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.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Hearing the Word
The readings for this Sunday confirm a troubling feature of life in the present world, that is the reality of conflict, and deeply rooted divisions. However, the liturgy also provides an assurance that these are neither permanent nor insurmountable difficulties.
The oracle of Isaiah contains a symbolic and powerful image of restoration – a lifting of the darkness that envelops the land, and the rejoicing of the people. However, why has the land been covered with darkness and its people consigned to the life of gloom? The answer is found in the historical background of Isaiah’s prophecy. The prophet spoke in reference to a dark and tragic period in the history of Israel. He referred to the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, two Israelite tribes, as a general reference to the so-called “Northern Kingdom”, or simply “Israel”, inhabited by the ten tribes of Israel. The remaining two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, formed the so-called “Southern Kingdom”, often simply called “Judah.” In 732 BC the Northern Kingdom was overrun by the Assyrian army whose aim was the conquest and expansion of the Assyrian Empire. The land was subjected to foreign rule, depriving the Israelites of freedom and autonomy. Assyrians also forced their own religion upon the Israelites. This meant honouring Assyrian gods, “idols”, whose temples and shrines were built throughout the land. The nation and its people thus descended into a darkness of political and religious oppression that was to last for centuries.
These catastrophic events did not occur suddenly or without a reason. Their roots lie in a story of a disastrous conflict and division which split the powerful state created by David and Solomon. This occurred in 922 BC because of the arrogance and misrule of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. This young and obstinate king caused a conflict between the tribes of Israel leading to the division of the kingdom into two separate states, the Northern Kingdom (Israel) with the capital in Samaria, and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) with the capital in Jerusalem. The people of the one living God were now split into two rival kingdoms. The next two hundred years of history were marred by strife between Israel and Judah, weakening them to the point of collapse. When the Assyrians came, the divided Israelites, shattered by centuries of conflict and infighting, could offer no meaningful resistance. The Northern Kingdom, to which Isaiah referred as “the land of Zebulun and Naphtali”, came under the Assyrian power and was settled by the foreigners who mixed with the Israelites who remained. In Jesus’s time these lands were known as Galilee.
Still, referring to this tragic history, Isaiah delivers an exuberant picture of restoration when darkness will give way to joy and prosperity. The nation, broken and destroyed by an internal conflict, will eventually be healed, and the yoke of its oppression broken. What human divisiveness and pride destroyed, will be eventually healed by God’s intervention.
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul begins by addressing the root cause of the numerous problems which plagued the community. Like the Israelites under Rehoboam, the Corinthian community was deeply divided. The reason for these divisions was not political or geographical, it was personal allegiances. Corinthian Christians claimed loyalty to different leaders, depending upon who brought them into the community by baptism. This is deeply ironic; baptism, the rite which brings a person into the community of God’s people, became for the Corinthians the very grounds for dividing their community. Again, the deadly power of division is evident here. Paul sought to heal the problem by emphasising that any allegiance to the human baptisers, no matter how wise or eloquent they are, is meaningless. What truly and only matters is the union with Christ crucified. To Christ, and only to him, do Christians owe their allegiance. All other distinctions are pointless and harmful.
Jesus began his public ministry in Galilee, a fact which Matthew emphasizes naming two Galilean towns, Nazareth and Capernaum, and the two Israelite tribes, Zebulun and Naphtali, which inhabited that region. Galilee had long suffered foreign occupation. As a result, a number of non-Jews settled there, which earned this region the designation “Galilee of the Gentiles.” In these references, Matthew highlights the deep division that existed among the people of Israel at the time of Jesus. The northern lands which suffered foreign occupation were considered religiously and ethnically suspect or “impure” by the people from the South, Judaea and Jerusalem. The Gospel of John clearly reflects this deep division and perception of Galilee, when Nathaniel, a pious Jew, hearing that Jesus comes from Nazareth, a Galilean town, asked the famous question, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Similarly, the people of Jerusalem found it unthinkable that God’s Messiah could come from Galilee (cf. John 7:41). Galilee, even if rich and fertile, was perceived by many as the land of darkness.
Yet, Jesus chose to begin his ministry in this deeply divided land. Furthermore, he chose Galilean men as his closest companions and apostles. They were simple Galilean fishermen who were unlikely to live up to the high standards of purity and piety expected by the religious leaders of the day who were based in Jerusalem. Clearly, Jesus nether accepted nor respected the dividing lines of the day. On the contrary, he chose to cross them.
Jesus’s mission to the divided world began with the call to repentance, which means literally “turning around.” He called for turning away from divisions, and becoming a part of the one new community which he called the Kingdom of God. Very appropriately he also used the metaphor of fishing to describe the mission of his first disciples. Fishing means gathering of fish into one net – a perfect metaphor for rising above divisions and the creation of unity between people belonging to God’s Kingdom which he would establish among them.
Today’s liturgy features numerous symbols and references to the divided world split by human arrogance, pride and ignorance. The Israelites experienced the painful results of their leaders’ divisive pride as they descended into the darkness of Assyrian slavery. In Corinth, the divisions were based on misguided personal loyalties and preferences and on ignorance. Jesus stepped into a deeply divided world, choosing to ignore the prejudices regarding “the land of the Gentiles”, the Galilee where divisions ran along ethnic and geographical boundaries. This beginning in a divided land and his call of the disciple to become “the fishers of people”, demonstrated that Jesus saw creating unity as one of the basic tenants of his mission to the world. Through Jesus, God acted decisively to heal the broken world. The task of believers in the divided world has always remained the same – to bring people into the one “net” of God’s kingdom. This mission has always posed a profound challenge to the Christian community, both internally and externally. However, todays liturgy reminds all believers that this task remains an essential aspect of their call, of all those who, to use the Psalmist’s words, “seek to live in the house of the Lord”.
Listening to the Word of God
Unity is an effective force to hold people together, to share a common vision, to reconcile differences and to develop common identity. Disunity has been threatened our lives by creating divisions within us and among us. In our time, we face the glaring divisions that characterize our world: political, economic, and cultural. Christianity as a religion and we as Christians have not been immune to divisions. In our churches we encounter divisions in our parishes, small Christian communities, groups and even in our families. These divisions bear their ugly fruits when quarrels arise and conflicts develop.
Disagreements on important issues are one of the most common causes of problems, prejudices, and strife among God’s people. Another important reason is competition for power, influence and access to money. These also cause division and hate in the secular community. Divisions can start over any issue, important or unimportant – how to spend money, a disapproving look someone gave me, unfairness, misunderstandings between cultures, differences in wealth, and social injustice. Wounds caused by these conflicts can scar so deeply that they become permanent dividing lines running through the soul of a family, a church, or community.
Divisions are a great scandal because they contradict the very essence of the Church. That essence demands that the Church be one, as Jesus so ardently desired (cf. John ch. 17). But there is a way to stop divisions from taking hold, and, perhaps more importantly, there is a way to heal a community, a church, or a family, no matter how deeply its divisions run. We can and must move forward towards unity in a new way, but there needs to be a change much bigger than most of us have thought about or imagined. The Lord does not want some kind of endless state of civil war among us or a declared truce while hostilities in the hearts remain. He wants us to go way beyond divisions and return to the original state of unity that existed before divisions occurred. He desires that relationships be restored and communities and hearts knit together, ending divisions that have disrupted harmony between believers or friends or families.
Christ who has healed our broken relationship with God, took the initiative in healing what we could not heal ourselves, bridging the chasm that separates us from one another and himself. He reconciled us to himself and he calls us to be reconciled to one another. We can bridge our divisions and be reconciled in our families and communities when we take him as the source of our unity. If we realise that we belong to him and serve in his Church, our divisions and differences become meaningless and artificial. We are one people under one Lord and we live for and serve one God. How foolish it is to be divided in God’s family. Let us today celebrate our oneness and unity. Let us reflect on our vocation to be the agents of healing and unity in our often divided communities, families, friends and Church.
“Cross the river in a crowd and crocodile won’t eat you”
Did I ever create divisions? Over what?
Reflect on the divisions that exist in the groups that you belong to (ethnic, class, gender, age and race), and the consequences of these actions for those divided.
Response to God
Confess the sins of division by you, your group, your parish. Pray for a new beginning where you will be a channel of healing.
Response to your World
I will identify a situation when my words or actions had dividing effects, and move to heal these divisions as far as possible.
Identify divisions that operate in your community (your group, family, parish schools). What concrete steps can we take to promote healing in your particular community? Resolve to take steps to resolve at least one specific conflict among you.
Oh, God, Your love reaches out to every human being and for that we give you thanks and praise. We seek healing for our community and a way forward together. Gracious God, help us to treat others with respect and love, regardless of how our opinions differ. By your spirit help us to seek and promote an active spirit of healing and an open mind of discernment in the face of division. Help us inspire others to reflect the uniting love of Jesus in their relationships with all people. I ask this through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.