3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 22, 2023

 

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 22, 2023

Is 8:23—9:3 • 1 Cor 1:10–13, 17 • Mt 4:12–23

 

Theme: The Continued Reading of the Bible Helps us to Stay United with God and with Each Other

Saint Jerome, who translated most of the Bible into Latin in the fourth century, says, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. Today is the Word of God’s Sunday. We recognize the centrality of God’s Word in the life of the Church and in our families. In his Apostolic Letter, Motu Proprio Aperuit Illis”, published on September 30, 2019, Pope Francis establishes that “the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time is to be devoted to the celebration, Study, and dissemination of the Word of God”. Here Pope Francis is asking us to do three things with the Bible: first, to celebrate; second, to study it; and third, to disseminate or share it. In obedience to Pope Francis’ recommendation, our parish Saint Bartholomew/Saint Augustine is attending 3-day Bible Study Classes that I am teaching. We started on Wednesday, January 11th, the second class was last Wednesday, January 18th, and the last one will be this coming Wednesday, January 25th still at 5: 30pm at Saint Bartholomew’s parish hall (in person), and online via Zoom. Many people from different states and dioceses (especially those from the parishes where SVD missionaries serve) are attending virtually.  So, let us celebrate, study, and disseminate the Word of God.

In the scripture readings of this Sunday of the Bible, we heard a dramatic example of how the words that the prophet Isaiah wrote in the Old Testament came alive centuries later in the New Testament with Jesus. In our first reading. Prophet Isaiah saw the darkness and gloom that the Assyrians brought into the people of Israel when they destroyed their city starting in the northern tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. He also saw the great light that shone on them and how God brought them abundant joy. This Assyrian oppression could be interpreted in a spiritual dimension today. People today are in bondage to sins and in the gloom of Satan. We need spiritual freedom as the people of Israel needed freedom from the Assyrian persecution. Eight hundred years later Matthew, in today’s Gospel passage, tells us of Jesus who starts his public ministry exactly in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, the same cities that were first destroyed by the Assyrians in our first reading story. The evangelist comments that this is in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. The Matthean Jesus is the “great light” foretold by Isaiah who continues to overcome the darkness of our time today. Sin darkens our lives and creates divisions among us and between us and God. Jesus’s first preoccupation as he begins his public ministry is to reunite us with God and with one another. This is also what Saint Paul deals with in our second reading.      

To better understand our Gospel passage, let us first try to know the context of Isaiah’s prophecy that we heard in the first reading. Note that Isaiah served as God’s prophet for about forty years in the Southern kingdom of Judah. During that time, he witnessed the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 733 BC and the Syrians in 732 BC. When Isaiah delivered this prophecy that we heard in our first reading, Ahaz, the king of the Southern kingdom, Judah, was facing considerable pressure from Syria and the Northern kingdom of Israel to team up with them against Assyria. When Ahaz refused their demand, Syria and Israel invaded Judah. Their plan was to unseat Ahaz. This event is known as the Syro-Ephraimite War. In 721, the Assyrians deported the people of Israel and devastated the entire northern kingdom. Meanwhile, the southern kingdom of Judah became a vessel of Assyria. This truly was a dark period in the history of Judah.

After grasping the context of our first reading, let us now see how we can apply Isaiah’s prophecy to our lives today. The prophet commences his prophecy by mentioning the destruction of the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali (v. 23) because these northern tribes were the first ones to be destroyed by the Assyrians. After the north, the Assyrians conquered the “land west of the Jordan” (or beyond) that our first reading names “the district of the Gentiles”. (Some translations read “Galilee of the Nations). While the image of Israel’s bondage by the Assyrians is political, this situation explains how many people today are in bondage to sin and to Satan. Today, we see the “gloom” that comes from being addicted to behaviors and actions that harm our relationship with God and with the people in our societies and families. The gloom extinguishes the love of God and of our neighbor from our hearts.  Moreover, beyond the material and physical powers of Assyrians, there are spiritual “Assyrian” powers (demons) in our world that continue to devastate our spiritual lives. The Devil incites us to sin. His goal is to separate us from God and our Church Community and bring darkness and gloom into our lives. Our societies and families need spiritual freedom from the bondage of the devil. The prophet Isaiah prophesized and reassured us that one day, God will restore hope to Israel and to us today. He saw our gloom and darkness turning to light and joy, and the rod of the oppressors being broken “as on the day of Midian”. (Isaiah 9: 1-3). The “yoke”, “pole”, and “rod” are symbols of Assyrian oppression. Today, they are symbols of the devil’s oppression of addictions, racism, social injustice, and immoral laws that lead people to commit immoral actions, etc. The mention of “the day of Midian” refers to the stunning defeat of the Midianite tribes by Gideon. (See the book of Judges 6-8). Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled with the coming of Jesus who came to restore interior freedom and joy to all those who are oppressed spiritually.

Today’s Gospel is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Note that from this third Sunday in Ordinary Time, we start the ad seriatim, or sequential reading of Matthew’s Gospel (since we are in the Liturgical Year A) which will continue until the end of November. In the passage we just heard, Matthew tells us that Jesus commences his public ministry in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. These two regions are those that were the first to be destroyed by the Assyrians as we mentioned in our first reading analysis. By commencing his public ministry in these regions, Matthew wants to teach us that Jesus started his ministry of the reunification of Israel. The mission of Jesus is to unify the people of Israel including you and me today. Since the bondage that Isaiah talked about in our first reading was more spiritual than political which refers to the bondage to sin, the first-ever preaching of Jesus calls us to repent to be freed from the bondage of sins and to start a new life with him in the kingdom of heaven that he came to establish. Notice, Matthew talks about “the kingdom of heaven” not the kingdom of God as we see in other Gospels. The reason is that Matthew addresses his Gospel mostly to the Christians from a Jewish background, and the Jews, out of respect for the name of God, do not speak the name aloud. Regardless of whatever phrase we use, “kingdom of God” or “kingdom of heaven”, we need to know that Jesus does not talk about the kingdom as a place but rather as the reign of God when God’s power is fully manifest. Repentance from our sins is required for us to enjoy the “kingdom” or the “reign” of heaven.

We cannot enjoy the reign of God ourselves while our brothers and sisters are still in the darkness of sins and under the occupation of the spiritual power of the devil. Jesus calls you and me as he calls the first four disciples in our Gospel passage. Let us analyze some important points in this section. First, the invitation to discipleship is initiated by Jesus. Second, Jesus encounters these four men in their everyday work (fishing). Third, discipleship does not necessarily require intellectual diplomas because the invitation of Jesus is to an active mission. Fourth, this calling’s story stresses the totality and immediacy of the response of these first disciples. They left their boats and nets (meaning their livelihood), and their father in the case of James and John (meaning their families). Jesus encounters you and me in our daily lives, invites us to discipleship, does not request our intellectual diplomas or curriculum vitae, and expects us to follow him immediately and with total dedication. Jesus calls us to make us the “fishers” of our brothers and sisters. Our mission consists of bringing Jesus’s great light wherever the devil spreads the darkness. Where there is the darkness of division, hate, sadness, lack of peace, and immoral practices and actions, we are called to bring Jesus’ great light of unity, love, joy, and peace, and denounce with courage all immoral laws that lead people to sinful practices and actions. Our mission as Jesus’ disciples is to help the people in our societies and families live in unity with one another and with God.

In our second reading, Saint Paul continues the same theme of unity. For the next several weeks, our second readings will be taken from Saint Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians. Today’s passage is the beginning of the body of this letter. Notice, immediately following thanksgiving in the introduction (vv. 1-9), Paul commences his letter by exhorting his people to unity because the Church community of Corinth was wracked with divisions. The reading says that it is Chloe’s people who reported to Paul about the division among the Corinthians. Some Bible scholars affirm that these people were the employees or slaves of Chloe who was an otherwise unknown businesswoman. Chloe and her servants were followers of Jesus. Apparently, the servants visited the Community of Corinth on their business trip, and then they heard about the divisions among the people and probably witnessed themselves. Then, they reported to Paul what they saw and heard.

The divisions are based on the allegiances that the people formed around their spiritual leaders: Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), and Christ. Paul teaches them that their divisions do not make sense because Christ is not divided. All people belong to Christ. Our communities, societies, and families also face divisions today although all of us claim to be the children of the same Father, God. If we believe in the same God and if we accept Jesus as our savior, we should not be divided. God is one, and the Church of Jesus is one, therefore, we are called to be one in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The scripture readings of this Sunday of the Word of God exhort us to unity among us and with God. Sin separates us from God and from our Church community. Satan’s mission is to put people in bondage to sin with the intention of causing division between us and God and between us and our fellow humans. Living in a division with God and with the Church community means living in the darkness and gloom of the oppression of Satan. Jesus’s mission is to bring his great light into our lives and restore our unity among us and with God. This can be possible only if we accept his invitation to repent and become his disciples. The continued reading and sharing of God’s Word will help us strengthen our relationship with Jesus and experience here on earth the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

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