Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Our texts today are all about people who lived, in one way or another ,‘on the edge’. Perhaps in them we find a lesson for our own time as to the understanding and shape of our own faith. Why for instance does Isaiah (8:23-9:4) begin his poem of promise and hope for Israel by speaking about the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali? We have to remember the context of his writing, for 1st Isaiah was writing when the Northern Kingdom, Israel had been conquered in 721 BC when Samaria fell to the Assyrians. These tribal areas lay to the west and north of the Sea of Galilee and would have been the gateway to the coast and the rich cities which lay there, like Tyre and Sidon which also suffered sack. The Assyrians were a ruthless, expansionist warrior people who enslaved others and ruled them with a rod of iron. We can well imagine then the ruined cities, the burned farms and the desolation of the depopulated landscape with which our prophet was familiar. What he however promised was hope, a new beginning: “In days to come he will confer glory on the Way of the Sea on the far side of Jordan.” This ‘Way’ was the rich agricultural route which skirted the Sea of Galilee and went towards the coast – it promised therefore a new future for those enslaved either on their own lands or far from home: “For the yoke that was weighing on him, the bar across his shoulders, the rod of his oppressor, these you break as on the day of Midian.”
What then can we say of Midian? If you recall the Book of Exodus, you will remember that Moses escaped the wrath of Pharaoh after killing an Egyptian and fled to Midian. In that country, which lies on the right bank of the gulf of Aqaba, Moses received a warm reception from a pagan priest and his family and settled there and married prior to his return and leading the Exodus. These various ‘marginal lands’ have therefore great importance for the future of the People of God and are, as well as being dangerous, dubious places, signs of hope and redemption.
This is precisely why Matthew, (4:12-23) sets Jesus’ mission in Galilee and not in Jerusalem as we might have expected and introduces his mission, as he takes over from the arrested John the Baptist, precisely with his quote from Isaiah. He starts with the dubious and marginalised in Israel, for Galilee, as we see in the Gospels, was thought very iffy by the Jerusalem authorities and not to be trusted in matters religious. But Jesus thinks it is the ideal place for him to begin, perhaps precisely because they needed a saviour more, or were likely to be more open to his message of deliverance.
We have already seen, over Christmas, that Matthew sees Jesus as a new Moses from his whole account of the flight into Egypt, and clearly writes of him as leader of the new and eternal exodus, the salvation and incorporation of humanity into the godhead which only Christ can bring. As we go on to the call of the disciples it again becomes clear that Jesus chooses the marginalised, fishermen rather than the religious elite, to lead his great exodus-redemption programme. There must be something about those on the edge which is both ripe for the Good News of salvation and indicates their willingness to be drawn in to its spreading to others.
We see something of this in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. (1 Cor 1:10-13, 17) Here St Paul admonishes the Christian community for its divisiveness, some choosing to follow one Church leader, others opting for others, much to his fury. Yet we need to pause and think why Paul did go and convert the pagans of Corinth. What was it about this place that so attracted him? Why, if he knew them as he did, didn’t he opt for somewhere altogether quieter and more refined, a place where people were less fractious and divisive? Perhaps he went there and spent so much time, possibly about 18 months, precisely because he saw that this vibrant, cosmopolitan provincial capital with its twin sea ports either side of the Gulf of Corinth was indeed just the sort of place he needed to send the gospel out to the world. This place of many pagan gods and multiplicity of languages and contacts, with its appalling morals and colourful ways of living, may in fact have been just what he was looking for. Paul was never one for a quiet life and his message of the crucifixion of God the Son, the redeemer of the world could have found no better home than in sleazy Corinth. It is a mark of his success that the Christian faith continues to thrive there whilst it has succumbed to the Muslim invaders in Turkey and North Africa. Being, living on the edge, has after all its advantages.