In today’s Gospel, Jesus Christ, who has been hidden and silent since his birth, begins his public ministry in a significant manner, doing and saying something that sets the stage for his entire ministry and indeed reveals the purpose of his coming. How does he start his ministry? St. Matthew tells us that “He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.” It is not by chance that our Lord went to a lake-side town on the borders of Zebulun and Naphtali. The Gospel tells us that he chose this geographical location in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that we heard in today’s first reading. “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.” Isaiah, with the future coming of the Messiah, the Savior and Light of the world, in mind, was inspired to make this prophecy. Now, some seven hundred years later, it is fulfilled by Jesus Christ.
But why Zebulun and Naphtali? These were two of twelve sons of Jacob, and thus the names of two of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. God had promised to David that his kingdom would last forever (cf. 2 Sm 7:16). Unfortunately, the kingdom was soon divided, and eventually foreign invaders attacked, pillaged, and devasted the tribes, sending the Israelites into exile. The worst invasion and exile of the northern tribes was the Assyrian invasion, which started with the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. These two tribes were the first to be plunged into the darkness of exile in pagan Assyria.
Jesus came to gather and save the scattered tribes of Israel. Since Zebulun and Naphtali were the first tribes to be exiled, it makes sense that Jesus would start at the former border of these two tribes to undo their captivity, to bring light to those who were in darkness. “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light”!
Next, Jesus begins his ministry of preaching. What is his first proclamation? “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He has not come merely to restore the earthly kingdom entrusted to David. Rather, he has come to bring about the Kingdom that will last – to form a new people and make them participants and citizens of the heavenly Kingdom. This aspect of Jesus’ mission was already revealed at the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel said of Jesus to Mary: “the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-33). Jesus is the new David whose Kingdom will last forever. He came, therefore, to undo the exile/captivity to darkness in order to form a new people of God, a new Kingdom that will truly last forever.
The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! The Catechism explains some of the richness of this proclamation: “The Kingdom of God lies ahead of us. It is brought near in the Word incarnate, it is proclaimed throughout the whole Gospel, and it has come in Christ’s death and Resurrection. The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst. The Kingdom will come in glory when Christ hands it over to his Father” (CCC 2816).
Jesus has come to gather not only the scattered tribes of Israel into the joy and peace of the heavenly Kingdom but also the “Galilee of the Gentiles” – that is, all the nations of the earth. His call to the first Apostles is for this purpose. He chooses them to be “fishers of men,” to draw all nations into the saving “net” of the Church. The Church here on earth is the access point to his heavenly Kingdom.
Christ founded his Church on the foundation stones of the Apostles to carry on his work of salvation. The proclamation of the Gospel is always more important than any particular minister. People sometimes pick and choose what they are willing to believe and to whom they are willing to listen. This is precisely the disorder that St. Paul condemns in today’s reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians. The Gospel is not the exclusive property of Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or any Pope or Bishop. The divisions and rivalries among believers only weaken the mission of the Church. St. Paul says, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the Gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the Cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.”
Why does Paul emphasize the Cross of Christ? Because through his Cross, Christ gathers all the tribes of the world. As he said: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (Jn 12:32). Through the Cross, Christ has established the heavenly Kingdom and given us access to it. He has obtained peace for us and drawn us to the joy of his Resurrection. For the sake of all people who are still sitting in darkness and are overshadowed by death, this is the saving Gospel which has been entrusted to us, a “great light” for all nations.
How do divisions and rivalries in my community life weaken my mission in the Church? How am I a “fisher of men” like the first Apostles? In what way is the Cross of Christ meaningful in my life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 19, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.