Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A



Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Response: Psalm 27:1, 4, 13-14; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23

The first reading takes us into the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah, 715-687 B.C. The superpower of the time was the Assyrian Empire, which dominated lands north and northeast of Judah. The Israelites of Palestine had been divided into two kingdoms, Samaria in the north, Judah in the south, since the death of Solomon in 922 B.C. The northern kingdom had fallen to Assyria in 722 B.C. This resulted in the dispersion (exile) of the 10 northern tribes of Israelites and the Assyrian importation of heathen tribes from the east. These tribes brought the images of their gods with them, while also adopting the worship of the “god of the land,” the Lord God of Israel. This set the stage for the centuries-old religious division of Samaritans from Jews that we encounter in our gospels. While the northern kingdom was obliterated, the southern kingdom had to submit to becoming a satellite kingdom of the Assyrian Empire.

Hezekiah was determined to assert independence from Assyria and its gods. He instituted religious, economic and social reforms. He also reached out to the Israelites of the defunct northern kingdom, encouraging them to come to Jerusalem to worship the Lord in his temple. The prophet Isaiah stood by Hezekiah in this effort. Isaiah’s oracles (statements of a prophet) in our first reading are his response to this political/religious situation. He begins, “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulon and . . . Naphtali.” For Isaiah, the fall of the northern kingdom was the Lord’s punishment for their dabbling in idolatry. In the allotment of land after the 12 tribes of Israelites conquered their Promised Land, Zebulon and Naphtali settled in the areas that eventually became the northern kingdom of Israel – but was now part of the Assyrian Empire. Isaiah praises Hezekiah’s outreach to the remaining northern Israelites in these words: “. . . but in the end the Lord has glorified . . . the land west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles. Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness . . . .” The next part of Isaiah’s oracle continues the theme of a glorious change in the good fortune of these northern lands. We shall see below how Matthew, 800 years later, adapts these words of Isaiah to a very different situation.

Since Psalm 27 serves as a response to the first reading, we can try to explain it as follows. It was noted above that King Hezekiah invited the Israelite remnant in the north to come to Jerusalem to worship. Let’s make the psalmist’s words their response to the invitation. “One thing I ask of the Lord. This I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, that I may gaze on the loveliness of the Lord and contemplate his temple.” The original setting of the psalm may be a prayer for deliverance from death, “I believe that I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living.” Therefore, apart from its use in our liturgy as a response to the first reading, it can serve as a prayer for anyone in danger of death through illness or other peril. In this interpretation, the people’s response expresses hope for the endangered, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”

The second reading, from 1 Corinthians, deals with a problem Paul tried to moderate – divisions within the Christian community; not unheard of even in Christian communities of our time! These were rivalries based on adherence to various missionaries whom they had encountered – Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Aramaic word for “Rock,” that is, Simon Peter). All should have said, “I belong to Christ.” Paul will not even spare those who were his own “groupies.” He asks, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Paul’s correction is still current when people accept or reject various popes or bishops, or pastors. Humanity remains with us always.

We know from another gospel that, after his baptism by John, Jesus and his disciples set up their own baptism-of-repentance ministry on the Jordan with even greater success than John had. When Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and parts east of the Jordan, put a stop to John’s ministry by imprisoning him, Jesus sensed danger. He withdrew from the baptismal ministry and went north to Galilee. Going home to Nazareth was out of the question. There, he would be easy prey for Herod’s police. Instead, he went farther north and settled in Capernaum on the edge of Herod’s territory. From this location he could quickly escape, by land or sea, any danger from Herod. We do not know if Matthew was aware of these political complications. For him, Jesus’ move was explained by the words spoken by Isaiah 800 years earlier. The original setting for these ancient words was given above in the comments on the first reading. Matthew interprets those ancient words of Isaiah as spoken about Jesus moving into northern Galilee, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light (Jesus). On those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.”

In his new location in Capernaum, Jesus begins a ministry of preaching repentance from sin. A ministry of healing soon became part of it. If his work was to prosper and outlast him, Jesus needed to form a group of helpers. Walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he saw the Johnson brothers, Simon and Andrew (sons of John), at work in their fishing business. In an example of how grace builds on nature, he called them, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Matthew writes, “They left their nets and followed him.” Was this even possible? At least Matthew does not write, “They left all and followed him,” as Luke did. We know that the apostles did not leave their wives because St. Paul tells us, in 1 Corinthians 9, that the apostles took their wives with them in their missions. Next, Jesus sees another pair of brothers, James and John Zebedee. They were teenagers and relatives of Jesus on their mother’s side! They were working in their father’s boat mending nets – a boring task. He called them, too. “They left boat and father and followed him.” No problem for them, but we do not have Zebedee’s reaction. Easy enough at their young age traveling around with their older and protective cousin. Jesus can now go full throttle, “teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News, and curing every disease and illness.”