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 – NRSV)
Before Jesus begins his public ministry – but after his baptism – John has been “handed over”. We must wait until Matthew 14:1-12 to get the full story of the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. But the verb used here by both Mark and Matthew – paradidōmi – is also used by them a number of times in the passion narrative, where Jesus is “handed over” – eg Matthew 26:15, 16 & 21. The teaching, living and dying of John
the Baptist parallels the teaching, living and dying of Jesus. The two are as one.
Capernaum – which takes its name from the Hebrew for “village of Nahum” – is at the north-west tip of the Lake/Sea of Galilee. This is the general area allotted to the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali.
Capernaum is Jesus’ home-base during his ministry in Galilee. It was a busy place, being on one of the trade routes between Damascus and the Mediterranean.It is therefore interesting to note Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:23-24: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.”
and that God’s promises of old were fulfilled in him. Matthew presents Jesus as the authoritative interpreter of the Torah: “I did not come to destroy but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17) And so Matthew makes (a rather loose) reference to Isaiah here: “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 2) The original text from Isaiah was an expression of hope after the overrunning of Galilee by the Assyrians in 732BCE.
The reference to “Galilee of the nations/Gentiles” refers to the name given to the area after the Assyrian invasion, when Israelites were deported and the see 2 Kings 15:29 & 17:24-27.
Matthew thus gives a universal intent and scope to the mission of Jesus.
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of
heaven has come near.”
We can think of the Kingdom as a way of being. It is a way of being that is born of love. It is in fact a being in love. In the Kingdom, God reigns. The truth triumphs of the lie, peace replaces violence, love replaces hate, goodness dismisses evil. We have glimpses, hints and suggestions of the Kingdom in our daily lives. But we must still pray: “Your Kingdom come!” (Matthew 6:10). We must work and wait for the Kingdom which will come in its fullness in God’s time.
The coming of the Kingdom will require a transformation in us. Even the most loving person has within them that which is not born of love. This is part and parcel of the human condition. There is no denying it. We all need redemption. We all know the inclination that draws us away from love, the inclination to resentment, revenge, greed, selfishness and so on.
The Australian author, Les Carlyon, writing of the battle at Lone Pine, August 6-10 1915, makes a telling statement:
“Like the attack at Helles on August 6, the assault on Lone Pine was a diversion. As with the Helles attack, the casualties were high: more than 2,000 Australians, about 7,000 Turks. But Lone Pine was also that rare thing. On both sides it was an epic of savagery and sacrifice that leaves one wondering again at man’s capacity to harbour, within the same brain and the same body, so much that is brutal and so much that is sublime.” (Les Carlyon, Gallipoli, Macmillan, 2001, 357)
The “repentance” required by the Kingdom is a transformation of life. We must choose to make ourselves available to be transformed:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-5)
The focus of “repentance” in view of the Kingdom is not to be reduced to “right behaviour”, as if we can merit our way into the Kingdom or make the Kingdom come about through our moral integrity. It is more a matter of “right heart” than “right behaviour”. It requires listening, facing in honesty those inclinations to anything that is not born of love. We submit to the truth of that and let grace have its way with us. The grace of truth sets us free and the Kingdom is allowed to come into being through us. Slowly.