Week of Sunday January 23
Matthew 4:12-25

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 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.

Can a man be kind and caring?
Jesus was.
Can a man who's kind and caring
be adventuresome and daring,
bravely doing right,
walking in the light?
Jesus did and so I can:
I will be a Jesus man. Brian Wren, A Hymn for men and boys

Point One: How odd that NRSV tells us Jesus “withdrew” to Galilee on hearing of John’s death!  It sounds like a strategic retreat when, in fact, he is going back into the lion’s den.  Galilee was the territory controlled by Herod who had John killed. He is stepping into the vacuum left by John, says Petty.  He is truly a man who is “adventuresome and daring.”

In the drama of Matthew we have passed the birth, been shown Jesus’ commitment to do God’s will by being baptised by John even, when it is John who should be baptised by him (3:15) and then,  in his  resistance to the temptations of the Devil (4:1-12). He begins his public ministry.

Point Two: The public ministry begins with a verse (23) which Bill Loader points out is used to frame

the great block of material in 4:23 - 9:34, which includes the Sermon on the Mount, 5-7, and the collection of Jesus' deeds (8:1 - 9:34). The summary in 4:23 is repeated in 9:35, forming a framework around the whole complex.

The work begins. Look at the context in which verse 23, (and 9:35) places all that teaching.

4:23... 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. 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.

10:35... Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’

All the teaching is done in the context of healing and compassion, and the bringing of good news.

In 2011, I’m not sure we can fully appreciate what this healing ministry meant.  For example; I was taught in college, that it was a required characteristic for a figure like Jesus to be able to heal; part of the credentials.  It strikes me this is a very privileged and modern view. It may be correct, but is only part of the story

Rev Graham Smith wrote of his years in New Guinea that a man told him one of the best things the Europeans brought with them was the nail. He explained to Graham that in the old days, a rotting tooth meant weeks of agony as one tried to dig it out with splinters of wood.  But with a roofing nail it was the work of a day or two. Bliss!

We take painkillers, anaesthetics, dentistry and all kinds of healing for granted. Imagine life for the poor and malnourished of Jesus’ day.  Once sick, there was often no way back to relative security. No unemployment benefit, no health insurance, few dependable treatments.  For the “harassed and helpless”, a headache could be the beginning of the slide from ordinary poverty into death.

The health care of the kingdom of the heavens is a long way from health insurance run as businesses rather than mutual societies, with exclusions of “pre-existing conditions.”

Someone who comes and heals all the people- every disease and every sickness- is no mere wonder worker. He is literally a life saver. The kingdom is being lived out and practiced in people’s presence. The statement that the kingdom of heaven has come near (17) is not a “propositional revelation” in Matthew’s story. It is not a promise of what happens if we believe. It is what is happening. The great poetry of the Kingdom- the wolf lives with the lamb, and mourning and crying and pain will be no more- (Isa 11, Rev 21) has begun to happen in the actions of Jesus.

Point Three: What of repentance?  Brian Stoffregen asks

What should be our response to the coming of heaven's rule? Surprisingly, it is not worship or praise, but repentance. Perhaps this is the big problem with the coming of the Kingdom or the coming of Jesus at Christmas or Palm Sunday (or even "praise services"?) -- we want to celebrate and praise, rather than repent -- let the coming one change our thinking and our living.

Linthicum also pursues this thought in his commentary this week.

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”” (vs. 17).  Although this is the traditional way of translating the Greek, a better translation would be “Turn your lives around, because here comes the kingdom of the heavens” (cf., F. Dale Bruner,  The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, pp. 138-141).  This statement of the intent of Jesus’ ministry is pregnant with meaning.

First, “turn your lives around”.  The Greek is actually “metanoeite”.  The word literally means “to turn around” or “to reverse direction”.  The Greek word has no religious sense to it at all; it simply means to reverse directions.  To translate this word with the English “repent” is to place religious meaning upon it, which is not what Jesus was saying at all.  What he was simply saying was “turn around”, “change your directions”, “change your preoccupations” or “stop following the Roman-Jewish authorities’ way and start following the Jesus way”.

Second, “because here comes” captures the immediacy of the Greek that doesn’t as clearly express itself through “has come near”.  It is as if Matthew borrowed the term that newscasters now use when they excitedly announce “late-breaking news”.  In other words, when they use this term, news reporters mean that they are informing the listener about something that is going on the very instant they are reporting it.  It isn’t something that has recently happened, but is now complete.  Rather, it is happening this very instant  – and we have no idea at this moment how it will all turn out!  That is what Matthew means by using the Greek word “engiken”.  It is in the very preaching and actions of Jesus, going on right now, that Jesus announces that the kingdom of the heavens is upon us.  It is happening right now – and no one (not even Jesus  – Mt. 24:36) will know how it is all going to turn out!

Point Four:  Robert Linthicum has an interesting  exploration of Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah in verses 15 and 16. Yes, it is Matthew garnering authority from the Old Testament.  But it is not an “opportunistic” choice of verses that just happens to serve the purpose, and have little real relevance.  The choice is careful and deliberate:

Matthew is careful to quote that part of Isaiah 9 that specifically describes the extent of his predic ted Messiah’s reign: “on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles”.  In our exposition of the Old Testament lesson for today, I pointed out that these locations refer, respectively, to the western region of Palestine ruled by Syria and Phoenicia, the region east of the Jordan River ruled by Edom and Moab and the northeastern region east of the Sea of Galilee ruled by Ammon and Bashan (all of which would be conquered by Assyria and absorbed into the Assyrian Empire in the same campaign as conquered the northern kingdom of Israel).  Together with Matthew’s reference to Zebulun and Naphtali, the apostle has been careful to circle the entirety of Roman-controlled Israel.

Point Five:  When Jesus chooses his disciples, we traditionally note how the disciples left and joined him immediately.  We conclude, or at least the ministers I had during childhood concluded, that James and John left their father with the nets and never came back.  In this claim over family primacy, Jesus chose too sets of brothers!  The family was involved.  And, as Stoffregen notes,

J. Andrew Overman (Church and Community in Crisis: The Gospel According to Matthew) makes this comment:

Given the relatively small size of Lower Galilee and close proximity of the Galilean places named in the Gospel, there is no need to assume that those who supposedly followed Jesus never returned home again. In fact, that is quite implausible. A far more likely scenario is the group gathered around Jesus, being out on the road for a day or two, and then returning back to their homes and town. This is exactly the scene in chapter 8 when Jesus and his followers come to Capernaum. They reside in Peter's house (8:14).... I doubt the extent to which traditional, familial, and village ties were utterly severed within the Jesus movement. Those ties may have been strained, but this would have been much more a result of one's allegiance to the Jesus movement and not that these followers had forever left home.

A Conclusion: Let me try and put this together.

Matthew describes a complicated Jesus, a multidimensional human being. We have a man who is politically astute, moving into the gap left by John, and very brave. But he is not the gung ho monosyllabic “hero” of Hollywood. He is a man of great compassion. The kingdom is about healing of people, and about compassion.

It is a deeply political kingdom that is coming near. We see this from the use of the Old Testament quotation. Yet it is a kingdom which turns the notion of power for the rich and powerful upside down. It is a kingdom of compassion.

We see a subtlety in the way our discipleship might occur. The all or nothing approach of some traditions is contradicted in Matthew. It seems our first discipleship is simply to turn our lives around. Repent-Metanoia as Linthicum describes it, is a curiously unreligious word.  All that Jesus teaches is in the context of his words “Turn around.”

I tend to read Matthew as somewhat inflexible, especially because of his approval of John's thunderous overture to to Jesus.  But here in this reading, I begin to see a subtlety that challenges me to read more carefully.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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