For Americans, apart from unusually violent storms and weird shifts in the weather, the past week has witnessed unprecedented shifts in the political climate. Truly dark clouds seem to be lowering over the country. This may be an illusion created by an acrimonious electoral cycle. It may be fact. One way or another, citizens of this country seem to be groping in an increasingly gloomy environment. And today the cycle of readings for Sunday turns to Matthew’s gospel especially for light, guidance, and inspiration.
The life of the Church goes its own way while public attention is focused elsewhere on events that entertain or shock and sometimes even frighten us. And as we hear in Matthew’s gospel, we can learn a few things about despair and hope, about light in the midst of darkness, even about Falcons and Packers. Only here the stakes are much, much higher.
The wheels of liturgical concentration are set in motion by the reading from the Book of Isaiah. The mention of Zebulun and Naphtali link the first reading and the gospel, for Matthew cites the same passage. Zebulun and Naphtali were sons of Jacob who gave their names to two tribes of ancient Israel that settled in the northernmost region of the Promised Land. The territory that came to be known as Galilee lay east of the Lake of Genesereth and the central mountains. It was a fertile, lovely area of rolling hills and grasslands.
The reading from Isaiah refers to a date in the eighth century before Christ after the conquest of Palestine by the Assyrians when the annexation of the lands associated with the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali accelerated their alienation from the rest of Israel. But the prophet is looking ahead to a liberation that never came, for over the next millennium Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and then Romans all laid claim to the region, sometimes deporting the inhabitants, at other times seeding the area with immigrants from around the Middle East. But for Matthew the message is focused in a very different way – the light that will illuminate the deathly darkness is not a hoped-for liberation from foreign tyranny, but the dawning of the Light of the World, fulfilling the prophecy in a way transcending the dreams of the prophet-poet of the eighth century.
Galilee, especially the densely-populated areas surrounding the Sea of Galilee, became the principal location of Jesus’ ministry. So Matthew introduces his Gospel by evoking not only history but geography. After the Assyrians had devastated the northern parts of Israel and brought the ancient kingdom of the north to an end, the region had become home to a variety of peoples, the galil haggoyim. By the time of Jesus, it was not only known as Galilee of the Gentiles and despised by the Jews of the south, but filled with heavily populated towns, especially around the Sea of Galilee. It was there that Jesus decided to locate after he left the village of Nazareth and it became the major scene of his of teaching and healing ministry. This chapter of Matthew leads directly to the Sermon on the Mount. And in a preview glimpse of the rest of the gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus extended his ministry from his base in Galilee – teaching, preaching, and healing.
The second reading seems to depart from the themes of Isaiah and Matthew, but a connection is made early on when Paul tells us clearly where the genius of effective ministry lies if we are to be true disciples – “Let there be no dissensions among you, but …be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” [1 Corinthians 1:10] I suppose the bad news is that Christians have always had a hard time avoiding factions and disagreements. Maybe that’s why Paul placed so much importance on it. But diversity can also be the anvil on which truth is hammered into shape, as subsequent history has so often revealed. The important thing, as Paul goes on to say, is that love must prevail. Patriots don’t have to hate Steelers in order to play against them. Democrats and Republicans can work together for the good of the nation.
We all have moments or periods or places of gloom and darkness in our lives. Whole countries do. Today Christians in Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Sudan are still under attack, sometimes lethally. Earthquakes, cold snaps, and storms create suffering. Economies collapse. The United States seems caught up in an unprecedented political conflict in which decency and respect have been the first casualties. We know what it means to long for a little light at the end or even in the middle of our own tunnels. And Matthew is telling us what that light is. Or, rather, who it is. He will also be telling us in the months to come what it means to go toward that light, to grasp it, and to spread it — to be a disciple.
At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus meets his disciples one last time back in Galilee, where it all began. From there discipleship will now spread to the ends of the earth. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and see, I am with you always, to the close of the age’.” [Matthew 28:18-20]