What is it about Zebulun and Naphtali in the readings of today? What is it about repentance and the kingdom of heaven? What is it about the calling of the first disciples? There is an aspect of these found in every one of us as believers in Christ, namely, God’s light in you.
The prophet Isaiah speaks this way, “First the Lord degraded the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but in the end, he has glorified the seaward road.” The word “first,” in the statement above, is important. It describes what happens prior, possibly before Zebulun and Naphtali’s situation is reversed. Then, the prophet says, “but in the end, he has glorified the seaward road.” That “end” describes a new beginning, restoration happens for Zebulun and Naphtali. For Isaiah, that reversal is this, “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where but now there was distress. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” Is this something you can relate to, or someone you know?
In the gospel, Matthew introduces the mission of Jesus by referencing the prophet Isaiah, “He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled.” Historians report that Zebulun and Naphtali are the very first tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel deported by the Assyrians 700 years before Matthew wrote. In this gospel passage, Matthew presents a historical reality. Jesus is the son of David. He is beginning the restoration of the Davidic kingdom. He transforms that kingdom into the kingdom of heaven. Why does Jesus start his ministry by stepping into the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, into the Galilee of the Gentiles,” formerly overrun by the Assyrians? It ushers in a new messianic experience. In Christ, the people who walk in darkness will surely see a great light.
Jesus’ mission brings God’s kingdom to his people. The Word made flesh is the light which is life for the world. His message is clear, but sometimes rather confusing. Jesus preaches a totally new kingdom, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Isn’t that the trademark of Jesus’ ministry? Jesus offers a fresh understanding of the meaning of the kingdom. Maybe we could step into the mindset of the prophet Isaiah for a moment to imagine that Zebulun and Naphtali could see a great light. Or that Jesus would ignore the existing powerful political “establishment” which idolized the Roman empire.
What happens next? Jesus issues the first invitations to fishermen: Simon and Andrew, James and John. These are apparently insignificant men, not biblical scholars. These men are from somewhere other than big cities such as Jerusalem of Judea, let alone a great center of learning like Rome, Alexandria, or Ephesus. These men are from this small village. They are ordinary men who leave their work and families to follow Jesus. This can be likened to the question Nathanael asked about Nazareth, “Can anything good come from there?” (Jn. 1:46) Reflect a bit deeper on witnessing to Jesus. When I begin to let my not-good-enough mindset soar. Even when I underestimate God’s grace leading to a lackluster expression of my faith, the good news is that Jesus brings the light of God’s kingdom into my life. The first disciples let his light shine in their hearts, despite their perceived poor background. God’s light is in you.
As Saint Paul did to the Corinthian community, my challenge is that you strive to make the invitation from Jesus personal. God’s light resides in each of us. Within our society today, believers seem to allow the structure and the culture to downgrade their spiritual abilities. Given socio-political and economic challenges, many of us lack the zeal to witness to Jesus. Among the youth, there is a sense of doubt or confusion. Human beings seem prone to evil, to violence against others, as if the light isn’t burning anymore. We see institutional lies, hatred, and manipulations at various levels. One wonders if it is that Jesus does not speak to the human heart anymore or that humans willingly reject his voice when he speaks. We need to reiterate this message in our time, that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and that God’s kingdom dwells in our hearts.
Jesus speaks hope. Just as he spoke to the fishermen of Galilee, “Follow me,” he invites you to begin completely anew, to leave the past behind. He invites you to embrace this new kingdom. Journeying with Christ clears the path for the future, and fills you with goodness, love, truth, beauty, and justice. Hope involves bearing witness to the light inside you.
Pope Benedict XVI writes in his encyclical, Spe Salvi,
“Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future.”
This can apply to our generation. We seem to be living in a dark world and facing a dark future. Isn’t this generation trusting “gods” that have proved questionable and disappointing -in politics, religion, science, lack of protection for the sanctity of human life, false cultural expectations, and clinging to postmodern ideologies? Here’s the truth, we cannot make the kingdom of God present through falsehood, superficiality, and naivety. Let’s join Pope Benedict XVI to invite Christians to appreciate God’s light. The gospel message is not only “informative” but “performative” (Spe Salvi, no. 2). To dwell in God’s kingdom, we must embrace the Gospel as “one that makes things happen and is life-changing.” The pope warns, “The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”
I believe we can hear Jesus again say to us, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” As a believer, get grounded in hope. Feel God’s presence within you. And you can bring this “kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17) to others. Let’s get God’s light burning brightly through sincere love, joy, peace, and service to one another. Let’s dispel anguish, fear, and hatred. Let’s overthrow the kingdom of darkness. God’s light is in you!
Readings: 1st- Is. 8:23 - 9:3; 2nd- 1 Cor. 1:10-13, 17; Gospel- Matt. 4:12-23