Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Response: Psalm 27:1, 4, 13-14; Second Reading: I Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23
The first reading is a response by the Prophet Isaiah to a reform initiated by King Hezekiah who came to the throne of the Kingdom of Judah (southern Palestine) in 715 B.C. The Assyrian Empire, north and northeast of Judea was the superpower. The former northern kingdom, called Israel, fell to Assyrian invasion in 722 B.C. This resulted in the dispersion (exile) of the 10 tribes of the north and the importation of other tribes (nations) from the east. These brought their gods with them, while adopting what was left of the worship of the “god” they considered the god of the land, the Lord God of Israel. Thus the stage was set for the later religious and nationalistic separation of Jews and Samaritans centuries later. The northern kingdom was obliterated while the Kingdom of Judah in the south became a satellite kingdom of the Empire of Assyria.
Hezekiah was determined to assert independence from Assyria for the Kingdom of Judah. He began with religious, economic and social reform. Not content to reform his own kingdom, he reached out to the still remaining Israelites of the defunct northern kingdoms to encourage them to come to Jerusalem to worship in the temple of the Lord. The prophet Isaiah stood by him in this attempt. This situation generated the oracles of Isaiah, which constitute our first reading of this Sunday. For Isaiah, the obliteration of the northern kingdom was the Lord God’s punishment for the inhabitants’ dabbling in idolatry. Therefore he raps, “First the Lord degraded the lands of Zebulon and Naphtali.” (These were the two tribes, which since the time of Joshua and the Judges in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C., had occupied the northern lands that became the Kingdom of Israel after Solomon’s death in 922 B.C.) Isaiah continues, “but in the end, the Lord has glorified” these lands “west of the Jordan River, the district of the Gentiles.” Light and joy replaced anguish and darkness. The picture was not as bright as Isaiah’s oracles imply, but prophets are often sent by God as cheerleaders inspiring hope. The reason for selection of this reading for this Sunday, Matthew quotes parts of it in this Sunday’s gospel.
The Responsorial Psalm 27 picks up from the first reading the theme of hoped-for salvation for the Israelite inhabitants of the northern kingdom; but by using it in our Christian liturgy, the Psalm gets a new thrust, salvation for the individual Christian. Thus the people’s response, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” Our well-known chant adds the words also found in this Psalm, “Of whom shall I be afraid?” The Psalmist (or those praying the Psalm) seek only one thing, “to dwell in the Lord’s house, to gaze on the Lord’s beauty, to contemplate his temple.” If this is not possible at the moment, then the “stouthearted patiently wait for the Lord.”
The second reading, from 1 Corinthians, continues Paul’s instructions to his troubled Christian community at Corinth in Macedonia (Greece today). There were divisions among them, not unheard of among Christians. Paul had founded this “parish,” but other Christian missionaries had worked there. The “parishioners” took sides. “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Cephas (Peter),” or “I belong to Christ.” Paul makes it clear that they should have chosen “I belong to Christ.” He reminds them that “Paul was not crucified for you, nor were you baptized in Paul’s name,” nor in any other name but the name of Christ. There is a lesson in this ancient reading for those who, in various ways, say, “I am of John Paul II,” or “I am of Benedict,” or “I am of Francis.” There are also those who reject one pastor and flock to a more popular pastor. Is this a case of what Paul calls, “emptying the cross of Christ of its meaning?”
In Matthew’s arrangement of events, Jesus just returned from his temptations in the wilderness. He returned to the Jordan River where John had been baptizing, and where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus had begun his own ministry of baptism. John the Baptizer was soon arrested. This motivated Jesus to reconsider his baptismal ministry and switch to new beginnings. He leaves the Jordan and goes north into the province of Galilee. He settles in his hometown Nazareth. If Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, responsible for the arrest of the Baptizer, intended to arrest Jesus also, Nazareth was a dangerous place. So Jesus went farther north and settled in Capernaum. This town was close to the border between Galilee and was on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In case Herod Antipas intended to arrest Jesus, he could quickly escape by land or sea into the territory of Herod Philip. Matthew may not be aware of these political complications, so he has to find, as usual, an Old Testament passage to explain why Jesus did this or that. He finds it in the oracles of Isaiah in our first reading. The original intent of Isaiah’s 8th century B.C. oracles was explained above. Matthew gives them new meaning by using them to explain Jesus’ move to Capernaum, which was in the district to which Isaiah spoke 700 years earlier.
New Beginnings. Jesus begins a preaching ministry. A reputable teacher must have disciples to eventually carry on their teacher’s work. Therefore, before any more activity, Jesus chooses disciples from among the fishermen operating on the Sea of Galilee. First, two brothers, Simon (whom he later named “Rock,” that is, Peter), and his brother Andrew. The call: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Grace builds on nature. They would now carry on their profession in another direction. Matthew notes that they left their nets and followed Jesus. Is this even possible for men with a family? Though Luke writes that “they left everything,” Matthew more correctly says they left their nets. St. Paul will tell us in 1 Corinthians 9 that the apostles were accompanied by their wives in their missions. Next Jesus summons another pair of brothers, James and John. Of them, Matthew says poignantly, “They left their father Zebedee sitting in the boat and followed Jesus.” Jesus was their older relative (on his mother’s side!), and teenage boys are ready to jump ship rather than continue the drudgery of mending fishing nets. Now the preaching and healing work can begin. Jesus has witnesses and eventual successors.