• Is 8:23-9:3
• Ps 27:1, 4, 13-14
• 1 Cor 1:10-13, 17
• Mt 4:12-23
In the opening paragraphs of his encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict XVI observed that the Christian message of the Gospel is not just “informative”—that is, filled with good content—but also “performative.” This means that “the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open” (Spe Salvi, par 2).
Sacred Scripture can be read in different ways. One way of reading it is to sift through its contents in order to gain information about, say, moral teachings, cultural artifacts, and historical facts. We can—and should—read the Gospels in order to learn about Jesus Christ. But many people read about Jesus and never believe He is the Son of God who came to save the world. On the contrary, many people who know the Bible quite well do not believe the information contained within it is true or even helpful. As Benedict wryly noted in his book, Jesus of Nazareth, there are some biblical scholars who spend much time and effort undermining and even attacking the content of Scripture.
The opening verses of Matthew 4, which come immediately prior to today’s Gospel reading, describe Jesus being tempted by Satan in the desert. The evil one demonstrates how adept he is at quoting Scripture in an attempt to destroy Jesus. “The devil,” quipped Benedict, “proves to be a Bible expert who can quote the Psalm exactly” (Jesus of Nazareth, 35). Likewise, Jesus was often persecuted most intently by scribes whose lives were devoted to reading and interpreting the Law of Moses.
Today’s Gospel recounts that Jesus, following the temptation in the desert, withdrew to region of Galilee. He likely did this, on one hand, out of practical necessity, avoiding the possibility of being arrested and killed as John the Baptist had been. But Matthew explains that Jesus, in spending time in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, also brought light—that is, the good news about the Kingdom of heaven—to an area described in terms of “darkness” and “death.” Many centuries prior, around 900 B.C., these two regions, which were to the west and north of the Sea of Galilee, had been conquered by Syria. Nearly two hundred years later they were invaded and annexed by the Assyrians, and most the Jews residing there were taken into exile and replaced with pagan settlers.
It is estimated that in the time of Jesus about half of the population in Galilee was Gentile, hence the name “District of the Gentiles” used by Isaiah in today’s Old Testament reading. Into this land of darkness and death—most likely a reference to the pagan beliefs and practices common to those regions—came the light of Christ. The public ministry of Jesus began with the proclamation, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It is the same message John the Baptist preached in the wilderness of Judea (Matt 3:1); the essential difference is the messenger. Whereas John proclaimed the Kingdom and the way of salvation, Jesus is the King and the way of salvation. John’s preaching was informative, but it could not ultimately perform what it pointed toward: the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of souls.
John’s Gospel indicates many of Jesus’ disciples had first been followers of John the Baptist (Jn 1:35-37). These men were probably somewhat familiar with Jesus prior to being called to be “fishers of men.” When the proper time came and they were called away from their boats and livelihood, they immediately followed. The message of Jesus was not, for them, merely information, but a way of living and being. The person of Jesus was not a mere fact, but a living invitation to come into saving communion with the King and His kingdom. Today, the Lord calls us as well—from darkness to light, from death to life, from being fishermen to becoming fishers of men.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the January 27, 2008, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)