Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Year A, Matthew 4:12-23
January 23, 2011
It is not easy to unite a fractious nation such as Afghanistan that experienced more than two decades of bloodletting, where various ethnic groups vie for power, and the military has a well-entrenched control over the people, surrounded by foreign powers that seek to influence its internal affairs. But what the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi did almost decade ago, after the American and British forces virtually flushed out the Taliban government from the rugged country, was probably the best one can expect in an emergency situation. Picked up to head the interim government was Hamid Karzai, a respected tribal leader from the Pashtuns, an ethnic group that regarded itself the traditional leaders of the country. Former King Mohammed Zahir Shah was given a role, if symbolic, in presiding over the grand assembly of elders. Representatives from the ethnic Tajiks are members of the cabinet, to which a Shiite Muslim was also appointed. Other groups were also represented: the Northern Alliance, the loyalists from the ex-king, the Pakistan-backed Peshawar group, the ethnic Hazaras and the ethnic Uzbeks. Afghanistan became whole again.
If a nation cannot survive if it remains fractious and divided, neither can a Christian community be faithful to its call if fracas and division are characteristic of its life. No wonder, when Paul received in Ephesus messengers from Chloe that some groups were creating factions in the Church at Corinth, each claiming that its own leader was superior to the rest, he was quick to act (1 Cor 1:10-13.17, First Reading). Although there is no indication that the factions that torn the community originated in doctrinal differences, Paul considered the problem so serious to warrant a letter. Indeed, that a community is divided into several cliques, each claiming the patronage of a great leader in the Church (“I belong to Paul”; “I belong to Apollos”; “Cephas has my allegiance”; “I belong to Christ” [ 1 Cor 1:12]), this is a great scandal. A situation of division is also envisaged in the Gospel according to Matthew. Many scholars think that the Matthean community in the city of Antioch was a mixed group, though most of the members were Jewish Christians; and in a mixed community, tensions cannot be avoided. It seems that some were of the belief that membership in the Church was not open to all; the Gentiles were to be excluded from the community. That a mission to the Gentiles was rejected is reflected in some texts. One recalls, for instance, the prohibition to engage in mission to a pagan territory: “Do not visit a pagan territory and do not enter a Samaritan town. God instead after the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5b-6).
It is relevant to be reminded of what happened in the early Church because today the Church is seeing the rise of various communities and groups within itself. In the Philippines, for example, quite apart from what were traditionally called “mandated” organizations, one can point to the phenomenal growth of the El Shaddai, the Couples for Christ and other Charismatic communities, the Neo-Catechumenate and the Basic Ecclesial Communities. Given this phenomenon of the existence of various communities and movements, there is a danger that one, for example, might think that to be really a Christian, one has to be a member of a certain charismatic group; otherwise, he does not belong to the true Church. Such thinking will result in the formation of independent groupings in the Church, each claiming to represent the true expression of being Church, the others being mere phonies. Or worse, it could degenerate into a Church merely of a dominant group, barring others from its membership. Does not one in the parish hear of complaints, accusing one community of being worse than the other?
Given the existence of various communities in the Church, what does Scripture say? In directly confronting each of the factional groups in Corinth, Paul reminded the Christians of their basic unity in Christ: “I beg you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to agree in what you say. Let there be no factions among you; rather, be united in mind and judgment.” (1 Cor 1:10). The theological basis of this unity is well explained by Paul or probably his disciple: “Make every effort to preserve the unity which has the Spirit as its origin and peace as its binding force. There is but one body and one Spirit, just as there is but one hope given all of you by your call. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of us all, who is over all and works through all and is in all” (Eph 4:3-4). In the Gospel, Matthew says that the Church cannot be an exclusive group merely of Jewish Christians; the Gentiles cannot be barred from the ecclesial community. He demonstrates that the inclusion of the Gentiles is a thrust in the ministry of Jesus. For one, our Lord preached in Capernaum, in Galilee, which was predominantly populated by Gentiles (Matt 4:13).
That these people cannot be excluded from the Church is, Matthew means to tell us, is not simply the evangelist’s own idea; rather, it is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Isa 9:1, First Reading), and therefore a divine decree. In quoting the Isaian text on Zebulun and Nephtali, the Galilee of the Gentiles, and in placing the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in that place, Matthew underscores the universal mission of the Church; it cannot just be a Church of the Jews. To stress this point, he reworked the quotation from Isaiah for this theological purpose. For example, in the Isaiah oracle, the sea refers to the Miditerranean; in Matthew, to the sea of Galilee. In that oracle, “Galilee of the Gentiles” designates the foreigners who conquered the area and deported the population; in Matthew, the same phrase has become an official name for the district. And to fit the Isaian quotation, Matthew added “Zebulun” in v 13, even though Capernaum was in the territory of Nephtali. Thus, Matthew shows that the Gentiles are related to the public ministry of Jesus, and at the end of the Gospel, he presents Jesus as commanding that the Gospel be preached to all the Gentiles (Matt 28:19).
This has a great lesson for us. Given the diversity in the Church, no one really has the right to say that his community represents the true Church, and that others have to be excluded from it, or that an individual is a true Christian to the extent that he does not join some other movement or body. We ought to work for the unity of all, as Paul reminds us in the first reading. For one thing, there is no single body in the Church that fully expresses the reality of being Church. The Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), for instance, do not exhaust the Church and its possibilities. That is why their proponents are humble enough to claim that it is only “a way of being Church.” The Charismatic communities, however much they approximate the life of the early Church, cannot be identified with the real Church. We are still moving toward the goal of its perfection. For another, every movement or body in the Church has something good to offer and each of them has a value to the Church. In face of these realities, the best thing is to accept the value of diversity in the Christian community. Says the Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Church: “If everyone in the Church does not proceed by the same path… if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, dispensers of mysteries, and shepherds on behalf of others, yet all share in a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ” (Lumen gentium, 22).