The readings for Sunday, January 22, 2017, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 8:23—9:3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17; and Matthew 4:12-23.
There are two parts to this Gospel reading. The first part places Jesus in Galilee in northern Palestine. Galilee was his homeland and the major location of his ministry in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Jesus had been down south, probably in the same area in which John the Baptizer was working his own ministry. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus also engaged in a baptismal ministry — a source of jealousy for the disciples of John the Baptizer. Because of political pressure and venomous hatred of the wife of Herod Antipas, the Baptizer had been arrested. The similar ministries of John and Jesus, and their well known association and even sharing of disciples, put Jesus also into danger from Herod Antipas. In fact, Luke 13:31 informs us that some friendly Pharisees approached Jesus to warn him of Herod’s intention to kill him.
At this point Jesus leaves Judea and the Jordan and his baptismal ministry and “withdrew to Galilee.” Still without compan-ions, he moved to Capernaum on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee. If Herod sent his agents to arrest Jesus, he could quickly escape by land or sea into the territory of Herod’s half-brother Herod Philip, a wise and just ruler.
Matthew displays his typical fondness to find some Old Testament passage to justify Jesus’ move to Galilee. In this case, Matthew turns to his favorite prophet, Isaiah. The quote from Isaiah determined the choice of today’s first reading, Isaiah 8:23-9:3.
There is no indication that Jesus engaged in a baptismal ministry in Galilee as he had in Judea. Instead he launches a preaching ministry which will turn into a healing ministry. Matthew writes, “From that time on, Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Matthew never defines exactly what this kingdom consists of. Among possibilities: God’s decisive intervention on behalf of his chosen people to free them from oppression; the presence of Jesus in his preaching and healing ministry; heaven as the dwelling of God and the eventual goal of humankind; the Church as the gathering together of God’s people.
The second part of this Sunday’s Gospel reading narrates the choice of Jesus’ first four disciples. Jesus now lives somewhere in Capernaum, a city by the sea. Even as people today enjoy walking close to a body of water, so Jesus also “was walking by the Sea of Galilee.” Capernaum was the center of a considerable fishing industry. In addition to catching the fish as an industry rather than for sport, they also had to be preserved by salting or drying them. Close to Capernaum was the fish-drying tower at Magdala. Fishermen often worked together in partnerships. There was also the work of mending nets and sails and keeping boats in repair. There were two types of nets. One type was thrown out into the water by a fisherman standing on the shore. Since there is no mention of a boat for Simon (Peter) and Andrew in the present story, they may have been using this method. The other method is a dragnet. It was used from boats and operated like a sieve from a circle of boats closing in on one another as they approached the shore. James and John, sons of Zebedee, were in their father’s boat mending their nets.
First Jesus encounters “Simon who is called Peter … and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea.” Matthew adds the obvious, “They were fishermen.” Jesus says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” By this metaphor the whole mission of Jesus and his disciples is cast in the form of a fishing operation. Matthew notes, “At once they left all and followed him.” Really? Or is this Matthew’s catechetical teaching of how to respond to a call of Jesus. It is well established that Simon and Andrew, sons of John, operated a large fishing operation. Today they might be known as Johnson Bros., Ltd. We know that Simon (Peter) did not permanently leave his wife, because St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 9:5 that Simon Peter and the other apostles were accompanied by their wives in their later mission work. Jesus encounters another pair of brothers, James and John. They left boat and father (and nets unmended) to follow Jesus. And why not? Any teenage boys would leap at the opportunity to get out of the drudging work to which they were assigned by their father. Jesus was more exciting to them, as they followed him throughout Galilee — teaching, preaching, and curing every disease. An exciting life indeed!