Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—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.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:12-17).
(The verses 18-23 may be added in the Liturgy of the Word today.)
Matthew 4:12-17 draws on Mark 1:14-15 and has a parallel text in Luke 4:14–15.
Matthew 4:18-22 draws on Mark 1:16–20 and has a parallel text in Luke 5:1–11.
Matthew 4:23-25 draws on Mark 1:35–39 and has a parallel text in Luke 4:44 and 6:17–19)
Galilee is the most northern region of Palestine – north of Judea and Samaria. In ancient Israel it was home to several of the nation’s twelve tribes. After the invasion of the Assyrians in the eighth century BC – see 2 Kings 15:29 – Galilee was ruled separately. This situation pertained right into the time of Jesus. Even in the Mishnah (200 AD) the people of Galilee – among whom were many Gentiles – are referred to as “Israelites” rather than “Judaeans” or “Jews”. So Matthew – following Mark – has Jesus begin his mission in Galilee. “Jesus chose Galilee as the place to restore the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24), regather his scattered disciples (26:31–32), and send them on a worldwide mission (28:7, 10, 16–20)” (C Mitch, “Introduction to the Gospels” in The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010, 13). Jesus’ ministry begins with the healing of the 12 tribes, rent by the forces of history. Thus the relevance of the prophecy of Isaiah: “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. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined”(Isaiah 9:1-2)
arrested: The Greek word is paradidōmi and literally means “hand over”. “Matthew follows Mark in using the verb ‘hand over’, which becomes prominent in the passion narrative (see Matt 26:15, 16, 21, etc.). Thus the fate of John foreshadows the fate of Jesus” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 71).
Capernaum: “The place takes its name from the Hebrew for ‘village of Nahum’. It is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (‘by the sea’) in the general area allotted to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. It is a substantial distance from Nazareth, which is in the center of Lower Galilee. If any city can be called the home-base of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, it was Capernaum. See, however, Jesus’ negative judgment upon Capernaum in Matt 11:23” (Ibid).
the kingdom of heaven has come near: This proclamation “is a simplified version of Mark 1:14b–15, using the characteristically Matthean ‘kingdom of heaven’. The content of Jesus’ message as summarized here is exactly the same as that of John the Baptist (see Matt 3:2). The ‘kingdom of heaven’ refers to that time when God’s power and judgment will be made fully manifest and acknowledged by all creation. It is said to ‘have drawn near’—not yet a full reality but very close to the point that it can be called inaugurated” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 71-72).
Today’s Gospel – Matthew 4:12-17 – tells us of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea etc.” Jesus’ life unfolds within a particular time and place. Jesus is an historical person. Humanity and divinity, time and eternity, are unified in him. It is impossible for us to understand how this can be. But it is essential that we hold the tension of this perceived impossibility. The tension applies to the Church and to each of us individually. Through Him, with Him and in Him, history becomes a sacrament of Divine Presence.
One of the greatest Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century – a man who had a significant impact on the developments at the Second Vatican Council – was Fr Marie-Dominque Chenu OP (1895-1990). He wrote in 1937: “Since Christianity draws its reality from history and not from some metaphysics, the theologian must have as his primary concern . . . to know this history and to train himself in it” (Cited by John O’Malley S. J., What Happened at Vatican II, Harvard University Press, 2008, 36). In other words, the Church is not an abstraction untouched by history – a metaphysical concept. It is a historical entity, with all that that implies. Thinking of it as an abstraction leads to unreal – and eventually destructive – notions of what it means to be Church or Christian. In particular, when we abstract the Christian life from history, we will lose touch with our essential nature as a pilgrim people, always dependent on God, always responding and developing under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit speaking to us through the signs of the times – see Matthew 16:3 and Luke 12:56. The real and the true are much more messy than the abstract and the metaphysical.
A minor but nonetheless revealing event occurred in Rome on 25 January 1959. The historian, Giuseppe Alberigo, tells us that on that day, Pope John XXIII announced to a small group of cardinals gathered in the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Wall, that he intended to convoke a Council. Pope John recalled later that he was met with “impressive, devout silence” (Giuseppe Alberigo & Joseph A Komonchak, eds, History of Vatican II – Volume One, Maryknoll, NY: Ordibs Books, 1995, 2). Alberigo then notes that when all the cardinals of the Church were invited to respond, “few accepted the invitation and almost all who did did so in cold and formal language” (Ibid). The cardinals were taken by surprise by Pope John’s announcement. I suggest this surprise arose because we had a diminished sense of history. We thought we had arrived! Our understanding of the Catholic Church was more abstract than concrete, more idealizing than historical.
A good understanding of history and a sensitivity to the limits and possibilities implicit in history, are an antidote to idealizations of various kinds – idealizations of the clergy, of Christian marriage, of our way of thinking, of our leaders, of the Catholic Church itself. History is a school of compassion and realism – whether it is the history of the human family, the nation, the Catholic Church or one’s own personal history.