Scripture: Matthew 4: 12-23
If you read the lectionary Scripture passages that Sue Williams includes in our Caller newsletter each month, you will recognize that there are very often direct connections between passages from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and what we are reading either in the Gospel passage or in the Epistle reading for the day. Today is one of those days where it couldn’t be more clear. The Isaiah passage from chapter 9 in our lectionary for today reads like this:
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. 2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.
Matthew prefaces his quoting of this Scripture by saying of Jesus: 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali [that is the ancient name for the area of the Galilee], 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.
In fact, as we make our way through the gospel of Matthew we find this same pattern time and time again, 8 times in total, Jesus going someplace, offering a teaching, conducting a miraculous work all in the fulfillment of what Matthew understood to be Old Testament prophecy by Jesus. Jesus is the New Moses leading the people from captivity to freedom.
The message was that this Jesus sent from God is in so many different ways, is fulfilling a destiny that had been in the heart of God for millennia. Matthew was contextualizing the place of Jesus in the history of the people of Israel, indeed, the history of all human beings, in a way that Matthew thought would be revealing to his hearers, in a way he hoped would be compelling, so that they too might embrace the wonder of what God was doing in Christ and be ready to become Christ’s disciples.
Just as Jesus was doing in this passage, encouraging those who heard his call to become his disciples, Matthew’s central point and aim in all of this gospel, is to call his hearers to also follow after Jesus. Matthew was counting on the Church to bear witness to the Way of Jesus, by ourselves becoming so very Christ like in our individually loving lifestyle, and in our justice seeking, welcoming community life, the those spiritually hungry in this rough world would not be able to resist us, the fish bait of Christ.
Earlier in this very chapter 4 of Matthew’s gospel was the familiar and thrilling story of Jesus being led by the Holy Spirit into the Judean wilderness to be tempted by the devil, the adversary of God. He had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and when the adversary came to him and tempted him 3 times, and Jesus had victoriously resisted and concluded their encounter with these words, “away with you, Satan! For it is written, worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly Angels came and waited on him. And then the very next words begin our passage this morning:
Jesus is making his home in a fishing town, Capernaum.
Jesus had not only resisted the temptation of the adversary, but in that moment, he was wrested free from the social straitjacket that had bound and constricted him all the days of his life, just as a social straightjacket binds and constricts every person of every culture if and until that person ever also breaks free. The message that Jesus carried is that God has a greater intention for each of us than to live like a caterpillar in the tight bounds of its tomblike chrysalis. The message Jesus carried is that God intends for us all to grow and mature into the beautiful butterfly and fly high and free.
Social straitjacket, you may question? If we look intently at the lives of these that would soon become the lifelong followers of Jesus, what we find in their little Galilean fishing village of Capernaum is a whole, complicated social hierarchy on which fishermen are the lowest rung. Part of the joy and wonder of contemporary Biblical studies is that there are scholars, such as K.C. Hanson who writes for journals like the Biblical Theology Bulletin, who spend years of their scholarly careers studying the details of Galilean fish village economies and their findings are available on the internet now to any amateur Bible student who seeks their understanding.
What Hanson finds is a complicated web of economic transactions involving fishermen, like our soon to be disciples, who were like tenant farmers, not owning rights to fish in the Sea of Galillee, nor even likely owning the boats they were sailing; but who relied upon a host of suppliers: of lumber providers for the boats’ construction and repair, weavers for the sails’ linens, stone masons who carved the boat anchors, salt purveyors to preserve the fish, and, of course the tax collectors, the toll collectors, the money lenders who had to be repaid; distributors’ fees and so on, right on up to Herod Antipas who ruled the Galilee for all of Jesus’ lifetime, who made a very tidy haul of cash from the labor of his subjects.
But that’s nothing new is it? Haven’t we always had ravenous rulers ready to fleece the powerless? In yesterday’s Austin American Stateman, our Texas former assistant attorney general, Bruce Youngblood doesn’t think so. He says, “Fears of kleptocracy are overwrought,” fears that a government purposely operates to enrich the rulers at the expense of the governed, is nothing that we need be concerned about. In today’s dollars, Youngblood estimates George Washington was worth $525 million, better scholars say only $20 million, and do we question his integrity? Yet the world is filled and has been filled for millennia with openly kleptocratic rulers and secretly kleptocratic rulers. Those rulers that are not, are the true exceptions.
In Palestine in the time of Jesus, from bottom to top, the fishermen earned barely enough to clothe and feed their families. Life was hard and short, full of pain and want, short on satisfaction.
But at the other end of the spectrum, Herod Antipas, at the top of the local Galilean financial food chain, is estimated to have to have taken in the equivalent of 1.2 million denarii/yr. or $190 million dollars. It sounds kleptocratic to me. I hope Bruce Youngblood is right, but I fear he is not.
My point is not to focus on the detrimental effect of wealth inequality between fishermen and the ruling elite in the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day, because our current wealth inequality today in the U.S. is statistically twice as wide, and so twice as bad, as the Roman Empire’s was, but rather to point out that if we think we are uniquely “stuck in a system” that binds us and limits our choices, that pushes businesses towards unethical temptations, and strips from us money that we have rightly earned and should rightly keep, a system that hinders our freedom in so many ways, if that is what we are thinking, well, my friends, there is nothing new about that. As the old Teacher in Ecclesiastes put it, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
But just as the system, the Matrix, the Empire have been constant fixtures in civilizations we have known, there have always also been routes to freedom from its clutches, as well. In our democracy, we, at least if we are wise about using it, have the power to recognize the higher interests of our culture and vote into office those whom we believe will further the goals we have. As social beings, we have the right and responsibility to work towards the betterment of our society; the betterment of other societies around this globe; and the betterment of the environment that sustains us all and is such a prime stewardship responsibility which we are all together charged to protect.
To use Jesus’ language, it is all about recognizing the Kingdom of God, the reign of God’s Spirit in the world that is always inbreaking, always trying to establish a foothold on what often seems a spiritually alien and humanly hostile planet. And Jesus says, it is our job, yours and mine, to make straight the way for God’s reign here, right here.
But in today’s lesson, what is most evident is not the broad, societal effects of Jesus’ message, but the very personal liberation that it brings. Look at these poor Galilean fisherman struggling to make ends meet. This stranger Jesus walks past them using the magical passkey of his authoritative voice. He rings their liberty bell with these words:
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Were they always such impulse buyers?
Did they routinely throw their little bit of social security out the window and follow a homeless prophet, but a wise-sounding fellow into a vagabond life; a traveling revival ministry and miraculous healing show?
20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”
Crazy, wild, yes, maybe so. But my friends, you must admit it is very good news. In Jesus’ day, the political winds were blowing so much worse than our nation has ever known. Imagine Jesus just before his crucifixion sitting with his disciples gathered around him at the top of the Mount of Olives, with the Holy City of Jerusalem spread beneath them just a few minutes’ walk away. Jerusalem, that routinely killed the prophets that had been sent save and guide her.
One of the disciples who had wandered these three years of ministry together with him; who also knew that their going into Jerusalem was fraught with risk, quite naturally asked Jesus of the future for themselves…. For all the world. Surely Jesus knew what was coming next.
24:3 ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 5For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!”* and they will lead many astray. 6And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars;
And he goes on to describe the trials, and then sums up, “all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
“But anyone who endures to the end will be saved. 14And this good news* of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations.”
 See https://persquaremile.com/2011/12/16/income-inequality-in-the-roman-empire/