Something fishy

26 January 2014
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany3A (RCL)
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 5-13
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

The passage from Isaiah for this Sunday is the first half of the usual Isaiah reading for Christmas (9:2-7). The poem goes on to proclaim “A child has been born to us” who will ascend the throne. Zebulun and Naphtali were regions annexed by Tiglath-Pileser III in 732 BCE, and their further history was lost, placing them among the lost tribes of Israel. The poem speaks of the time of their restoration to the kingdom, which will be during the reign of the child celebrated in the rest of the poem.

Matthew has Jesus begin his public ministry in this region, the Galilee of the Gentiles, in order that the prophecy of Isaiah’s poem might be fulfilled. Jesus ministry will restore the peoples who sat in darkness to the light of God’s kingdom.

Although this passage in Matthew doesn’t give us the first words out of Jesus’ mouth (he has had his encounter with John the Baptist and his run-in with Satan), these are the first public words uttered by Matthew’s Jesus. As such, we need to pay close attention to them. Jesus begins his ministry, in Zebulun and Naphtali with the proclamation, “Repent. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He then goes on to call Simon and Andrew, and James and John. Comment on this passage often focuses on how quickly these fishers follow Jesus and accept his call to become fishers of people. The question is raised about what made the message so compelling.

Simon and Andrew were poor. In Roman law, the seashore could not be owned, so they are living on liminal space (literally), and they are a particular kind of fisher folk. The fish with a two handed thrown net (amphiblestron). They didn’t own a boat. Perhaps they had been taxed off their land, and were eking out a living on the sea shore. James and John are a step up, economically, from Simon and Andrew. Their father owned a boat and had hired hands. Theirs was a bigger operation than a two-handed thrown net. And yet both pairs found Jesus’ message compelling.

The key, I believe, is in the call to repent. John had been preaching the same thing. I don’t believe this was necessarily a call to individual repentance, or to an acknowledgment of individual misdeeds. The word means something like “be retrained,” or “go back to school.” John was baptizing people in the Jordan, bringing them in from the wilderness to retake the promised land, just as Joshua had done. They were repenting the sins of the nation. Jesus, Joshua, was the new leader of that recovery. That is why Matthew has him begin his ministry in the first lands lost to the Assyrians.

The call to repent is the call to recognize what isn’t working. Clearly, for Simon and Andrew, “empire” wasn’t working. Jesus’ call made sense to them, and they were ready to try a new empire, the empire of heaven. James and John, who perhaps knew many stories like Simon’s and Andrew’s, were also ready to see what wasn’t working. Even Levi, the tax collector, whom Jesus will call later, knew something wasn’t right. In our situation, we have to be ready to look carefully at what isn’t working, and recognize our complicity in it. When we have done that work, we will be much more likely to be ready to follow an invitation to try something new, a new kingdom.

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