Readings for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 9.1-4 Psalm 27.1, 4, 13-14 1 Corinthians 1.10-13, 17-18 Matthew 4.12-23
These weeks we call “ordinary time” have a purpose: they give us the stories and teachings of Jesus to show us how we are to live that life of “living sacrifice” modeled on his ministry. The culmination of that living sacrifice was, ironically, his death; but then entirely consistent with the truth that Christ is life, his resurrection is the only logical result that can come from the just and good human life he lived. That same logic applies to us. Live life truly well, and it cannot be extinguished but must be raised up eternally.
This week we continue in this course of instruction, asking, “what is Jesus teaching us about a life worth living?”
Well, we observe Jesus gathering disciples. He doesn’t invite the fishermen to join him in ministry, rather he tells them to join him; he commands them.
Now, what we can take from that is at least a couple of things. From the perspective of Simon, James, Andrew and John, we learn that we are to respond to Jesus and, indeed, follow him.
We also must consider this story from the perspective of Christ; after all, we understand ourselves corporately and individually to be Christ in the world. We are to emulate him. So, we need to be going out to the world and bringing folks into the Church, and doing it by something more than a polite quiet, almost embarrassed, invitation. And yes, there is now embarrassment by many who see the world ridiculing the Christian faith, labeling it as “hateful” in some instances, and in others, simply a ridiculous belief based on an ancient unverifiable story, a myth at best; a fairy story for children really. Put more bluntly, we are afraid.
However, if we properly understand today’s gospel passage, Christ’s command will be easier to follow.
Now what we heard today is often misunderstood; and I think some of this comes from a lack of context for this story of Jesus and his walk along the lakeshore summoning his apostles.
The impression often given is that he just walked up to complete strangers, and such was the power of his personality, so great was his spiritual presence that they were compelled to drop everything and follow him. How intimidating for you and I! Can we do that? Probably not.
Some film and television portrayals of this scene follow exactly this notion Jesus’ charisma was irresistible. Yet, we know that Jesus had enemies, that he had people more than capable of resisting his “charm.”
The first thing we must recognize about this episode is the particular cultural context. We are in the Galilee and not in Judea, and that is significant.
Some of you may know that the Judeans were rather dismissive of their brothers and sisters in the Galilee. That region around the lake was also known as “the Galilee of the Gentiles.” This was because that region had long been alienated from the rest of the Jewish nation and was thought of as being practically a foreign land.
We need to recall some history here. You will remember that the destruction of ancient Israel’s independence came in several stages, not all at once. First, with the death of King Solomon, the kingdom split into two: ten tribes formed a separate kingdom in the north, and named it “Israel”, but it was also known as “Samaria.” In the south, in the lands of Judah and Benjamin, and centred on Jerusalem, the kingdom of Judea was created. Then the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians; and they practiced a policy of assimilation – they absorbed conquered peoples into their culture and that included religion. They deported about a fifth of the population of Samaria (around 40,000 people) to other areas of their empire. Another fifth or more became refugees and fled south to Judea. Foreigners were then settled in the abandoned areas; and over the course of years, through intermarriage, and broader political and social pressures, the remaining northern Jews were assimilated. Except not entirely. Some of the alienated Jews chose to stick it out, but having nothing to do with Judea, over the centuries they evolved into the Samaritans. Of course, we all know the Jews despised the Samaritans as being corrupted Jews. Another group of northern Jews successfully maintained their identity by very intentionally keeping contact with Jerusalem. Most of this community would be found in the Galilee.
So, these fishermen that Jesus approached were not typical first century Jews, but rather came from a community that was far more militant about maintaining their identity in the face of powerful cultural and political forces.
We also know from other passages in the gospels and from sources outside the Bible, that many Galileans were quite active in seeking out a solution to their community’s dilemma. We know, for example, from the Gospel of John that Andrew travelled south to the Jordan River valley to spend time with John the Baptist. He certainly was not alone. Andrew actually first encounters Jesus there.
It is fair to surmise that these fishermen were engaged in their faith, and they lived with a sense of the crisis of their times. They may even have heard Jesus speak already.
Jesus is not a complete stranger. Nazareth is a day’s walk away; and through kinship ties, the fact that Jesus was a tradesman and likely traveled from Nazareth more than occasionally for work makes it very possible that the others at least knew of him if they didn’t already know him.
So, key to calling people into discipleship is to create some familiarity with Christ. We can’t expect a call out of the blue to be baptized to get a favourable response. That encounter with him must be prepared. It’s like Mass – think about what Mass would be like if we cut off the first half, the liturgy of the Word and went straight to the Eucharist.
That is why the ministry of lector is so important, why it must be done well. We believe that Christ is present in the whole of Scripture. We call it the “Word of God” just as we confess that Jesus is the “Word of God made flesh.” Our lectors incarnate that divine Word for us, they speak and their voice carries to our ears Christ.
The liturgy of the Word, the reading of the Old Testament lesson and the letters of Paul, and Peter and others, are to help us to better understand who Christ is. What we hear concerns Christ, but not directly. Rather, these are stories about Israel’s experience of God, of the early Church’s. It’s something of an analogy to what we do when we share our own stories of faith, when we saw God at work in our lives, the thoughts we have when we reflect on the mysteries of faith.
The gospel is the high point of this part of the liturgy (not the homily) because the stories directly concern Jesus, and often he is quoted at length – so, we hear the Word of God incarnate’s very words.
I know, we’d be done a lot faster if we skipped over that and went straight to the Eucharist which is the principal reason we gather for Mass – but we need to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the Christ who feeds us or that act of communion will descend into mere superstitious practice and cease to be an act of true faith; and if we who attend mass regularly need to prepare for the sacrament, that profound encounter with the living God, how much more do those who are rarely here or have never come here need to be prepared?
We need to be looking for those opportunities to, not so much invite, but to tell people, it’s time to come.
But let’s consider who might be open to that.
We read increasingly of younger generations who are living in despair of their futures; we know that parents, in the midst of family life, are stressed, but looking to do well by their kids, bewildered by what is going on in the culture and in need of help in establishing basic principles from which to discern for themselves, and with respect to their children, what is the right thing to do?
You know, this might strike some as silly, as ridiculous, but we have this Super Bowl Brunch coming up. Is there a dad out there who has a friend with kids of his own but has little or nothing to do with the Church beyond getting the children baptized and registered in Catholic school? Call him up and tell him that you and he and the kids are going to have brunch on Super Bowl Sunday, and because it’s in the Parish centre, it won’t cost that much; and it will be good food. And in that time together, be Christ to that friend, to his children; and have a substantial conversation in and amongst your speculations on who is going to win the big game.
Is that too pushy? Well, we’re in a time of cultural crisis, heavens, of economic and political crises. We may have some difficult years ahead; and there are forces at work in the world, in our own society that are not aimed at our flourishing, at our freedom, and respecting us as individuals, as families, as communities of faith. What are you and I going to do? Will we have the grounding in the goodness of the gospel to resist and persist by faith in living well, having the good life that is a living sacrifice to God?
We all need to remember that this effort to present Christ and his command to “come follow me” is about the salvation of others, is about our concern for the well-being of the many today whose mental health is deteriorating, and so will be tempted by the solutions the world will offer: getting high, losing oneself in the virtual world of the internet and online gaming, the fantasy of pornography, the distraction of consumerism, the futile search for meaning in politics, and sadly for an increasing number, a solution to the problem of life found in assisted suicide (and those numbers are going up year over year).
We need to shine a light into the darkness of people’s lives; and for those who are aware of the evils of our day, to give them a way forward, someone to follow who will actually bring them to joy, to peace, to eternal life, to the Kingdom of God – someone they may have heard of, who they think they know but really need to know: Jesus Christ our Lord.