When John the Baptist came preaching "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near," (3:2) everyone went out to be baptised. They wanted the kingdom of Heaven to come; life in Palestine was terrible.
It cost John everything; he was arrested for his preaching righteousness.
Righteousness simply means living God's way and being in a right relationship with God. And repentance means turning around from the way we are living and being righteous; actually living God's way, not just talking about it.
After John was arrested, Jesus withdrew to Galilee, it says. (4:12) He went home to count the cost of being righteous...
...and made a decision...
He moved house— from Nazareth to Capernaum.
Matthew tells us what this means: he "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."
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali— these are the territories of two tribes of Israel, two of Jacob's sons — this is all part of Israel's great story—
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.’
Jesus is the one who causes a great light to dawn in a place which has been under the shadow of death.
The prophecy is in Isaiah chapter 9, and we are meant to read all of it. Matthew just gives us the beginning. They didn't have page numbers on scrolls; the first verses that the gospels quote are like page numbers; they helped people find the place to read the whole prophecy.
The rest of the prophecy includes this— we heard it this morning:
[the people] 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...
This is who Jesus is, says Matthew. And by going to live in Capernaum Jesus not only made his home there—he located his identity and his being in the prophecy of Isaiah. He had counted the cost and decided to pay the cost of living righteously, whatever it might prove to be.
He announced a fundamentally different way of being human based in justice, righteousness and peace, rather than the normal dog eat dog oppression and exploitation of the weak by the strong.
And he continued the message of John: From that time [on he] began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’(4:17) It's the same message...
But do you see the difference? When John came preaching repentance, the people came from Jerusalem, Judea and around the Jordan for baptism.
When Jesus preached repentance the people came from Galilee, the Decapolis (which is the Ten Greek Cities) , Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.... out among the barbarians, essentially.They came from the non Jewish places, and those places are listed first! He is for everyone. His message is for everyone, which also means... us.
... they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.
All the sick; he is for everyone. And look at the diseases Matthew specifically names: demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics. These were the intractable, impossible and terrible diseases of the day; the incurable ones— and he cured them.
So we see a greater power than John...
We see an indiscriminate power not restricted to a few beneficiaries...
and we see a power that is not the burning punishing power John expected, with the axe already at the root of the trees...
but a power that begins to lift the rod of the oppressor by healing and loving.
As he started he chose four fishermen.
Two were casting their nets into the sea; he said there was a different catch and task waiting for them. And two of them were mending nets; a big part of the kingdom's work is the mending of nets, still.
But he chose fishermen... we know that Matthew was a tax collector (10:2) but we have no idea what the other seven did for a living. Why?
It's because the living of these five disciples tells us more about Jesus, and more about repentance, and more about the kingdom of heaven that has come near, or as it can be translated, is already at hand.
Matthew show us even the most hated and most vile people— tax collectors, fully paid up members of the oppressive classes— can repentant.
Fishermen were the lowest of the low. One of the philosophers of the day said that fishermen and fishmongers were on a par with money lenders and were socially despised as greedy thieves (Athenaeus 2nd century BCE. Deipnosophistai, 6.224b-28c). Jesus calls everyone.
And fishermen were stuck in the system. They were relatively privileged to have income, but they paid for it dearly. Commercial fishermen worked for the royal family or wealthy landlords who contracted with them to provide a specific amount of fish at a certain time. They were paid either with cash or with fish. Or... [they] leased their fishing rights from persons called "toll collectors" in the NT for a percentage of the catch. [That] "tax" could be as much as 40% (see Malina & Rohrbach, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 44 qoted here.)
Fishermen were stuck in the system. They were enmeshed in a culture that was designed to favour the rich and help the rich get richer, and who cares about the poor. If they rocked the boat, they would lose everything, including the boat.
Jesus called them out of the system. He called them to pay the cost of a different allegiance in life.
We are all fishermen. We are inescapably enmeshed in the oppressive system of Australia— we can't drop out— wearing sweat and bloodstained clothes from Bangladesh, using phones that cost the health and the eyesight of young people in China, rich because we fail in our obligations to the poor and send refuges back to hell—
Yes, he's on about refugees again... Why does he keep doing this!?
Understand that from the very beginnings of the religion of Israel there is a constant refrain:
Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien— aka the refugee, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.
This is one verse from Jeremiah 22:3, but this refrain is the Old Testament in one form or another dozens of times.
And Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that if we reject the hungry and do not visit those in prison— also known as detention centres— we are rejecting him...
If we cannot get our refugee policy and our welfare policies correct; if we do not oppose the current system, but we assent to it, we are failing to be Christian at the most basic level... the most basic level.
We are living in an unrighteous nation.
If we are not living against the Australian system by the way we treat and welcome our neighbours here in Kurralta Park, we are failing to be Christian at the most basic level... the most basic level.
We like to criticise the United States for the undoubted, disgraceful, and inhuman evil which is the Guantanamo Bay prison. But in our Guantanamo Bay, in June 2013, we had two thousand children!
And we have several Guantanamo Bays; Christmas Island, Nauru, Manus Island; not to mention Inverbrackie just up the road. If we voted for Tony Abbot, or for Labor, their blood is on our hands. Even if we didn't vote for them, we have all the benefits their governments— our governments— have stolen from the poor of the world.
And we are mooting tax breaks for the rich and cutting back on welfare payments for the disabled... [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/21/tax-avoiders-australia-amnesty]
It's hardly worth counting the cost of standing up to this. We know already what it will be: crucifixion. If we get enough traction to be heard, and are clear enough to make a difference, the powers will shut us down just as effectively as if they had lopped off our head or crucified us.
Will we pay the cost of shifting our allegiance from the world to living righteously for God? It will cost us everything, and the more effective we are, the more faithful we are, the more it will cost us.
But it means we will enter the kingdom which is already at hand. All our diseases will be cured. We will find life.
Don't count the cost— you know what it is— pay it!
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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