A Provocation: Third Sunday after the Epiphany: January 22, 2017: Matthew 4:12-23

Matthew 4:12-23
4:12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

4:13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,

4:14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

4:15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles

4:16 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.”

4:17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

4:18 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.

4:19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

4:20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

4:21 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.

4:22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

4:23 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.,  not withdrew, unless military

A Question or Two:

  • Why did Jesus stay in Judea when he had grown up in Galilee?
  • Why did he go back to Galilee after John was arrested?
  • Why did he move to Capernaum?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus had come to Judea, along with crowds of faithful Jews, to be baptized in the Jordan.  It appears that he has stayed there, perhaps with John and the crowds.

Then John is arrested.  By Herod.

Jesus leaves the region.  He goes to Galilee.

That is what his father did when he learned that Judea was not as safe as the angel had led him to believe when he told Joseph to return from Egypt after the death of Herod the Great.

It appears that Jesus learned a lesson from his father: when in doubt, go to Galilee.

So, for the second time in his life, Jesus lives in Galilee as a refugee.

It appears that his first plan was to go back to Nazareth, though that plan lasts less than a verse.  The storyteller tells us that Jesus left Nazareth, but that is too mild a translation.  The word translated as “left” is καταλιπὼν, which means something closer to “abandoned.”

Why such a strong word?  It is not clear, but the word implies that he made a strong choice that led to a decisive action.  One thing is clear: Jesus abandoned a small Jewish village and moved to a somewhat larger Jewish village, perhaps three times as large.

Is it significant that Jewish Nazareth would have been overshadowed by the much larger Hellenistic city of Sepphoris (never mentioned in the Bible) which would have been a center of Roman power?  Perhaps.  If so, perhaps Jesus was doing what a gun-shy refugee would naturally do: Herod (a Roman stooge) acted acted against the Jewish prophet, John.  Jesus fled, first to Nazareth, and then to Capernaum, which was further away from imperial scrutiny.

This location on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee is important to Matthew’s storyteller.

He brings in the prophet Isaiah to signal the significance of this as a place to live.  Isaiah’s words sing of light in the midst of dense darkness.  They originate as a song of hope and promise for exiles waiting in Babylon.  Matthew uses them to introduce Jesus in the act of extending John’s message to entirely new territory.

Jews living under Roman domination are being linked in the narrative logic with Jews who had seen the devastation of the Babylonian conquest.  Jews living under Roman domination are being read as having waited as long as the exiles to see God keep promises.  That establishes them as faithful and impatient.  That establishes them as ready.

When the storyteller is done singing Isaiah’s song of hope too-long-deferred, Jesus begins to proclaim John’s interrupted message.

He says: Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.  

The first word, Μετανοεῖτε, is usually translated as “repent.”  This is a good translation, though repenting has become entirely too religious, too linked only to notions of sin and depravity.  The word in Greek refers to “changing one’s mind.”  Not in the sense of coming up with a new opinion, but in the sense of changing the basic way you look at the world and carry yourself in it.  John, and now Jesus, are both announcing that a basic change is beginning, and that change in the world requires a basic change in the mindset of faithful Jews.  

The word used for the “coming near” of the rule of the heavens (ἤγγικεν) implies a vibrant, earth-shaking approach.  

The usual slow slog of world affairs trains faithful people to wait.  And to wait.  And to wait.  And to look for ways that the key points of faithful waiting can be transformed into religious metaphors.  The words that Jesus uses, Μετανοεῖτε and ἤγγικεν, make it clear that he (like John) think that the time for sermonic metaphors is now done.  This is the time to change the way you think.

I was studying this scene with a strong group of pastors, and one wondered whether Simon and Andrew, James and John, might have known Jesus before he encountered them at the water’s edge.  If they had known him beforehand, that might account for the haste with which they dropped everything and followed him.  I think that this works as an interpretation.

But it is also possible that the storyteller is showing us a set of faithful Jews who had already changed the way they think.  They had already felt the earth vibrating under their feet.  They left their nets (and their father, in the case of James and John) immediately.  This is what  change of mind, Μετανοεῖτε, looks like.  The world is ready to be turned right-side-up, and they are prepared to participate.

So, the question is, what happened?

No one would mistake the current state of affairs for a world turned right-side-up.  The depth of the cynicism of American politics, both in terms of the expectations of people who were once idealistic and in terms of the crass tactics that political operatives use to reach their goals, is evidence of the brokenness of the world.  Politics as currently practiced is an invention that allows people in power to lie to us about what they intend to do, and to lie to us about why.  Reasons that sound idealistic are trotted out in front of crowds and, if they draw loud cheers, those reasons are used as advertising slogans for programs that will never be implemented.

Here’s the issue:

The drawing-near of the Dominion of the heavens causes the earth to shake.  It is easy to celebrate the notion of shaking the ground under the feet of powerful, cynical opponents.  It is easy to rejoice in the notion of ground shaking in general.

But in the current political circus there is already a clown who celebrates shaking things up.

If you want to understand the chaotic Tweet-storms and the contradictory policy “statements,” you need to read management theory.  Google the words “management” and “disrupt.”  You will be treated to a heaping pile of results, most of which talk about disrupting the marketplace.  Successful innovations give the advantage to small, nimble start-ups because such innovations disrupt the way large, stable companies do business.  You will be directed to the work of Clayton Christensen if you want to read more about disruptive innovation.

Such advice works well enough when we are talking about marketplace competition, especially when that marketplace involves newer technologies.  Tech industries turn the world upside down three times a week when they are really cooking.  Disruption is the order of the day.

Do not confuse this disruption with the ἤγγικεν of the Dominion.

But disruption is also used a cheesy management strategy.

Why did the transition team ask for the names of federal employees associated with the accepted scientific analysis of the human contribution to climate change?  Why does the president-elect insist on attacking heroes of the Civil Rights movements or senators who were held prisoner by North Vietnam?  Why did the candidate who finally lost the popular vote but pulled out a win in the Electoral College insist on issuing intemperate attacks on China, or Mexico, or NATO?

Disruption.  The candidate himself said it (in these words, more or less): “You want them to wonder what you’re going to do.”

Managers who think of disruption as a management strategy want employees to be afraid that they will be fired.  (“I love to fire people,” to quote a prominent loudmouth.)  Controllers who practice disruption want the only operational certainty to be that access and advantage are entirely dependent on the whims of the disrupter.  (“Fake news!”)  The outcome is predictable.  The only successful response is boot-licking.

Have you ever worked for a manager like this?  I have.  They make the earth shake under everyone’s feet and they make the shaking unpredictable, chaotic.  I have worked for such managers.  It doesn’t turn out well.  Good ideas are hidden away.  Analytical critique is punished.

Just for the sake of people everywhere who work for cheesy middle-managers, please when you preach, do not confuse this disruption with the drawing-near of God’s Dominion.

No matter what your politics, the Dominion of God has nothing to do with cheesy management strategies.  

2 thoughts on “A Provocation: Third Sunday after the Epiphany: January 22, 2017: Matthew 4:12-23

  1. I often think of God as the God of disruption, and usually, for God’s Good (and occasionally painful in practice) means of alerting / awaking / re-orietnating us. However, I do not usually think of God doing this in a malicious or malevolent way (“keep em wondering.”) There is a big difference in the use of authority and power between those two! This is what I think of while reading your provocation.


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