Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
MATTHEW’s Gospel refers over and over again to occasions when the words of the Prophets have been fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus. That detailed interest in the significance of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic writings for a proper understanding of what Jesus was about gives us some idea of the background of the community from which this Gospel sprang.
It also shows their conviction that the saving purposes of God, addressed through the Prophets to God’s people, were being extended to the Gentiles.
“Fulfilment” is a complex thing. Surely the words of Isaiah concerning “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” (Isaiah 9.1), hoped for a better future in the lifetime of at least some of the audience.
If the whole passage is “an oracle for the coronation of a Judean king, probably Hezekiah (715-687 BCE)”, then the evocative description of darkness turning into light, and sadness giving way to joy might point to the liberation of territory annexed by Assyria under Hezekiah’s predecessors (J. J. M. Roberts, “Isaiah” in The HarperCollins Study Bible, revised edition, HarperOne, 2006).
When Matthew takes up this passage, as he does with Isaiah 7.14 earlier (Matthew 1.22-23), it is not as a piously decorative quotation, but to insist that it could have a longer life, directly relevant to his own audience.
What he is doing is best explained by Ian Ramsey, Bishop of Durham from 1966 until his death in 1972. He proposes that what happens when Jesus is given the name Emmanuel by the angel (Matthew 1.23), and what happens when he withdraws to “Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 4.13), is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s words in a different sense from their original outworking.
By bringing the prophetic utterance to bear on “other facts”, the Gospel-writer makes it possible for a “further disclosure” — going beyond the original one — to occur. This disclosure is no less than the announcement that Jesus’s real work is about to begin, first among his own people, and later to the Gentile world (Matthew 4.14-17).
Ramsey admits that a logical gap remains between the poetry of Isaiah and the new events inaugurated by Jesus, although he does not offer a solution (Religious Language, SCM Press, 1957). Perhaps it is in that gap that faith finds a home. Certainly, the response of the first disciples to Jesus’s call could not have been to set out perfectly proposals for the career that lay ahead of them.
All that Jesus offered was this: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4.20). Immediately, Peter and Andrew follow him, as James and John do shortly afterwards (Matthew 4.21), and Matthew later (Matthew 9.9). Only after he has recruited his first four followers does Jesus begin to show what fishing for people will entail.
Everything he will send the Twelve out to do in his name (Matthew 10.1-end) he does himself: “teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4.23).
That important example is reiterated just before the Twelve are dispatched to proclaim the good news more widely (Matthew 9.35). The association between these actions and Jesus, who empowers others to perform similar actions, must be kept firmly in view.
Keeping Jesus and his life-giving cross in view is of great concern to Paul in writing to the Church that had grown from his mission to Corinth. Within the short time since they have professed their faith in Christ and been baptised, fissures have begun to appear in the community. Paul rebukes them for identifying themselves as followers of particular evangelists (1 Corinthians 1.12-17).
The duty of anyone entrusted with the good news of Jesus Christ is not to attract fans, but to be as near as possible to a transparent window on to Christ. For someone with a gift of eloquence such as Paul’s, the temptation to deliver beautifully crafted orations on the meaning of Christ’s death would never have been far away; nor would the intention have been other than good.
Paul refuses to take the risk and, instead, takes the greater risk of using the most ordinary language to speak of the greatest mystery: the salvation of the world through Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Corinthians 1.17-18).
Nearly 1600 years later, George Herbert, too, would face the problem of finding language “rich enough to clothe the sun”. He wrestles with this in two poems: “Jordan (I)” and “Jordan (II)”. At the end of the second, the poet seems to hear the voice of God (“a friend”) whispering:
How wide is all this long pretence!
There is in love a sweetness ready penn’d:
Copy out only that, and save expense.