Father Karban's weekly scripture column...


Matthew deliberately puts Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 4:12-23) at the beginning of his writing. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism and temptation, the evangelist has Him embark on His public ministry by “walking along the Sea of Galilee” and calling His first four disciples.

Matthew begins by telling his Jewish-Christian community that the start of Jesus’ ministry was as much a cause for rejoicing as was the temporary Assyrian withdrawal from Galilean territory during First-Isaiah’s prophetic ministry. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” Isaiah had then proclaimed; “upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 8:23-9:3).

But there are two differences. Jesus’ arrival isn’t as short-lived as the Assyrian departure. And unlike Isaiah’s oracle, Jesus’ message doesn’t revolve around someone leaving; it’s rooted in someone being present. “The reign of God,” He announces, “is so close you can stick out your hand and touch it.” In other words, “God is here, working in your everyday lives.”

Reform

There’s just one problem: Only those who have reformed their lives — totally changed their value systems — will be able to perceive the power of God around and within them.
Matthew shows what it means to “reform your life” by vividly describing the first step in changing one’s values. As Jesus walks along the shore, He suddenly tells Simon and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers for people.” Their response is just as sudden: “Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.” Jesus repeats the call for the Zebedee brothers, who also leave their boat, nets and father, and quickly follow Him.

Jesus asks the four to make a 180-degree psychological turn. They’re to give up everything and everyone that gives them security — anything that would keep them from really living — to reject the job and family ties which are important in their lives, and follow Jesus. Only after their heart, mind and senses are purged by the freedom which accompanies discipleship, will they be able to experience God’s reign flourishing around them.

The second reading (I Cor 1:10-13, 17) fits perfectly into this concept. Paul addresses a phenomenon which occurs only in those Christian communities which refuse to reform: factions. The Apostle always expects his churches to “be in agreement, that there be no division,...the [the members] be united in the same mind and purpose.” Such characteristics are the most evident sign the communities are experiencing and living in God’s kingdom.

Belonging

This unity has yet to be achieved in Corinth. Factions abound, with some of the divisions actually rooted in the beginnings of faith, springing from people’s veneration of the persons who first evangelized them. “One of you will say,” Paul writes, “‘I belong to Paul,’ another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ still another, ‘Cephas has my allegiance.’” In frustration, Paul seems to yell out, “I belong to Christ!”

Those who truly belong to Christ would have reformed their lives by accepting “the cross of Christ.” In this situation, they would have demonstrated their willingness to die with Jesus by rejecting the safety of their individual factions and taking the risk of uniting with one another. Paul asks them to spurn the security which comes from past associations and groups, and to discover the security which springs from joining, right here and now, with others in a common quest to follow Jesus, wherever He leads them.

Coming from a religious tradition which, until recently, made few ecumenical or interfaith gestures, we aren’t accustomed to defining discipleship in terms of unity. We’ve been content to stay in the relative safety of our “faction” and throw theological rocks at those who cower in the safety of their factions.
Shouldn’t Jesus’ constant call to reform drive us to look more critically at some of our expressions of faith, especially those expressions which keep us from dying enough to join with other Christians in making Jesus’ dream of complete unity a reality in our lifetime? What a change of value systems that would be!

(01-21-99)