Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,

on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—

the people who sat in darkness

have seen a great light,

and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death

light has dawned.’

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

- Matthew 4:12-17

John has been arrested and imprisoned by Herod Antipas, and Jesus goes ("withdrew") to Galilee. He does not go back to his home in hilly Nazareth, but remains close to the lake. We are told in Matthew's gospel that this reflects the prophecy of Isaiah, quoted above.

Galilee is called "Galilee of the Gentiles" because it had been heavily populated with non-Jews. In 734 B.C. it became an Assyrian province. By Jesus' time it had a mixed population to the extent that it was no longer considered a genuinely Jewish land. Many non-Jewish residents, however, had converted to Judaism in the Maccabean period. According to my study bible, even the Jews who inhabited this area were influenced by Greek culture and were considered second-class by the Jews of Judea.

"Darkness" (in the quotation from Isaiah) means ungodliness. It is about spiritual darkness - to sit in "darkness," in this language, means to be overcome by spiritual ignorance and death. Christian tradition denotes "the great light" shining on these people as an anticipation of the gospel which will be preached to all after the Resurrection.

In the gospel of John, John the Baptist is quoted as saying that Jesus "must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Taking these sources together, we understand that Jesus starts his ministry as John is arrested. He goes to Galilee, to Capernaum on the shore of Sea of Galilee. Outside of Jerusalem, his ministry will focus on this land considered "second class" in Judea, influenced by Greek culture and a crossroads or mixture of many peoples of the region. It is a region influenced by trade and different empires - Greek was the cosmopolitan or international language of its time, the language of trade, diplomacy, literature, poetry and philosophy. This sounds quite wonderful to us; but in fact we could consider it in that time and context to be "worldly" or perhaps even more closely, a place tainted by the "common" -- not pure, not elite. It is a crossroads of many influences, of fishing and agriculture. Capernaum is also home to Jesus' first apostles.

So Isaiah's "light that shines in the darkness" has also prefigured the words in the first chapter of John's gospel. But according to Matthew, Jesus' beginning his ministry here in Capernaum, in Galilee, is all about that light that must come into the darkness. Jesus' home in Nazareth was also considered a place of insignificance, even having a negative reputation. His ministry begins here in this place of the common, a crossroads of the world, of the daily trade, of fishing, of agriculture, and influence from many cultural sources rather than the elitism or "purity" of Judea. The light is spread and shared in this place from which his disciples and apostles will be chosen. Matthew ties it to prophecy, but we can also see its significance in the need of the world for this light, and of its sharing of itself with all the world. In today's reading, we also have a selection from 1 Corinthians 1:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

We have already had a glimmer of the Mystery, of the expected yet unexpected, and this passage in Matthew opens up yet further this mystery of that which has been prophesied and awaited, yet is so new in its revelation, and unexpected. Never let the surprise go: these words are still surprising, the effects are still surprises. We find God where we are likely to least expect and in ways we do not expect; yet somehow we have been told these words over and over again. Let us remain humble enough, our eyes open enough, to understand this and see it at work in our lives and the world around us.

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