3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
Matthew 4:12-23

The Lord is passing through the square
by Pope Francis

This Sunday’s Gospel recounts the beginnings of the public life of Jesus in the cities and villages of Galilee. His mission does not begin in Jerusalem, the religious centre and also the social and political centre, but in an area on the outskirts, an area looked down upon by the most observant Jews because of the presence in that region of various foreign peoples; that is why the Prophet Isaiah calls it “Galilee of the nations” (Is 9:1).

It is a borderland, a place of transit where people of different races, cultures, and religions converge. Thus Galilee becomes a symbolic place for the Gospel to open to all nations. From this point of view, Galilee is like the world of today: the co-presence of different cultures, the necessity for comparison and the necessity of encounter. We too are immersed every day in a kind of “Galilee of the nations”, and in this type of context we may feel afraid and give in to the temptation to build fences to make us feel safer, more protected. But Jesus teaches us that the Good News, which he brings, is not reserved to one part of humanity, it is to be communicated to everyone. It is a proclamation of joy destined for those who are waiting for it, but also for all those who perhaps are no longer waiting for anything and haven’t even the strength to seek and to ask.

Starting from Galilee, Jesus teaches us that no one is excluded from the salvation of God, rather it is from the margins that God prefers to begin, from the least, so as to reach everyone. He teaches us a method, his method, which also expresses the content, which is the Father’s mercy. “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel” (Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 20).

Jesus begins his mission not only from a decentralized place, but also among men whom one would call, refer to, as having a “low profile”. When choosing his first disciples and future apostles, he does not turn to the schools of scribes and doctors of the Law, but to humble people and simple people, who diligently prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God. Jesus goes to call them where they work, on the lakeshore: they are fishermen. He calls them, and they follow him, immediately. They leave their nets and go with him: their life will become an extraordinary and fascinating adventure.

Dear friends, the Lord is calling today too! The Lord passes through the paths of our daily life. Even today at this moment, here, the Lord is passing through the square. He is calling us to go with him, to work with him for the Kingdom of God, in the “Galilee” of our times. May each one of you think: the Lord is passing by today, the Lord is watching me, he is looking at me! What is the Lord saying to me? And if one of you feels that the Lord says to you “follow me” be brave, go with the Lord. The Lord never disappoints. Feel in your heart if the Lord is calling you to follow him. Let’s let his gaze rest on us, hear his voice, and follow him! “That the joy of the Gospel may reach to the ends of the earth, illuminating even the fringes of our world” (ibid., n. 288).

Pope Francis
Angelus 26/01/2014 

How long will the night last? 

Today’s Gospel is made up of three parts. First of all, with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus’ activity in Galilee is introduced (vv. 12-17). Then there is the vocation story of the first four disciples (vv. 18-22). Finally, the activity of Jesus is summed up in one sentence (v. 23).

After the conclusion of John the Baptist’s mission, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. It became the center of his activities for nearly three years.

Capernaum was a village of fishermen and farmers that stretched for about three hundred meters along the western shore of Lake Gennesaret. It was not renowned like the city of Tiberias—where the Tetrarch Herod Antipas lived—or like the rich and prosperous Magdala, famous for its flourishing industries of salted fish and dyeing. However, it enjoyed a certain prestige: it was along the “Way of the Sea”—the famous imperial road. It started from Egypt and passing through Damascus it led to Mesopotamia. It marked the border between Galilee and the Golan, which belonged to Philip (another son of Herod the Great). It was a border area with a customs office where a duty of all merchandise was collected.

Matthew does not merely record Jesus’ change of residence. He complements the information with a reference to a text of the Bible. To understand its meaning, it must be noted that Galilee was inhabited by Israelites regarded by all as semi-pagans because they were born from the intermingling of different peoples. The Jews of Jerusalem despised them because they were considered poorly educated, ignorant of the law, corrupt in customs and less observant of the rabbinic provisions. They were also viewed with suspicion because of their subversive tendencies in the political arena (Galileans initiated the Zealot movement, responsible for the bloody revolts against the Roman Empire).

In this region at the edge of the holy land, in this “Galilee of the Gentiles” (v. 15), Jesus begins his mission and, with this choice, indicates who are the first recipients of his light, not the pure Jews, but the excluded, the distant.

Admiring the faith of the centurion—chief of the detachment of Roman soldiers living in Capernaum—he will one day exclaim: “I tell you I have not found such faith in Israel. I say to you, many will come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven; but their heirs of the kingdom will be thrown out” (Mt 8:10-11). Even the chief priests and elders will notice the surprising reversal: “The publicans and the prostitutes are ahead of you in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 21:31).

The change of residence—a very trivial fact—has been read by Matthew in its theological significance, as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The people who lived in darkness have seen a great light: on those who live in the land of the shadow of death a light has shone” (v. 16). With the start of Jesus’ public life, among the mountains of Galilee, the dawn of a new day shone. The light spoken by the prophet has risen.

The last verse of this first part presents the proclamation of Jesus: “Repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).

Converting oneself is not equivalent to “becoming a little better, praying better, doing more good work” but “to radically change the way of thinking and acting.” One who has cultivated projects of death must open oneself to the choices of life. One who moved in darkness must turn towards the light. Only if one is willing to carry out this change then can one enter into the kingdom of heaven (not in paradise, but in the new condition of one who chooses to risk his life on the Word of Christ).

In the second part of the passage, the calling of the first four disciples is narrated.

It’s not the account of the call of the first apostles (the four evangelists narrate the fact so diversely from each other). It is a piece of catechesis that wants the disciple to understand what it means to say “yes” to Christ’s invitation to follow him. It is an example, an illustration of what it means to be converted.

The insistence on the verbs of movement must be noted. Jesus does not stop for a moment: “As Jesus walked by the lake of Galilee … and then he went on from there … He went around all Galilee” (vv. 18,21,23).

Who is called must realize that he will not be granted any rest and there will not be any stop along the way. Jesus wants to be followed day and night and throughout life. There are no moments of exemption from commitments taken.

The answer then must be prompt and generous as that of Peter, Andrew, James and John who “immediately … left their nets, the boat and their father and followed him” (vv. 20,22).

The abandonment of one’s own father should not be misunderstood. It does not mean that anyone who becomes a Christian (or chooses the religious and consecrated life) must ignore one’s own parents. Among the Jewish people, the father was the symbol of the link with the ancestors and of attachment to tradition. And it is this dependence on the past that must be broken when it constitutes an impediment to welcome the novelty of the Gospel. The history, the traditions, the culture of every people must be respected and valued. However, we know that not all the habits, customs, and ways of life handed down are compatible with the message of Christ.

The demand of Jesus relates to the dramatic choice that the early Christians were called to do. In choosing to become disciples they were rejected by their family, misunderstood by parents, expelled from the synagogues and excluded from their people.

Even today for someone this may represent the inescapable alternative between the love of “the father” and the choice of Christ. Just think of what it takes for a Muslim, a Jew, a pagan, or a Buddhist to adhere to Christianity.

For all, however, leaving the father implies the abandonment of everything that is incompatible with the Gospel.

To the invitation to follow him, Jesus adds the charge: “I will make you fish for people” (v. 19).

The image is taken from the work done by the first apostles. They were not fishing with a hook, but with the net and their work was to pull out of the sea (so the Lake of Galilee is incorrectly called) the fish.

Now, in biblical symbolism, the sea was the abode of the devil, of diseases and everything that opposed life. It was deep, dark, dangerous, mysterious and terrible. The monsters lived in the sea, and in it, even the most skilled sailors did not feel safe.

Fishing people means to get them out of the condition of death where they are. It means to pull them out from the forces of evil that, like the raging waters, dominate, engulf and overwhelm them.

The disciple of Christ does not fear the waves and courageously faces it, even when they are raging. He does not give up hope to save a brother or a sister, even when she or he is in a humanly desperate situation: a slave of drugs and alcohol, unbridled passion, irascible, aggressive and intractable character. In whatever situation one is, he will be saved by the disciple of Christ.

The third part (v. 23) sums up with three words what Jesus does in favor of people: teaching, he is, therefore, light to every person; preaching the Good News, that is, announcing a word of hope to all, ensuring that the love of God is stronger than human evil; and curing the sick. He does not limit himself to proclaiming salvation but realizes it through concrete actions, showing the disciples what they are called to do. They must create, through the proclamation of the Gospel, a new people, a new society and a new world.

Fernando Armellini
Italian missionary and biblical scholar