(Ordinary Time – Cycle A)
The ministry of Jesus is teaching, proclamation and healing deeds in favour of the people. The “good news” of the kingdom in favour of the poor, in fact, is not only proclamation or teaching, but also and above all irruption of the power of God that liberates the people from the miseries that afflict them. Before beginning the announcement of the kingdom, Jesus gathers a group of disciples so that they would be witnesses of his liberating action and continue this same action in favour of men and women.
The first reading (Is 8,23-9,3) is a song of joy and of hope that springs from the heart of a people who before “walked in darkness” but now “have seen a great light” (v. 1). The poem of Isaiah refers to a group of people who has suffered anguish, hunger, violence of war and injustice (Is 8,23), but now finds reasons to be happy and to hope. The well-known biblical contrast between “light” and “darkness” serves to express this radical change in the historical horizon of the people.
Light is the first work of creation (Gen 1,3). It is the image of life and of salvation that comes from God: “For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light” (Ps 36,10); it is like God’s garment, expression of his dignity and of his saving power: “You are clothed with majesty and glory, robed in light as with a cloak” (Ps 104,1-2). Light reveals the mystery of God in a particular way: “God is light; in him there is no darkness” (1Jn 1,5). And Jesus will say: “I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness” (Jn 8,12). The text of Isaiah speaks of “a great light”, a light that symbolises salvation and peace, gifts that come from God and that transform the dark horizon of an oppressed people. The light-liberation that God offers, produces a special rejoicing in the people.
Together with the light, different terms that evoke joy appear: “You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing” (v. 2). The light-liberation that God offers, produces a special rejoicing in the people. Light evokes the saving action of God; joy, the response of the men and women who experience peace and salvation. The text explains the reason of so much joy: God has caused to disappear the tyrant and the oppressor (v. 3: “for the yoke that burdened them you have smashed”). To a people who suffers hunger, violence and anguish, God announces a different future, fruit of his powerful liberating action.
The gospel (Mt 4,12-23) is the opening text with which Matthew describes the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. To facilitate its understanding, we divided the commentary into three parts: (a) Geographical and theological setting; (b) Proclamation of the kingdom and call of the first disciples; and, (c) Summary on the activity of Jesus.
(a) Geographical and theological setting (vv. 12-16)
For the gospel of Matthew, according to a tradition that we also find in Luke and Mark, Jesus begins his activity immediately after the arrest of John the Baptist and goes to the north of the country, to Galilee. According to Matthew, Jesus is not going to Nazareth, but to the city of Capernaum. The historical circumstances, with its temporal and geographical dimension, in which the saving action of God is manifested through Jesus, became for Matthew an occasion to realize a deft and sapient theological rereading.
The choice of Capernaum, according to the evangelist, is within the plan of God, as could be deduced from the messianic promises of Isaiah. The small city of Capernaum, however, does not appear in any biblical text, therefore Matthew thought up of finding a theological meaning to the fact that Jesus is going to live there. Instead of speaking exactly of Capernaum, he speaks of the two tribes of Israel that occupied this region situated in the northwestern coast of the Sea of Galilee: Zebulun and Naphtali.
In this way, he could mention the prophecy of Isaiah, which announced liberation to the tribes of this region devastated by Assyrian invasions and deportations of the 8th century B.C.: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, along the sea beyond the Jordan, heathen Galilee: A people living in darkness has seen a great light. On those who inhabit a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen” (vv. 15-16; cf. Is 8,23; 9,1).
With the mention of the quotation from Isaiah, Matthew achieves a double result. On the one hand, he gives a Christological specific to the location of the historical activity of Jesus in Galilee, more exactly in Capernaum, rejecting thus the objections coming from the Jewish circles which considered anomalous the messianic manifestation of Jesus in Galilee; on the other, with the prophetic confirmation of Isaiah, his universal vision in relation to the gospel could be supported, which should be announced not only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10,6), but to all the pagan nations (Mt 28,19: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations”).
(b) Proclamation of the kingdom and call of the first disciples (vv. 17-22)
With the previous theological background, the short information of v. 17 could be understood better: “From that time on Jesus began his preaching with the message: Repent, the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” In one sentence the essential content of the public announcement of Jesus is condensed. In the first place it makes a call to conversion, using the Greek verb metanoein, which indicates a change of mentality. Jesus calls for a profound change that embraces the mind and the heart, directed towards an integral adherence to God, committing oneself to do his will.
The urgency and seriousness of the invitation to conversion are derived from the proclamation, “the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”. The formula “kingdom of heaven” is characteristic of Matthew, where it appeared 33 times in texts where in Mark and Luke the formula “kingdom of God” is found. “Heaven” is a reverential substitute for the name of God.
The kingdom is the fulfilment of the promises of God. In the Judaism of the time of Jesus, the expression “kingdom of God”, which Matthew calls “kingdom of heaven”, summarized all that Israel expected of the messianic age as the epoch of the definitive manifestation of God. The kingdom is the good news that God has intervened mysteriously in history to transform it completely. It is the announcement of salvation and of forgiveness, of life and of peace, of justice and of liberty that God bestows to all men and women. When Jesus announced that the kingdom is close at hand, he was saying that God, as absolute lord and king of the cosmos and of history, shows his sovereignty, his merciful love and his justice: “the Lord is king; let the earth rejoice; let the many isles be glad…” (Ps 97,1.10-11; cf. Ps 93; 96). God presents himself as sovereign offering pardon to sinners, doing justice to the poor and giving to all life and salvation.
The disciple responds to the intervention of God with his commitment and response of faith, which are manifested above all through “conversion”. Every man and woman should form and orientate his/her behaviour and mentality to the values of the kingdom. The response to the kingdom entails a change of route in life’s journey, a new way of relating with God, with others and with the world. Conversion is supported by faith. To convert oneself and to believe in the gospel are two sides of the same reality. The person is converted insofar as he/she adheres to Christ and to the gospel and believes in the plan of God.
The disciples of Jesus, who, leaving everything behind, followed him, are the model of the humanity that listens and obeys the voice of God and accepts with faith the announcement of salvation.
(c) Summary on the activity of Jesus (vv. 23-25)
The third part of the text (vv. 23-25) is a kind of summary in which the activity of Jesus is described. His ministry is summarized in three aspects: (a) teaching in the Jewish synagogues, where the Scripture is heard and reflection is made on the word of God so as to understand his will; (b) announcement of the good news of the kingdom, that is, the joyful proclamation of the fulfilment of God’s promises and the announcement of his definitive intervention in history; and, (c) healing of the sick and his beneficent action that cures the affliction of the people, as unequivocal sign of the coming of the messianic age (Is 35,5).
At the end of the text Matthew gives emphasis again the universality of the action of Jesus: “Large crowds follow him, coming from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and Transjordania” (v. 25). The activity of Jesus is creating around him a group of men and women liberated from their illnesses, coming from all over Israel and even beyond its frontiers, including Syria and the pagan areas of the Decapolis and Perea. Ideally, the people of Israel is convoked around Jesus, not limited to some geographical frontiers, but universal, just as the messianic dream of the great prophets of old.