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January 22nd 2017 (A) Third Sunday of the Year

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Good beginnings; repentance, a change of mind, belief in the Gospel and in the Church.

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Isaiah 8:23-9:3). In Galilee of the nations the people has seen a great light. The prophet who composed this reading was looking both backwards and forwards. The historical background to this reading seems to have been the events of 732 BC when the Assyrian armies completely destroyed the northern part of the northern kingdom of Israel and incorporated it into the Assyrian empire, with consequent heavy taxation and imposition of pagan gods. Assyria would completely destroy the northern kingdom of Israel with the capture and destruction of Samaria in 723/721 BC. For the prophet Isaiah, this for Jerusalem and Judah was a period of deep darkness. In prophetic vision Isaiah sees new life for God’s people, with their fortunes reversed. A great light would shine for them. They will rejoice as was the custom at harvest time, and of victors after war. The victory to be worked for them by God will be like that well-known one by Gideon in Israel’s ancient past against the invading Midianites (Midian); see Judges 7:15-25. In any event Isaiah’s vision of the future Davidic king, and the reversal of circumstances, was not fulfilled in his own time, and like many others remained as a vision of the future. The opening section is chosen by Matthew (Mat 4:12-17) to introduce Jesus’ preaching of the advent of the kingdom of God in Galilee. The vision continues to be an inspiration for all Christians to work for the realisation of Isaiah’s message in personal, public and political life – the kingdom of Christ is one of peace, justice and hope.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 26[27]). The Lord is my light and my help.

Second Reading (1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17). Make up the differences between you instead of disagreeing among yourselves. The introduction to this letter to the Corinthians was read last Sunday, in a text in which Pail speaks of the great gifts bestowed on the members of the young Christian community at Corinth, a holy people chosen by God, on whom he prays that God may bestow grace and peace. Some five years after his initial preaching there Paul feels that the Christian life of this Church is in danger by reason of a certain personality cult there, leading to divisions which Paul believes would take from a proper understanding of the true nature of the Church of Christ. Paul was preaching the Gospel in Asia, to the east of the Adriatic Sea, probably in Ephesus, when he was informed of the problems in the church at Corinth “from Chloe’s people”, probably slaves or business agents for this Corinth trading company. The church at Corinth was divided in four groups around individual distinguished known Church persons: Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and even Christ. Apollos was a well-known learned, eloquent Jew from Alexandria, well versed in the Scriptures. He was well versed in “the way of the Lord”, Christianity, but knew only the baptism of John. At Ephesus Paul’s friends Priscilla and Aquila gave him further instruction. The Ephesus Christian community encouraged him to cross over to Achaia (southern Greece), including Corinth, and preach Christ there, which he did. Apollos played no part with the group invoking his name. He left Corinth and did not return. The central role of Cephas (Peter) would have been well known, but it is unlikely that he had visited Corinth. Christ’s role could not be reduced that that of one in four. His role was central and all Christians were baptised in his name. Christ crucified was central to Christian belief, and only through the cross could the mystery of the church be understood. The divisions in Corinth were linked with the quest of human wisdom. Throughout the following four chapters of this Epistles, to be read in the following five Sundays, Paul will stress the central role of Christ’s cross, the danger of human wisdom and the reality of divine power and the divine wisdom central to Christianity. Since the world did not come to know God through its human wisdom, God decided to save the world through the foolishness of Christian preaching of the Cross. As Paul put it: “Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”. In the texts following on this Paul goes on to illustrate this point. Christ is central; all success comes from him. Anybody else, apostle or otherwise, is but a co-worker with Christ. He then lays stress on his own role as apostle – chosen by God to preach these truths to his churches, without fear or favour.

Gospel (Matthew 4:12-23). He went and settled in Capernaum: in this way the prophecy of Isaiah was to be fulfilled. In this reading Matthew begins his account of the public life of Jesus by stressing that it began in Galilee. Jesus left Nazareth and went and settled in Capernaum, and Matthew notes that this place was situated in the ancient areas of Zebulun and Naphtali. As is his custom, Matthew notes that this was to fulfil prophecy, in this instance that of Isaiah read as the first reading today. Jesus proclaimed that a new age had arrived, and called for repentance, that is a change of mind, and implicitly for belief in the Gospel message he was to begin preaching. The kingdom of heaven was now close at hand. The reading also tells of Jesus’ call and choice of his first disciples: Simon (called Peter) and his brother Andrew and also James and his brother John. The text notes that all four followed him at once. This Gospel passage is so phrased as to serve as a model for all future calls of Jesus in the Church to follow him in the service of the Gospel message. The sudden response of these disciples (as if they had never known Jesus before) need not surprise us. We know from John’s Gospel that they had already encountered Jesus as he and they were present at the Jordan where John the Baptist was active.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day. Reflection and Dialogue: Good beginnings; repentance, a change of mind, belief in the Gospel and in the Church.

Reflection. Repentance, change of mind, belief in the Gospel. We are at the beginning of the Yearly Cycle in the Sunday liturgy. The manner in which Jesus began his public ministry provides material for our reflection. A new age had arrived, and with it the coming of the kingdom of God for long awaited. Two basic states of soul are called for in this new situation: repentance and faith. In this context repentance does not so much mean sorrow for sin as a change of mental attitude, a change that will be in keeping with acceptance of Jesus and what belief in his person and teaching implies, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The chance in question is not from political, or any other, form of opportunism, but belief in the God of Israel who is now speaking through his Son to Israel and the wider world. Jesus had been anointed for this mission with the Spirit at his baptism.

Dialogue with contemporary society: Human wisdom and Divine Wisdom. In present-day political society Jesus is held in high regard, with his concern for the poor, the disadvantaged and the marginalized. This is all to the good. In part it is connected with the understanding which a certain section of society, especially in Europe, had of itself from the philosophical movement of the Enlightenment onwards, with emphasis on human progress without reference to God or to Jesus as Son of God. But as Paul reminds us in today’s reading, and as he will in the next few Sundays, the Gospel message is not understood through human wisdom, but through faith in Christ crucified, which is the divine wisdom made manifest. The Cross must have a central place in the life of the Church. This is a fundamental truth, worth remembering in any dialogue with modern society.

(For reflections on the Sunday and Feast Day readings see Martin McNamara, Sunday Readings with Matthew: Interpretations and Reflections, Dublin, Veritas, 2016)