Homily for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

January 27, 2008

St .Joseph’s Church, Cincinnati

(Based on Isaiah 8:23-9:3; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13,17; Matthew 4:12-23)

Since we left he Christmas season, the church has been guiding us through the unfolding story of Jesus as he embarks on his mission to reveal the love of the Father.

After the Magi departed he went back to Nazareth to be schooled by Mary. It was her vocation to immerse him in the story of his people. She taught him of their great heroes. Abraham, Moses, David, and all the prophets. It was at her knees that he learned the beloved prayers of the Israelites, the psalms which he prayed all through his life and even to his dying moments on the cross.

Then in his first public action he goes out of his home. And where does he go first? He goes down to the river and takes his place in the line of sinners to be baptized by his cousin John. John senses that the roles should be reversed but Jesus insists that this is the right way. And it is at that moment that his Father declares: “This is my son who gives me pleasure.” This is what makes him especially beloved: he identifies with sinners.

Then last week we saw John testify that at first he didn’t know who he was, but “now I have seen and testify that he is the son of God.”

But then at the beginning of today’s Gospel the story suddenly changes, dramatically. John is thrown into prison by Herod. His ministry is ended. It makes for interesting speculation: how would the story have unfolded if John had not been cut down? What would Jesus have done?

But it happened. And Jesus now has to act. So what does he do?

He leaves his home town and goes up into the hill country, to Galilee. When we hear the Gospel story we probably focus mostly on Jesus’ words and his deeds. But if we don’t attend to the geography of the story we can lose precious elements we need if we are to appreciate what he was about – and how he went about it.

He doesn’t go to Caesarea, where the power people, the movers and shakers of his society, hung out. He doesn’t go off to Jerusalem to confront the hypocrisy of its high religious leaders. There will come a time for that, when he will call them whitened sepulchers, when his mission will demand that of him, but not now.

No, he retreats to the ordinary folk, the unrecognized, the overlooked of society. Small-town people. The no-counts.

He is indeed fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. He is “the great light to a people who dwell in a land overshadowed by death.” But he will not be that light in the way they expected him to. For those who were awaiting a great Messiah who would appear in a great flash as a conquering king in majesty, this is a shock. It is not what they were looking for, it will take conversion, of mind and heart, to receive this lower-case messiah.

And his message is that the time of waiting is indeed over, that the reign of God is not up in the sky or off in some distant land. It is there in their midst. No need to leave their world with its simple concerns, their salvation will be worked right there

And what is the first step that reveals what he’s getting at? He calls four fishermen to be his first followers.

Fishermen? From a little town beside an obscure lake? Salvation is to come by way of people like this?

You know, when we read the Gospels we read them from the perspective of 2000 years of catechesis. We hear of ‘Simon Peter’ and we think of Saint Peter. The first pope! It’s Saint Andrew and Saint James and Saint John. We may even have in our mind the images of those huge statues of the apostles around the courtyard of St. Peter’s in Rome. People who are not like us.

We need to remind ourselves some times that they weren’t ‘saints’ then, they didn’t have halos over their heads. If you asked about them among the townspeople they probably would have said, “Oh, you mean Pete? And those guys he hangs out with, Andy and Jim and Jack? Sure, we know them. Rugged fisher guys. They have a tough life.” We might imagine them at the end of a long day, after having dragged in their heavy nets, just sitting exhausted by their boats. And some self-righteous Christians probably wouldn’t want to hear it, but like fishermen all over the world they’d probably be having a cool beer together.

And what does he tell them? He doesn’t say that if they follow him they’ll be wearing halos. He says he’ll make them ‘fishers of men.’ What in the name of all that’s holy might that mean? We can be sure they didn’t have the foggiest idea.

Very often in talks on vocations the preacher will cite this passage and focus on their readiness to pick up everything and follow him, urging the audience to have that kind of openness to God’s challenging word. That’s OK, of course. We need to pray always for that gift of responsiveness to the Lord.

But that approach also carries a risk. It can put the spotlight on us and make it all depend on us. The focus on Jesus and his method can get lost. The story is really not about us but about God and the way God views our world and goes about our redemption.

Paul got it right. In First Corinthians he tells us the mystery: “God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”(1 Cor 1:27)

It’s just possible that the most difficult conversion involved if we are to receive God’s revelation and light is not the conversion from sin but the conversion from illusion, from our unending desire for the magical. The people in Jesus’ day kept asking him for signs. They pretended that they just needed to be able to understand his credentials. But Jesus saw through that. He knew that they were looking for the miraculous, the splashy, the titillating. For the thing that would take away their responsibility for life in this world. He told them this was a wicked generation, always seeking signs No sign would be given except the sign of Jonah, the sign of life out of death. The sign of the cross.

The kingdom is not a matter of the extraordinary, it involves letting go of our magical view of a God who will rescue us in an instant flash of fireworks. It involves assuming our responsibility for our everyday actions in this world. It means asking our God for the light to accept the kind of messiah he sent us. The light to see his presence in the everyday reality of our world where he has pitched his tent.

It means seeing him in fishermen. Yes, and in tax collectors and prostitutes, the kind of people he hung out with. And in today’s world it means what it has always meant: seeing him in the outcasts and rejected of society. In gays and lesbians; in girls who think their only worth comes from producing babies – because we failed to reveal to them their worth. In guys caught up in crack cocaine and gangs because we failed to include them in healthy relationships from the start.

No, the kingdom doesn’t come like lightning, Jesus told us it was a seed buried in the ground. It is at work, it is full of power. But we need the power of conversion to be able to see – and then respond in love.