Last week we read about the Lord’s servant being given a greater commission than the original one – It is not enough for you to restore the tribes of Jacob…. I will make you the light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. “The ends of the earth” can sound rather like “the back end of beyond”, and that’s what the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were in the eyes of the people of Jerusalem and Judah. And that’s what the disorganised tribes of Israel would have looked like to the Midianite oppressors back in the days of the Judges, before Gideon led a campaign of liberation “on the day of Midian”. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali had been anti-colonised by powerful oppressors about 700 years before Christ, so that the original inhabitants got moved elsewhere and other ethnic groups were brought in to form a kind of non-people who were only brought back into the Israelite fold about 100 years before Christ, and were in any case, like the rest of Israel, under Roman rule.
In Isaiah’s vision hope comes to the hopeless, light comes to those in darkness, to those at the back of beyond.
What I learned from my atlas at school is that Britain is at the centre of the world, then there’s the West, the South, the Middle East, the East and the Far East. It’s taken me a long time to realise how odd that language is – as is the language of “sunrise” and “sunset”. People either place themselves at the centre of things and see others as more or less marginal; or they actually feel themselves to be marginal and profoundly unimportant, even worthless. Isaiah of Jerusalem speaks for those who are and feel marginal, and Jesus comes among such people with a startling message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” Now we usually think of repenting as being sorry for our bad ways and trying to do better; but it can also mean changing your way of thinking, and if the people to whom Jesus came thought of themselves as worthless, surely Jesus wouldn’t have been rubbing it in, but encouraging them to think differently. He invites them to turn round and see a new reality called the kingdom of heaven, which is Matthew’s reverent way of saying the kingdom of God. This kingdom, as the Gospels will show us in many readings in the weeks ahead, is accessible to children, to people with fierce desire in their hearts, people who know their need of healing, and people who dare to hope. “Sinners” – which often means those who don’t observe the generally accepted etiquette – are welcome; and even a Canaanite woman from around Tyre and Sidon is welcomed into the sharing out of blessing.
Matthew then tell us about Jesus calling two sets of brothers to follow him; is this linked with what has gone before, or is it just the next thing that happens, without any connection? Well, it would make sense to assume that there is some connection, and in the gospel the followers of Jesus become connected with the announcing of the kingdom. Although after the double call story Matthew says Jesus went round teaching, proclaiming the kingdom and curing, it doesn’t make sense to exclude the recently reconstituted fishermen from that activity. In the future he will send out many of his followers to do what he has been doing, and in these call stories Matthew is introducing us to the idea of the Church. The God who is utterly self-sufficient creates companions for himself; the Son of God who has all power to transform the world chooses to use companions for his work, and he gathers a community of gatherers to continue to draw more and more companions into the kingdom; and that community of gatherers is the Church which simply is the presence of Christ acting as he acted all round Galilee, acting now round all places, and especially the no-places of our world, to bring good news of the kingdom of heaven to those for whom there seems to be nothing but bad news.