, teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom at hand, and healing every ailment - physical and spiritual. His fame spreads, and great crowds begin to follow him from all around: Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. The Decapolis is the region north and east of Galilee. (For a map of these regions of Jesus' early ministry, see here.)

We continue in this passage with themes from yesterday's reading: his followers are of the common people, considered by the various religious groups in Judaism to be "people of the land," peasants. They have not been formally trained in any sacred school, most of them are uneducated and illiterate. His ministry focuses on proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, teaching in the synagogues, and is characterized by healing of every kind. This has been so in each of the gospels, as we have already been through John, Luke, Mark and now begin Matthew. Matthew's special perspective is on prophecy and the appearance of the kingdom as a startling reality - so we must understand this reading from that perspective. The "light that shines in the darkness" begins in the areas considered to be without great teachings or spiritual manifestation; among men, Jesus' early followers are people who are not particularly trained or given spiritual education of a recognized nature. His early ministry in Galilee, in a region of the Gentiles, marks these beginnings as commonplace, not particularly remarkable. But out of this comes the ministry nevertheless, and in this very knowledge of the commonplace and unremarkable, we are given to understand the immanence of the kingdom: the kingdom lives where the Spirit is at work. The "wind that blows where it chooses" (as it says in John 3) is at work in the transformation of these men into apostles, in the teachings of Jesus, in the healings that follow where Jesus goes and preaches and ministers. These are all manifestations of the kingdom -- or rather they all bear witness to its presence. The transforming, powerful working of the leaven of this kingdom is being revealed in the land, from the commonplace, everyday and ordinary. That which bears witness gathers many followers. My study bible says that this witness to the kingdom, these miracles in this early activity of Jesus, serve as an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, which we will read tomorrow. We continue to be taught what the kingdom is, its surprising Mystery which will always teach us its nature: prophesied yet unexpected. From this we learn the nature of belief that must always hold its eyes open and be prepared to accept, to repent (turn toward God) in the spirit of the confrontation of the new, the spiritual reality of the "wind" that shows us where it's been.

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