Frances writes on next weekends readings :- The passage given for our gospel this week, Matthew 4:12-23 is set amidst troubled times. Matthew places the calling of the disciples immediately after Jesus’ baptism and his Temptations by the devil; indicating something of his valuation of the significance of Jesus’ ministry and the likely pattern of his life, and, most important of all, Matthew is the only gospel writer who will deliberately quote the well known passage from Isaiah 9:1-4, our OT reading. Why precisely should he do this and what was the significance of this passage to the people of Israel? Why would it have resonated so much in the mind of Jesus and with his followers?
The tribal lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were the most northern in Israel, stretching right up to what is now the Lebanon, on the left of the Sea of Galilee. Whilst they did have their steep mountain ranges they were also blessed with fertile valleys and in particular the great east-west route known in ancient times as ‘The Way of the Sea’, along the Jezreel and other valleys, affording communications and travel from the sea east over the Jordan and to the territories beyond. It was therefore, as well as a fertile place one ripe for hammering and at the focus in biblical times for such devastating battles was the city of Megiddo, which we know as Armageddon, ultimate place of destruction. In the 13th century BC Tuthmosis 111 of Egypt won a decisive battle there against the king of Kadesh and in the following century under Deborah we find the victory of Israel over Syria, with the famous killing by Jael of Sisera, the Syrian general and the routing of his forces.
When in the late 8th century BC First Isaiah wrote his prophetic book he was lamenting the crushing blow the armies of Assyria had inflicted on Israel, the Northern kingdom when he spoke of its ‘humbling’. Yet his message, for all the enslavement and ruin; the sack of its prosperous cities and the crushing of its elite that he had heard of was not one of gloom. Isaiah wrote of the good times to come, the lifting of their oppression: The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone. Isaiah foretold rejoicing, happiness and prosperity; his message was full of hope for the depressed, enslaved nation. To remind them that such a shift in fortunes was possible he went on to speak of a much earlier time of relief, renewal and new life, that which occurred in the time of the Judges of Israel, in particular that of Gideon, before Israel had kings, so before C 1000 BC when the Southern territories were brought to their knees by the ravages of the mobile raiders of Midian and saved by the wiliness of Gideon. (Read all about it in Judges 8).The rod of his oppressor you break as on the day of Midian.
Although these various incidents had taken place between 12,000-800 years before the life of Christ they would all have been stories kept in an oral tradition and well known to every Jew. We know this as a near intact copy of the Scroll of Isaiah was discovered at Qumran, dating to the 1st century BC; it was the stuff of national identity and of the essence of Jewishness. Matthew used precisely those familiar icons of the national self perception to alert people to an understanding of who and what Jesus was and of what he had done. Matthew knew Jesus was the redeemer of Israel, an Israel he along with the rest of his nation knew was sunk in oppression under Roman rule and for whom belief in the Messiah-liberator was eagerly awaited. Quite clearly Matthew expected that this liberation, whatever form it took would only be achieved through great difficulty, hence his appeal back to Isaiah, and yet he believed with absolute certainty that in Jesus the long awaited deliverance of the nation had been achieved, though the form Jesus’ deliverance took was not that anticipated by many who wanted a bloody revolution. Matthew, like his predecessor Isaiah was able to see beyond the bricks and stone and the blood and slaughter into the greater vision of God for his people.
We too need continually to be nurtured by the past into a greater vision of the future and not allow ourselves to be sidetracked by the petty and irrelevant things which cloud our vision in the manner in which St Paul admonished the Christians of Corinth in our second reading, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17. Paul takes us right back to the fundamentals of the faith here, basing our entire redemption on the crucifixion and the new kingdom which Christ has won for us. What he is saying in his letter to these petty, recalcitrant and acrimonious Christians – men and women like you and me, is ‘search for the vision of God; don’t lose your grip on the great reality promised you; don’t be led astray by lesser things, however important they may seem to be at the time, keep your focus fixed, as is mine, on the cross’.