Gasping for air in the kingdom

The Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
   but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
   and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’ 
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. 

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 
16 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.’ 
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’*

18 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. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him.21As 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. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news [gospel] of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So 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. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. 

The empire strikes back: John is arrested. We know he will be murdered. But Jesus does not withdraw into Galilee, as the NRSV puts it. Jesus goes back to the place of empire. He goes back to the territory of the same Herod who has arrested John. This is a confrontation.

Jesus has been in the wilderness, led there by the Spirit, facing the temptations of the devil. (Matt 4:1-11)  In the movie Jesus of Montreal, Daniel, the actor who plays Jesus and becomes a Jesus figure, is taken to lunch in a luxury restaurant high above the city. There are offers of sponsorship which would greatly help him achieve his goals.  And the viewer suddenly realises this is Montreal's presentation of the temptations of Jesus.

The temptation for Jesus-Daniel is to be part of the ruling culture… to play the system… and Jesus refuses.

Jesus is no remote mystic out in the desert grappling with the meaning of life and the presence of evil. Instead, Jesus is
the one who refuses to let the world squeeze him into its mould (JB Phillips);
the artist who refuses the contract with Sony Music;
the disciple doesn't buy a McMansion in a nice suburb;
the person who chooses to live life against the empire, instead of living comfortably under the patronage of empire and reaping its benefits.

Matt 3:13 says," Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan." He heard the call of God through John, and then went back to his own place, although the tradition said he shifted from Nazareth to another town, Capernaum, about 30 miles away. Matthew will find meaning in this.

But first, to read this meaning, what is the system in which Jesus refuses to play? After all, we are often told you can only change the system from within.

We call the next section of the gospel The Beatitudes. Malina and Rohrbaugh title their commentary on that text "A New Basis for Honor." This is because Matthew chapter five completely subverts normal understandings of living.  Blessèd are the poor in spirt… Blessèd are  those who mourn… Really!? "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."  Real honour, is the life of the kingdom of heaven. And everything about it is different.

The gospel presents the inevitable conclusion of Jesus living this way: we call it the crucifixion. The mocking sign is the truth:  "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (27:37) Everything is upside down.

Jesus gives us new life, we cry, but when we go beyond easy platitudes about salvation, we find that to follow Jesus is to follow him to our death. The only question is: which death? Or, how will we die— faithful to Jesus, or in the thrall of something else?

This is where we live:

Corporations and nations and other demonic powers restrict, control, and consume human life or order to sustain and extend and prosper their own survival. ... The principalities have great resilience; the death game which they play continues, adapting its means of dominating human beings to the sole morality which governs all demonic powers so long as they exist—survival. (Richard Beck quoting William Stringellow)

The powers, like all of us, are terrified of dying. They pretend to offer us life, or at least that we will be remembered— some significance— but "the neurotic pursuit of self-esteem via service to the powers is revealed to be another manifestation of our slavery to the fear of death." (Richard Beck The Slavery of Death pp 54)

This means we live in what Matthew calls darkness. But our darkness is not individual; it is a servitude to something greater.

Stringfellow names the darkness in which we sit as our fascination with and orientation towards death.

[H]istory discloses that the actual meaning of such human idolatry of nations, institutions, or other principalities is death. Death is the only moral significance that a principality proffers human beings. That is to say, whatever intrinsic moral power is embodied in a principality— for a great corporation, profit, for example; or for a nation, hegemony; or for an ideology, conformity— that is sooner or later suspended by the greater moral power of death. Corporations die. Nations die. Ideologies die. Death survives them all. Death is— apart from God— the greatest moral power in this world, outlasting and subduing all other powers no matter how marvelous they may seem for the time being. This means, theologically speaking, that the object of allegiance and servitude, the real idol secreted within all idolatries, the power above all principalities and powers— the idol of all idols— is death. (Stringfellow)

Repentance, then, is the reorientation of one’s entire life towards life, enabled by the Resurrection and empowered by life in the Spirit. (Paul Nuechterlein, who points us to Beck's article.)

No one wants to die. But resurrection means, first of all, dying. It is how we die, and how we approach death, that matters, that determines whether we have been death oriented or life oriented. Gaining freedom from death by dying is deeply counter intuitive. Especially since the powers promise freedom, even to make us great again.

Our fear of death is why our understanding of faith-trust in Jesus too often constellates around some local (or even national) shibboleth of what it means to follow Jesus. "Good Christians" will oppose abortion, oppose gays, send their kids to a doctrinally sound Christian school, and share conspiracy theories about religious freedom on Facebook. We join ourselves to a power which is a collective belief, for the freedom and safety it offers, rather than follow the person of Jesus.

Mike Gottschalk:

I fear that for the Conservative culture in this present moment, freedom has become a Principality. When I encounter a person fretting and foaming about the threats to freedom, I ask them to name something that indeed threatened their actual freedom that day; unless they were non-white or non-male, they couldn't name anything. This leads me to believe that this particular person is engaged in his living through ideology rather than reality.

Gottschalk's expression "fretting and foaming" is apt. Ideology— an idea that has become an idol in the face of reality— cannot bear to be threatened with death. Ideology is a darkness which hides the end result of death which comes to us all, person or institution-power. It cannot bear the insight that freedom from death comes by dying, so it creates moral rules which seek to wall off death by apportioning death— sometimes literally— to those defined as outsiders, like "the gays."

This all prepares us to read Matthew's insight from the tradition that Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum ("the territory of Naphtali, but not Zebulon.") Unlike our more mobile culture, such a move was unusual.

Matthew quotes Isaiah. An Old Testament quotation is not a proof text. It is the hyperlink of its day: "Go and read these verses and their wider context; they speak to our present." If we look only at the quoted verses, they become a proof text.

Old Testament quotations are allusive— meant to open our understanding— and are not simply meant to claim a literal fulfilment. The idea that Matthew "proof-texts" dishonours his art.

We begin at Isaiah 8:11:

For the Lord spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: 12Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. 13But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.

What consumes people is shallow. They fear the wrong things. They are focussed on the wrong things to try to do right, to live well, and to find honour. The conspiracy theories of the age are one more distraction from the reality of death. We "see a conspiracy" and gain some sense of insight and power, but it is false.

The text which follows is frightening. Wrongly perceived, the sanctuary of God is threat!

 14He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.

16 Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples. 17I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. 18See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. 

Verse 18 is encouragement to Matthew's people; they are the people the Lord has given.

"Ghosts and the familiar spirits" are death avoidance strategies; I mean, why would you consult the dead to learn how to avoid death!? No wonder they will only see distress and darkness!

19Now if people say to you, ‘Consult the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter; should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, 20for teaching and for instruction?’ surely, those who speak like this will have no dawn! [No light!] 21They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry; when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their gods. They will turn their faces upwards, 22or they will look to the earth, but will see only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.

Some months ago, I attended worship in one of our very conservative UCA congregations.  The discordance of that place still grieves me. The words of worship were triumphant, but the affect was distress and darkness. Despite all the right words, the congregation was attuned to something else. This is not meant to be. In chapter 9, Isaiah goes on to say

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish.

—but there was. Gloom, resignation, cynicism, despite all the words to the contrary—

In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 

2 The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined. 
3 You have multiplied the nation,
   you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
   as with joy at the harvest,
   as people exult when dividing plunder. 
4 For the yoke of their burden,
   and the bar across their shoulders,
   the rod of their oppressor,
   you have broken as on the day of Midian. 
5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors
   and all the garments rolled in blood
   shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 
6 For a child has been born for us,
   a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
   and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
   Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 
7 His authority shall grow continually,
   and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
   He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
   from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

And Matthew concludes his interpretation of Isaiah with these words: "17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

The following is from Andrew Marr, (heavily edited by me,)

Zebulun and Naphtali … are Gentile territory, lands of the enemies of Israel, lands that were occupied by the Assyrians in their invasion of Israel. The darkness has to do with the power and might of military occupation and enmity between peoples….  all of us live either in a country bursting with military might or in a country that is in some way, perhaps economically, occupied by another. [And that military base— we call it the military-industrial complex— is rooted in the need for supremacy as a means of avoiding death. It is an idolatry. Its ideology includes the myth of redemptive violence1, which helps justify its imperialism. Repentance] means we need to turn away from anything that contributes to the enmity this situation creates and start breaking the yokes we impose on each other.

In First Corinthians [1:10-18, the epistle for this week], Paul gives us another example of darkness… The church is in conflict with its members using slogans such as: “I belong to Apollos!” “I belong to Cephas!” One could say that this is war on a small scale but the darkness is the same as that created by the Assyrians and the Romans…

The “power of God” doesn’t look much like power as we usually understand it. It isn’t exactly a large-scale military invasion like D-Day. In fact, it is quite the opposite. But the cross is power in the sense of shedding light in the darkness which John says the darkness cannot overcome. The light reveals the darkness of the military might of the Assyrians, the Romans and all else who imitate them. The light also reveals the hatred of victims for their oppressors, however understandable, for what it is: a wall of enmity that perpetuates divisions between people. As I struggle with my almost constant anger at many politicians in this country for their misuse of power and the public trust, I have to repent of this anger minute by minute.

The text I have placed in bold is one of the interpretive keys for discerning if our theology is following Jesus, along with the fishermen, or merely a defensive ideology. Does our theologising bring us to building bridges or walls? I recognise "walls of enmity" in the Facebook posts of religiously conservative relatives. And I recognise that my deep distress about this comes from two things. One is that I am being walled out by family. And the other is that my constant anger at many politicians in my country tempts me to a similar violence. I want to wall them out.

Marr continues

Where does this darkness come from? Isaiah and Matthew are not portraying darkness as part of the created order in the sense that night time is natural. This is not darkness that God made, or in fact had anything to do with. This is darkness as a human creation. It is human beings who organize armies to oppress people or who tear congregations apart with petty party politics. This sort of behavior is highly contagious. The more people build walls or fight, the more people feel the need to build walls and fight.

At this point, Matthew's gospel becomes appalling. The next verse after the call to repent says,

18 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. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’

From as early as I can remember, I have been encouraged to fish for people; to evangelise; to reel them in— and it's been as blunt as that. It's as though our whole reason for being, as Christians, is about saving souls— as though we can do that!  Fishing for "men" has been presented to me as an unambiguously good thing, although I have always felt uncomfortable. It is a violent image, not an image of salvation! (I've never understood ethical vegetarians who make an exception for fish!)

We have domesticated the text in our favour. But

While we automatically assume that the reference is to traditional evangelism, “fishing for people” has a quite different biblical history, especially in prophetic literature.

 Eighth century prophet, Amos, delivers words of warning to God’s people in Samaria because of their neglect of the poor and needy. “The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:2). Jeremiah writes to warn the people of Judah not to imagine that they will escape Babylon. “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them . . .” (Jeremiah 16:16). Far from the “saving of souls,” “fishing for people” seems to carry the meaning of uncovering that which is concealed, just as fish seem to be concealed in the water until they are netted or hooked. This is surely one result of “great light.” (Tom Mundahl)

On my first reading, this interpretation seemed forced. But filtering out the exhortations and easy faith of my childhood, what have I found?  A faith which is in many ways deeply discomforting. It sets me at odds with my culture. I have indeed been hooked by the faith, but its comfort is far distant from the easy comforts of so much popular preaching. Mundahl continues:

 All that has served to ‘cover up’ massive injustice in this Roman-Judean politico-economic system will be stripped bare. The corruption of the temple-based religious system will not be spared. As Ched Myers suggests: “The point here is that following Jesus requires not just the assent of the heart, but a fundamental re-ordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the “world” of the disciple: in the kingdom the personal and the political are one” (Mark, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis: 1988, p. 132). “Fishing for people,” then, is using the light to uncover that which oppresses and to illuminate the possibilities from this new community for “mending” and “healing” (Matthew 4:21, 23). (Ibid)

Fishing for people is not about getting them to say the magic words of conversion. It is about opening their eyes to the Great Dissonance. It is to bring people to see that life is not as the world presents it. This is violent— it leaves people gasping, dragged out of their world, unable to breathe in the oxygen rich atmosphere of a new kingdom.  The Letter to Diognetus said of Christians that

They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country...

I see that one of my roles as a Minister of the Word is to practice, and model for others, the living of this dissonance. Our great temptation is to resolve the cognitive dissonance into which following Jesus propels us, by harmonising faith with the culture. Thus the heresy of prosperity theology seeks to dissolve dissonance by teaching the lie that we can have both the benefits of Jesus and of wealth. But being hooked is to be dragged out of the dark water of our lake so that the light shines on us and the dissonance between the world and the kingdom is made plain.

We find ourselves gasping on the beach, and if we should struggle up to the crowd we see on a nearby hill, we will hear the Sermon on the Mount. It talks about us, about how we need to change, about the real honour of life. The call to follow is the beginning of a new community on the mountain. This community has everything about it changed.

In the church I visited, people saw themselves as victims. They wanted Jesus to save them. In one sense, their instincts were correct; we are victims. We are caught in the rat race. Especially in times of social decline folk can feel "their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country..." But the theology of that church— and it's a theology which still has its hooks pulling at me— is wrong about how to solve being a victim.

The forty-five minute sermon about how bad it will be for nonbelievers on the last day was, at base, about creating more victims. It sought to drag me into dark and miserable waters disguised as salvation. It preached my salvation while priming me to blame others for my problems.

The preaching of the good news and the healing of people's afflictions, in the few verses at the end of Matthew chapter four, are as potent a description of the kingdom of heaven as any of the parables which begin with "the kingdom of heaven is like…" These verses describe a "community founded around the rehabilitation of victims instead of the making of them". And Jesus begins to teach us that kind of blessed community in Chapter 5.

Andrew Prior


The following are the key resources I found helpful in this exploration:
Paul Nuechterlein – The Girardian Lectionary, Epiphany 3A
Andrew Marr – Blueprint of the Kingdom
Rchard Beck – An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Blogging Stringfellow)


Previously on One Man's Web:


  1. In short, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favour those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favour of the gods. The common people exist to perpetuate the advantage that the gods have conferred upon the king, the aristocracy, and the priesthood. Religion exists to legitimate power and privilege. Life is combat. Any form of order is preferable to chaos, according to this myth. Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society. (Wink)

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