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Updated: Jan 24, 2023

Jesus willingly uprooted his life and went to live among an occupied and oppressed people so he could bring light to their darkness.

Photo by Linda Campanelli
Photo by Linda Campanelli

Matthew 4:12-23

January 22, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright The Presbytery has changed its mailing address recently. There’s a line in our passage that’s similar: “[Jesus] left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali …” It doesn’t sound like much. It could also be dismissed as a simple change of address form dropped off at the local post office. Since we’ve read this passage before, the temptation is to skip over this section and move directly to the part about the calling of the first disciples. But there is more going on here that our English translation misses. The NRSV says Jesus left Nazareth. That’s such a bland verb. The Greek is much more expressive. It means to leave behind, to desert, to forsake, to abandon. That paints a different picture, doesn’t it? Let’s be clear about the importance of Nazareth. He and his parents had settled there after they returned from Egypt. It was more than an address. It was the taste of home-cooking after a season in exile; it represented safety after fleeing from Herod; it was a place to put down roots, to find friends, to raise a family, to make a living as a carpenter. Now, Matthew tells us, Jesus was leaving behind the family home; deserting his mother and siblings, forsaking his role as a carpenter; abandoning his father’s tools. What would make a person do such a thing?


Maybe in your rush to skim through the passage you missed it. Matthew began the section by telling us that when Jesus heard John had been arrested, he withdrew from the wilderness of Judea, near the Jordan River, near Jerusalem, to go to Galilee. What does it mean to say he withdrew? That word is more freighted than “left”. The Greek word there is often translated “to go back, to return, to depart”. It can also mean “to leave with the sense of taking refuge from danger.” So which is it? Is he just going home or is he fleeing for his life? We might assume that it is the latter. After all, withdrawing to remote Galilean countryside has got to be safer than hanging around near the center of political and religious power, where the leaders will see you as the next threat, right? But here’s the problem. Herod Antipas, the one who arrested John, is not the ruler in Judea. He’s the ruler in … Galilee! So Jesus is not moving toward safety. He is choosing danger. Matthew underlines this fact by giving us more geographical names. He says Capernaum is in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. Rev. Kathy Donley writes, “Every once in a while, I come across a map of the United States labelled with names I don’t recognize. They are usually names given to [places] by Native American peoples. What Matthew is doing is similar to that. He is using the names of the land as it was divided into territories for the twelve tribes of Israel by Joshua. Zebulun and Naphtali were among the first tribes from the northern kingdom carried away into captivity by the Assyrians. The names of these tribes and territories were lost to conscious memory. No one uses these place names in Jesus’ time. [No one] except for Matthew.” By using these names, she says, “Matthew links those who are currently living under Roman domination with those who had seen the devastation of the Assyrian conquest.” He is also “locating Jesus in the ancient Promised Land, the land over which God has sovereignty, although it appears that Rome is in control.”[2] And Jesus chooses to move there … so he can fulfill the promise of Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Jesus willingly uprooted his life and went to live among an occupied and oppressed people so he could bring light to their darkness.


“Under the rule of [Herod] Antipas, life [had] become very hard [there]. After extracting everything he could from the fertile agricultural areas, he turned his attention to the inland lake, called the Sea of Galilee, commercializing it for maximum profit and export.”[3] “The peasant fishermen could no longer cast their nets freely from the shore. They could no longer own a boat or beach a catch without being taxed. They probably had to sell what they caught to [Herod] Antipas’ factories.”[4] Still, for Peter and Andrew, for James and John, it was all they knew. When Jesus shows up on the lakeshore and says, “Follow me!” he is asking them to abandon their hometown, their work, their families, their boats and nets. He is asking them to do exactly what he has done. To abandon what is familiar and comforting; to run toward danger; and to bring light where people are waiting in darkness. He asks them to join him, not because the job is too big for him. (He’s the Son of God, after all!) But because even the Son of God needs to be part of a community.


Ordinarily this is the part of the sermon where the preacher asks, “Will you follow him?” But I want to shift us from individual mode to community mode. What would it mean for us as a church to follow Jesus? To abandon what is safe and familiar; to confront those who oppress and threaten, who arrest and silence and kill to retain power; to remember past places and past names and past horrors … and still hold on to hope; to willingly tie our lives to those whose whole world dwells in shadow; to stubbornly and steadfastly bring light to that world; and to look for others who will join us in the work of building an alternate kingdom, a holy place, a life of love? What would it mean for us … and for our neighbors? Let’s find out! Amen!

[1] Photo by Linda Campanelli [2] From her sermon “Abandoning” 1/26/20 [3] ibid [4] From God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now by John Dominic Crossan, p. 122
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