Lent is here! We have been told to “Repent” many times! But what does this really mean? To find the answer we return the gospel for the Third Sunday of the Year, Mt 4: 12 – 17.
“12When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulum and Naphtali, 14that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled:
‘15Land of Zebulum and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, 16the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land over-shadowed by death light has arisen.’
17 From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
At the beginning of Chapter 3, John appears preaching a frightening message; “Who warned you to flee the wrath of God? The axe is at the root. Bear good fruit. The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This was the message Jesus listened to just before his own baptism.
Quite possibly, before leaving Nazareth, Jesus had decided to become a disciple of John. I wonder if, after hearing John preach, Jesus started to have second thoughts about joining him. John was a good man but his style must have been quite jarring to Jesus. John’s arrest by Herod Antipas followed. Was this the last straw for Jesus? Better to put plenty of distance between himself and Herod. So wisely he ‘withdrew’ to Galilee. He left Nazareth, a tiny village, and settled in Capernaum. Not only was Capernaum a thriving commercial centre, it was also on ‘the way to the sea’. Here Jesus would have access to many people as he commenced his teaching mission.
Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish community. He saw Jesus as the New Moses and went to great lengths to assure his audience that Jesus mission had its foundation in the Hebrew Scriptures. He frequently backs up what he has to say with Old Testament quotes. This does not mean that the original writers had Jesus in mind when they were writing. Matthew links the situation of the past with that which Jesus faced.
Matthew runs together, two quotes from Isaiah. The prophet was writing in 732BC. Zebulum and Naphtali had been annexed by Assyria.
“At the time beginning the humiliation of the land of Zebulum and Naphtali, this led to a worsening of oppression in the Way to the Sea and in the Galilee of the nations.” Is 8: 23
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in the land of deep darkness – on them light has shone.” Is 9: 1
I am sure that living under the occupation of the Assyrian army must have been like living in darkness with sudden death always a possibility. He is telling us that it was in a similar situation that Jesus commenced his mission. The Roman Empire dominated Palestine. The local ruler was Herod Antipas and he, we will hear, was responsible for the killing of John at the whim of his wife. (Mt 14: 1- 12) Religious practice had lost the spirit of God and become a succession of keeping one rule after another. Indeed the people of Galilee were “dwelling in a land over-shadowed by death and darkness”.
It is into this darkness that Jesus, the “light of the world”, enters.
Matthew announces this major turning point with the words, “From that time on.” Not only was it a turning point for Jesus but also for all those whose lives would be touched by him. We too are being called to respond to this turning point in our lives.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the same words that John used when he began to teach. 3: 2 Repent means much more than being sorry. We are called to a change of heart. Jesus asks us to change our way of thinking, to adopt a very different attitude towards life and others. This change may mean moving from selfishness to consideration of others, from harshness to gentleness, from meanness to generosity.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Other evangelists speak of the Kingdom of God. Matthew, a devout Jew, could never have written God’s name. So he uses “heaven.” Five times Matthew paints a word picture of the Kingdom of Heaven in chapter 25.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Makes you think!