THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY – THEY HAVE TAUGHT ME THE INFINITE – Matthew 4:12-23
“My duty moves along with my song: / I am I am not: that is my destiny. / I exist not if I do not attend to the pain / of those who suffer: they are my pains. / For I cannot be without existing for all, / for all who are silent and oppressed, / I come from the people and I sing for them: / my poetry is song and punishment. / I am told: you belong to darkness. / Perhaps, perhaps, but I walk toward the light. / I am the man of bread and fish / and you will not find me among books, / but with women and men: / they have taught me the infinite.” Pablo Neruda: SO IS MY LIFE
Immediately after the Temptation, Jesus came out of the desert ready to proclaim the good news. He had defeated the devil in the desert. The devil had tried in different ways to get Jesus to surrender his identity, but he who is the word of God used that word to vanquish the evil that sought to destroy him. As a result, Jesus exited the desert, full of the Holy Spirit, and entered upon his ministry as “the Infinite.” Nothing much is known about his time in the desert. It is said that he prayed and fasted. One may assume that in those forty days he must have come to some decision about how to face the challenges that he would have to confront. I have long held that the Temptation in the desert is a pattern that held throughout his life, where his identity and purpose were constantly questioned, doubted and assailed. He was prepared to undertake the perilous journey ahead.
The devil had offered Jesus all the kingdoms of this world. But Jesus knew that this present world is passing away and the new age under the dominion of the divine is about to arrive. This was already signaled by the victory of Jesus in the desert, a sign that the kingdom of the devil had fallen. The present (time and humanity jointly) is called to repentance, to prepare the ground upon which will appear “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus calls for repentance in light of the fact that an event which is not described is imminent, and he names it “the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 13 gives seven parables that tell what the kingdom of heaven is “like,” without saying what it actually is. One thing is certain among the parables: the kingdom of heaven is something for which people surrender completely all that they have and all that they are. Within the parables an invisible, transcendent power prevails. People are invited to receive that power as a gift. The gift is freedom from the suffocating burden of Chronos, life lived in the total absence of the divine. The gift offers entrance into what is Kairos, participation in what is holy and hence transcendent. This is a command and an invitation to leave behind the dominion of sin and enter into the dominion of righteousness. Only Kairos can redeem what Chronos has impounded. Everything is temporal, nothing endures. Not to endure is to die. Within Chronos death holds sway. Chronos holds death over all of humanity like the sword of Damocles. The existential threat of extinction is what characterizes the human condition in the absolute absence of the divine. It is from this existential threat that Jesus comes to free humanity. Jesus who is himself the divine Kairos breaks in upon the human condition, what is called history, and offers that which is eternal. This is the message that he has come to proclaim.
“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Mt. 4:17. The call to repentance in view of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven is the eschatological message of Jesus. What is eschatological is no longer historical. The kingdom of heaven is never part of the present historical order of creation. It transcends time and space. It does not have any actual “residents” having no residence upon the earth which always exists within the realm of history; the kingdom of heaven is purely the transcendental presence of the divine out of which come those gifts that transform human beings, grants them righteousness and eternal life. There is a passage in Mark 9:43-47 that can shed light on this. “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life maimed….” Again, “If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame…” Again, “And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye….” I have placed emphasis on a particular phrase to show for Mark, “the kingdom of God” is nothing other than “life.” This is the clearest definition that I can find.
“The kingdom of God” is life.
“The kingdom of heaven” is the invisible visibility of divine grace and favor.
“The kingdom of heaven” is the source of miracles, the contrapuntal juxtaposition:
of blindness and sight;
of lameness and walking;
of uncleanness and cleansing;
of deafness and hearing. Mt. 11:5.
“The kingdom of heaven” is the power of deliverance:
from demonic possession;
and from the bonds of death.
“The kingdom of heaven” is the promise of blessedness:
for the poor in spirit;
for those who mourn;
for the meek;
for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness;
for the merciful;
for the pure in heart;
for the peacemakers. Mt. 5:3-9.
It is in contrast to the power of this world that holds only death as the future possibility for human beings. The kingdom of heaven is the dimension of the eternal, and only those who are transformed by metanoia have a full share in it. What is the true nature of metanoia? Genuine metanoia is the complete and irreversible transformation of the human being. It transports the human being immediately from this age into the age to come where the kingdom of heaven has already dawned. Consequently, metanoia is not an action taken by the human person, however good that action may be. Metanoia is truly and comprehensively a divine act, the granting of grace that removes the human being from the imminent existential threat of death and grants the human being that new life, described as eternal life, in the kingdom of heaven. However this divine act of grace does not completely absolve the human from actions that demonstrate that that the transformation has already and finally taken place. There are human needs that must still be met, and so Jesus went about preaching, teaching and healing.
All of this has a history, a beginning. “Now, when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” The gospels have various versions of the arrest and imprisonment and beheading of John. Here in Matthew 4 Jesus returns from forty days in the wilderness and heard that John had been arrested. It appears that at this point, Jesus had not yet begun his ministry. Matthew adopts Mark’s outline of events: the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the wilderness, the arrest of John the Baptist, the beginning of ministry of Jesus. By the time John was beheaded, Jesus had already been preaching, teaching and healing.
When Jesus returned from the temptation in the desert he settled in Capernaum which became the center of his ministry. He took this action, according to Matthew, to fulfill prophecy. There are at least fourteen identifiable prediction and fulfilment episodes: 8 Isaiah. 2 Jeremiah. 1 Micah. 1 Hosea. 2 somewhat ambiguous: 1:22 (Isaiah 7:14 – prophet not named). 2:5 (Micah 5:2- prophet unnamed). 2:15 (Hosea 11:1 – prophet unnamed). 2:17 (Jeremiah 31:15 – prophet named). 2:23 (Isaiah 11:1 – prophet not named. Similarity of “Nazarene” and “branch”). 3:3 (Isaiah 40:3 – prophet named). 4:15 ((Isaiah 9:1-2- prophet named). 8:17 (Isaiah 53:3 – prophet named). 12:17 (Isaiah 42:1-4 – prophet named). 13:14 (Isaiah 69:9-10 – prophet named). 13:35 (Psalm 78:2 – the prophet is Asaph, 2 Chronicles 29:30). 21:4 (Isaiah 62:11 – prophet not named). 26:56 (Reference to fulfilment of prophecy). 27:9 (a collation of Zechariah 11:12 and Jeremiah 18:1-3 – Jeremiah is named).
Isaiah speaks, “The people who sat in darkness / have seen a great light, / and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death / light has dawned.” 4: 15; Isaiah 9:1-2.
Who are these people to whom Isaiah refers? They are the land of Zebulun and the land of Naftali. The prophet had predicted: “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 Naftali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” Isaiah 9:1-1. Sometime around 722 BCE the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pilesar II and Salmaneser IV among others had defeated Israel and all the tribes were exiled. Two were granted the right to return much later, but Zebulun and Naftali were among the ten that never were given that right, and so were lost in exile forever. They lost their national identity; they lost their name that connected them to their origin; they lost their home, the promised land. Perhaps they remembered other exiles: Adam and Eve and Cain and the rivers that ran through Eden. Eden, Zebulun, Naftali, names that refuse to be forgotten strike at our own yearning to be remembered. The people of Zebulun and Naftali, no longer called by their own name, were the exiles who had been living in the area around the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum. It is to these people that Jesus came with his proclamation. They were once in anguish and contempt. Jesus did not come to Galilee of the Gentiles to convert the Gentiles. As the eschatological preacher, his purpose was to restore to their proper thrones the twelve tribes of Israel, two of which were in his immediate vicinity. Matthew 19:27-29. This often-overlooked passage tells us why Jesus began his ministry by the Sea of Galilee. Similar ideas are expressed in Matthew 10:5-6 where is mentioned “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
The message of Jesus is the fulfilment of prophecy; it is an eschatological message, not only that the history of anguish and contempt had come to an end, but that there is now a transformative event dawning for them. His message therefore must address “the people who sat in darkness;” it must assure them that the great light that they have seen has arrived. The message of Jesus must also address “those who sat in the region and shadow of death.” It must assure them that light has indeed dawned. One who sits in darkness needs more than light. Darkness is not simply what is characteristic of night or anguish. Darkness is existence in the total absence of the divine. Darkness is complete isolation and exile. The darkness, the region and shadow of death of the exiles, is what the message of Jesus must address. Of the exile Neruda writes: “Your feet go in circles, and you cross land / and it’s not your land. /Light wakes you up and it’s not your light. / Night comes down, but your stars are missing. / You discover brothers, but they’re not of your blood.” And later he adds: “Exiles! Distance / grows thicker. / We breathe through a wound. / To live is a necessary obligation. / So, a spirit without roots is an injustice. / It rejects the beauty that is offered it. / It searches for its own unfortunate country / and only there knows martyrdom or quiet.” (Neruda: Exile.) Exile, darkness and death are three words that describe the same thing.
Jesus knows what it is to be an exile. His life is voluntary exile. And as an exile himself he speaks to them. Exile is homelessness. It is being no one, nowhere. Darkness is that namelessness. Darkness is that homelessness. Darkness is not a qualitative variation of light; it is an entity that descends upon humanity with the desire to absorb the soul and defeat the spirit. Darkness intends first, the subjugation, and then the full and complete extinction of all that is human. Darkness is the ultimate counter-divine activity upon the earth. It is its own creation and maintains its presence by regenerating itself. In the beginning “darkness covered the face of the deep,” and then “God separate the light from the darkness.” Genesis 1:4. Only the divine has the power to banish darkness to its own region, “even the darkness is not dark to you;…for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139:12. Darkness arrives always in the footsteps of the divine, always prepared to un-create what the divine creates. Consequently, those who sit in darkness are completely overtaken by it. It is from where emanates the sound of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It is in this context, and to the people of this region, that Jesus begins his proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He is in the territory of Galilee of the Gentiles, and the Sea of Galilee is the backdrop of his summons. Nothing is said of the original audience of this proclamation. But for the exile and the homeless, the promise of a kingdom of heaven is another promised land, a hope realized. Matthew makes clear, by example, the response of those who hear the message. The call of Simon Peter and Andrew, and then of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, is in every respect a call to repentance, because repentance is nothing other than following Jesus unconditionally without the thought of looking back. The call to follow is simultaneously the call to repentance. The four who were called immediately left everything behind them and followed Jesus. He promised them “I will make you fish for people.” He made the four into proclaimers of repentance, harvesters for the kingdom of heaven. They were transformed by the call of Jesus. This indicates the essential nature of metanoia; it is not an activity of human will, nor is it a psychological event. Authentic metanoia is an act of divine will, an act of grace within which those who are called to metanoia are simultaneously transformed. It is the call to metanoia that bestows the transformation, not the response of those who are called, because the word of Jesus is always grace itself. Metanoia is divine grace that transports the hearers immediately into the kingdom of heaven.
This text as a whole cannot exclude the disciples from the prophecy of Isaiah. Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, along with James and John left their life and their livelihood behind. They did not ask a single question of Jesus. They never uttered a single word. It is this silence that is characteristic of those who are in the presence of the divine. The call itself, seen as both command and exhortation, is a divine gift that grants all that is contained in metanoia to those who are addressed by this word. Are these disciples not also “people who sat in darkness?” And have not they now seen, “a great light?” Are these four among “those who sat in the region and shadow of death?” For them, “light has dawned.” This is the approach I take in exploring the text. All are included. The message of Jesus cannot be taken otherwise. However, the emerging church in the time of Matthew had a broader vision for ministry. Matthew indicates the universal trajectory of the proclamation of the early church. It will not be completed until Jesus says,” Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” 28:18. The text as a whole interweaves the vison of Jesus with the vision of the early Christian church.
“Jesus 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.” 4:23. This is a summary of the mission of Jesus: teaching, preaching and healing.