3rd Sunday of Epiphany

16 January 2020

Isaiah 9.1-4 ; Psalm 27.1-11; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23

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JESUS’s response to John the Baptist’s arrest is to withdraw into “Galilee of the Gentiles”. This was the upper part of Galilee, where many Egyptians, Arabians, and Phoenicians lived.

This withdrawal leads on to another manifestation of Christ’s glory to the nations, as he proclaims “the good news of the Kingdom”, and cures “every disease and every sickness” among the Jewish and Gentile inhabitants of the region. Jesus thereby fulfills the prophecy of our first reading.

This second epiphany foreshadows the growth of the Primitive Church after Pentecost. Like the visit of the Magi, it occurs in the shadow of persecution. John is the forerunner of his Lord in his imprisonment and, ultimately, his death. As John’s public ministry ends, Jesus’s commences. He begins his preaching with the same words as the Baptist: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near” (cf. Matthew 3.2). On John’s lips, these were “words of preparation”; on Jesus’s lips, they are “a word of fulfilment”. It is in his very person that the Kingdom draws near (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel according to St Matthew).

Jesus moves quickly to gather a small group of disciples who will share the heart of his ministry. Watching Simon and Andrew casting a net into the lake, he calls them literally “to go behind me” and “to fish for people”. As Leiva-Merikakis explains, “The very graphic Hebraism ‘to go behind someone’ means just that: not so much ‘to imitate’ or ‘to learn a doctrine from’ (these are secondary, figurative derivations), but, quite literally, ‘to go wherever the inviting person goes’, adhering to him and obeying him simply because he is who he is.”

The image of “fishing for people” suggests both a continuity and a contrast with the brothers’ previous work. The Old Testament repeatedly uses “the sea” and “the deep waters” as an image of the death-dealing forces which threaten to overwhelm human beings — forces over which the Lord is, none the less, sovereign. Whereas the sea is essential to the life of fish, for humans it is being rescued out of these “waters” which brings life.

As an early homily reminds us, Simon and Andrew had much to learn before they would proclaim the gospel to the nations. The Lord chose them “not as apostles but because they could become apostles. Just as an artist who sees rough-hewn, and not precious, stones chooses them — not because of what they are, but because of what they can become”.

Jesus immediately calls two more disciples. As Levia-Merikakis observes, he is creating a family around him that will, over time, become “just as real as a biological family, only not constrained by the necessary limitations the natural family has in terms of geographical location, group interest, ancestral occupation, and distrust of those outside it”.

The calling of a second pair of brothers, and the subsequent calling of those from other places and professions, helps to ensure that the bonds of the group do not harden into a clique. The family that Christ is gathering is characterised by “continual movement outward from the life-giving centre that has given it birth — Christ the Lord”.

This “continual movement outward” involves an abandonment of dissension and envy. As Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “the stories of the calling of the disciples show that, for the sake of a single Christ, all who are called leave everything behind, including their former individual opinions, and, looking toward him, their only leader, are of one spirit” (Light of the Word).

In our epistle, Paul expresses dismay at an outbreak of pride and factionalism within the congregation at Corinth. “He is not urging the Corinthians to do something new but to restore the unity of mind and purpose proper to those called into fellowship with Christ” (Maria Pascuzzi, New Collegeville Bible Commentary: First and Second Corinthians).

The division of the congregation into competing factions negates the very heart of the gospel; for it is the seeming “foolishness” of the Cross into which the Corinthians have been baptised, and from which their new life in Christ flows. When the proclamation of the Cross is undertaken by a community in the grip of pride and envy, it is emptied of its power. It is in earthly humility that the glory of Christ is made manifest.

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