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Third Sunday of the Year

The Circle of Light

The way Matthew tells it, Jesus lived a dangerous life right from the start. As a baby he had to flee the family home in Bethlehem because of a murderous king; when that king died and the family came back from Egypt, they found that the new king wasn't much of an improvement so they moved away from Judaea to the rather obscure area of Galilee.

Jesus moved south again to encounter John the Baptist (and the devil), and perhaps to begin his ministry, because he only moved back up north when he heard that John the Baptist had been arrested; things were dangerous for those associated with John. And then, when he'd moved back, he even moved from Nazareth where his parents had settled and he was known, to Capernaum-next-the-Sea.

There is a sense that the obscurer the place the safer you are; not that Jesus refused danger, but he simply avoided unnecessary danger. Don't look for battles: they'll come soon enough. But there's a sense too in which the obscure places are the dangerous places; Zebulun and Naphtali are the areas which were seized on by the king of Assyria about 700 years before Jesus was born, precisely because they were the outlying, unprotected places; their inhabitants had been deported, and others had been brought into their place, so that they would be no-places lived in by no-people.

It was to these places and people that the prophet Isaiah spoke words of hope about light after darkness, about harvest joy, about the spoils of victory, about the breaking of the yoke that weighed them down as though they were cattle -- or human slaves -- 'as on the day of Midian'; that surely was a reminiscence of the story of Gideon rescuing the people of Israel from the bullying Midianites by the simple tactic of surrounding their military camp with light and noise in the middle of the night, so that they all panicked and killed each other. Those who were to have the hope of light had to be rescued from those to whom the light was a terror.

So Jesus, the prudent one, starts preaching in the obscurity of lakeside Galilee, and what does he preach? Exactly the same words as John the Baptist preached in Judaea: 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.' So if he's prudent, at least he's not going around in disguise. The kingdom of heaven is what John was announcing, and Jesus is doing just the same.

And yet in doing the work of the kingdom he doesn't seem over-cautious about how he goes about it; he needs some helpers, and he takes what he finds to hand: fishermen; it's what you'd expect to find in Capernaum-next-the-Sea. Fishing is a kind of harvesting ('they rejoice as at harvest time') and it was a big industry around Capernaum what with catching, storing and distributing, not to mention net-maintenance. You're bound to find lots of people around

But Jesus has his eye on just four: and they turn out to be willing to move into a new world which Jesus describes as fishing (he talks elsewhere about the fields being ready for harvesting); fishing or reaping, it's all about gathering together those who are waiting for the kingdom of heaven. It's not yet clear why Jesus needed followers, because he embarks on a round of teaching, proclaiming and healing which he seems to do on his own. But of course he does need followers because they are going to follow him in an ever-widening circle of teaching, proclaiming and healing, long after he has gone away.

For the moment he is the light which the people in darkness are rejoicing to see; but he will soon say to his followers, 'You are the light of the world', and that is his purpose in choosing his followers.

Matthew is a very churchy gospel: the Church is not just a group of Christ's followers; the church is Christ continuing to bring light to those in darkness, and calling others to join the ever-widening circle. Mind, as a Christmas card I received once said (under a picture of a half-burned candle): those who would give light shall endure the burning. There's danger ahead.

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