…to establish the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice, peace, truth and love… for this task to succeed, …(Jesus needed to find) …only a humble and docile heart.
Historical note: Zebulun and Naphtali, mentioned in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah and in the gospel, are two of the twelve tribes of Israel named after the twelve sons of Jacob. When the Israelites conquered Palestine after their Exodus from Egypt, they divided up the land among the twelve tribes (save for the tribe of Levi). The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali settled in the Northernmost part of the country, later called Galilee (Cf. Book of Joshua,19:10-16, 32-39). Zebulun and Naphtali were the first provinces of Israel to be overrun by Tiglath-pileser III of Assyria in 733 BC, who turned them into an Assyrian province–hence the moniker “Galilee of the Gentiles.”
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“Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the very first words uttered by Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry. These were also the very first words of John the Baptist when he began his public ministry in the desert (Mt 3:1). What is the relationship between repentance and the kingdom of heaven? First of all, what is the kingdom of heaven? Where is it to be found? Most of us have the idea that the kingdom of heaven is, where else, but up there in heaven. We get there after death. (Mark and Luke use the expression ‘kingdom of God”). Jesus, however, tells us that “… the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). “The kingdom of God is among you” (Lk 17:21). It exists right here and now.
God’s kingdom is not territorial. God does not rule over towns and cities. God reigns over the hearts of men and women who accept his rule and obey his will. God’s kingdom is found in our hearts, if indeed God is in control of our lives.
And it is precisely here that repentance comes in. Repentance means conversion. It consists not so much in beating our chest as in removing from our hearts any obstacle, which may stand in the way between us and God; anything that may pull us apart from God and from our fellowmen. Paul asks the Corinthians to shun divisions and factionalism (2nd reading). With us, it might be pride, vanity, anger, hatred or envy; it might be money, alcohol, drugs, sex … whatever. God cannot set His throne in our hearts if they are already filled with something else. Hence Jesus’ call for repentance.
Jesus’ primary concern throughout his public ministry was to establish the kingdom of God, dismantling in the process the kingdom of Satan, namely, hunger, illness, suffering and injustice. This he did, as the gospel tells us, by preaching and by curing every disease. The cures that Jesus performed were meant not only to restore people’s health but also to restore their faith in God.
In the task of building up God’s kingdom Jesus did not want to go it alone. He chose 12 disciples to carry out that task — even after he was gone. We heard in today’s gospel how he called his first disciples, two pairs of brothers: Peter and Andrew, James and John. We might think that Jesus made the wrong choice. Instead of going to the temple or to the synagogue of Jerusalem to look for learned and competent people (priests, scribes, Pharisees), he went to the seashore to look for rude and unlearned fishermen.
Indeed it is often difficult to understand Jesus’ way of doing things. He always seems to oppose or challenge our ways of thinking: “The first will be the last and the last will be the first.” “He who exalts himself will be humbled…” “He who saves his life, will lose it…” But we can be sure that he knew well what he was doing, and in no way can we improve on it. He did not come to set up a business enterprise, a chain of banks or restaurants, but to establish the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice, peace, truth and love. And for this task to succeed, no managerial skills or degrees are needed; only a humble and docile heart. That is exactly what he found in the rude fishermen, and not in the learned scribes and Pharisees.
Hopefully, he will find it in each one of us too!