January 29, 2023
We learn that Jesus’ ministry began after the arrest of John the Baptist. That must have happened soon after Jesus’ baptism. Two weeks ago, we were in John 1, and John tells us of John the Baptist sending his own disciples, including John and Andrew, to follow Jesus. Jesus returned to Galilee shortly after that. So it would appear that John the Baptist’s arrest was right around the time of the events of John chapter 1.
John’s arrest provided an opportunity for Jesus to be heard. It may have been harder for his message to be heard while the Baptizer was still active.
Jesus returns to Galilee, but he doesn’t go back to Nazareth. Perhaps it would have been hard to start there. Sometimes we are not inclined to hear “new things” from “old people.” If we feel like we’ve known someone a long time, we might have a hard time hearing that something has changed in their lives. Besides, it sure didn’t go well for Jesus when he did return to Nazareth! Something about them trying to throw him off a cliff…
Instead he goes to Capernaum. Matthew, as was his custom, sees this as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Capernaum is in the territory of Naphtali, so he ties it to Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy about the Galileans receiving the light of God. Matthew is addressing a Jewish audience, so he spends more time than any of the other Gospels demonstrating how Jesus fulfills the prophecies and ideas of the Old Testament. It meant more to his audience than the intended audiences of the other Gospels.
Why Capernaum? For starters, it was a larger and busier place than Nazareth. Our best estimate is that Nazareth only had about 400 residents. Capernaum was four or five times larger.
And it was much busier. Capernaum sat on one of the busiest trade routes of the region, the Way of the Sea, which connected Damascus in Syria to Caesarea by the Sea, which was the busiest port in the land of Canaan. And from those cities, the trade routes stretched north into modern Turkey, south into Egypt, and east to the lands of Mesopotamia, Babylon, Parthia, and eventually, India and China.
Capernaum was also an important place economically. The Sea of Galilee is about 700 feet below sea level, so it had warm weather and a long growing season. It had fertile soil deposited by the Jordan River. And it was one of the larger fishing villages, and fishing was important for the economy of first century Galilee. While Hebrew people kept flocks of sheep and goats, they didn’t eat them very often. They were too valuable to eat, except on special occasions. So fish was one of the primary sources of protein in the first century Hebrew diet. Fish were caught in Galilee, pickled or salted, and then shipped to Jerusalem and the other cities of Judea. So important were fish to Galilee, that the gate on the north side of Jerusalem, on the road to Galilee, was called the Fish Gate.
Capernaum was also the home of Jesus’ first disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Now, this is not the first time they have met Jesus. John tells us of them meeting him in Judea, which we read two weeks ago. But this is the moment of decision. Jesus calls them to follow him. Make a commitment. And their sudden departure from home, family, and work shows their radical level of commitment.
Jesus tells them, “I will show you how to fish for people.” In this, Jesus reverses the meaning of the language of fishing. In the Old Testament, “catching fish” was used as picture of judgment. Jesus turns it into a positive idea, an offer of salvation.
We too are called to fish for people. How do we do that?
First, we need to follow Jesus closely.
We can’t give away something that we don’t have for ourselves. Discipleship is primarily a matter of following Jesus. Jesus doesn’t call us to accept his ideas or admire his philosophy. He calls us to follow him, to enter into relationship with him, to become dependent on his teachings, leadership, and example.
Relationship is essential to discipleship. We can’t tell others about the goodness of following Jesus if we don’t know that personally.
Second, we must live in such a way as to gain a hearing.
Make no mistake about it: The world is not inclined to hear from Jesus. That has always been the case, but maybe especially right now. Jesus’ teachings fly in the face of what the world wants to believe, and to make matters worse, the Church is not held in high regard in the world today. Many people in our world assume that we are self-righteous snobs more interested in gaining power and money than changing the world. We have to work hard to gain a hearing.
So we need to live a holy life, a life that is different from the world around us. We need to live by different values and attitudes. If we look and talk and act just like everyone else, then our words about Jesus and the difference he has made in our lives will ring hollow.
We need to be the best neighbors. We need to be the people who love others, are always eager to do good for them, forgive people when they hurt us, and pray for our enemies. Without a different way of being in the world, we can’t gain a hearing from the world.
Third, we need to talk about Jesus and what he means to us.
Some Christians just don’t want to do that. Don’t want to talk about their faith. They’ll try to be a good neighbor, try to live holy lives, but they don’t want to tell others why. They live by the philosophy of St. Francis of Assissi, who famously said, “Preach the gospel everywhere you go. And when necessary, use words.”
As a seminary professor told me, there are only two problems with that quote by St. Francis. One is that he never actually said that, and the other is that it’s not true. You can’t share your faith without talking about your faith. If you don’t talk about Jesus, people might just figure, “So-and-so’s a great person. Always helps others out. Doesn’t swear or drink or fight. Good for them!” That’s nice, but if they don’t know Jesus is the difference in your life, then how will they ever seek Jesus for themselves?
Talk about Jesus. Don’t be heavy handed. Don’t thump your Bible and say, “And unless you believe in Jesus you’re going to hell!” Talk about the benefits of following Jesus. What difference has he made in your life? How has your faith helped you in difficult times? How did you come to believe in Jesus and why do you still follow him?
And fourth, you must have a grasp on the essentials of what you believe. You don’t have to be a theologian. You don’t need to be able to explain every subtle nuance of Christian belief. But you need to be able to talk about what you believe. And you need to be able to answer questions people ask you. And it’s okay to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll try to find an answer for you.” Or, “Let me send you to my pastor. He went to seminary and knows everything!”
The real key is that we can’t fish for people if we don’t get our lines in the water. I’ve learned in both fishing and hunting that you can spend an awful long time doing them without seeing results. But you’ll never see any results if you don’t get out there! You might talk with 10 people about your faith before one person shows interest. But if you never talk about your faith, chances are close to zero that anyone will show an interest. I don’t want to doubt the power of the Holy Spirit, but Jesus tells us to proclaim his message. We have a part to play in God’s fishing excursion!