Jesus Forms His Fishing Team—Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3A (Matthew 4)

Matthew 4:12-23 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
    on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
    light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishers. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.



             The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (Revised Common Lectionary) came from John 1:29-42. In that passage we saw how John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, who had come near the Jordan (John doesn’t speak of Jesus being baptized by the Baptist), declaring him to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” After John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to his followers, two of them, one of whom was Andrew, went off and followed Jesus. According to John, after Andrew asked to join up with Jesus, he went and got his brother Simon, and presented him to Jesus. From there, the ministry team began to form. For the Third Sunday after Epiphany, we return to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry. According to this account, after John was arrested, Jesus returned to Galilee. This also occurred after Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness (Matt.4:1-12).

      Upon his arrival in Galilee, Matthew tells us that Jesus made Capernaum, a fish village that sat along the Sea of Galilee, his home. As this was located in the “territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” it fulfilled a word from Isaiah, the ministry was begun in the land of Galilee of the Gentiles, so that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (see Isaiah 9:1-2). This reference reminds us that Matthew sought to place Jesus in God’s overarching vision as revealed in the Old Testament. So, Matthew interprets Jesus’ move to the Sea of Galilee as a move to the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, two ancient tribes of Israel, that now lie in a largely Gentile region. These two figures, Zebulun and Naphtali, were sons of Jacob from different mothers, who were given land in the north, which sat at the margins of ancient Israel. According to Isaiah and Matthew, the people of Galilee sat in darkness. In both cases, in Isaiah, and Matthew, the people of God lived under and suffered under imperial regimes. The good news that Isaiah proclaimed during the reign of Hezekiah, and Jesus proclaimed during the imperial rule of Rome, is that this land of darkness will see a great light. Dawn is approaching and with it comes freedom. Though Isaiah and Matthew’s Jesus have different forms of freedom in mind.

            The use of this passage to speak of Jesus’ new base of operations reminds us that Galilee was a region that sat on the margins. It was located far from Jerusalem, the religious and political center of the Jewish world. As for Capernaum, it was also a marginal place when compared to the capital of the region, Sepphoris. Interestingly, while Sepphoris was a major city, not far from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth, none of the Gospel writers mention this important city that was inhabited largely by a Gentile population. While Jesus may have visited it many times during his lifetime, in the Gospels it doesn’t really exist. Although Jesus moves to Galilee to begin his ministry, in many ways his ministry parallels that of John the Baptist, in that he too proclaims the message that God’s realm is coming into existence.

            While John’s Gospel suggests that Jesus began to form his ministry team while still in the region around the Jordan and before John the Baptist’s arrest, in Matthew’s account, Jesus doesn’t begin to draw together that ministry team until after his sojourn in the wilderness where he faced a time of testing. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t draw his first disciples from among John the Baptist’s followers. Instead, he recruits a group of fishermen, who are hard at work either casting their fishing nets into the sea or mending them. His first recruits are the same as that John mentions—Andrew and his brother Simon (who is called Peter). After he invited them to join him and help fish for people, he came upon James and John who were mending their fishing nets. When Jesus invited them to join the newly formed team they dropped their nets, leaving behind their father. These four are the first members of the team that would join Jesus in proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven (King of Heaven is Matthew’s stand-in for the “Kingdom of God”).

             Jesus came into Galilee preaching a message of repentance so that the light that is the Kingdom of Heaven might penetrate and empower the lives of the people of Galilee and beyond. Then he invited a small group of people to join his team. What then should we make of this message of Jesus? 

           As we ponder this question concerning Jesus’ ministry and his message, Brett Younger offers this word that seems fitting:  

 We let our pessimism keep us from dreams as big as Isaiah’s and hopes as dazzling as God’s light.  We ignore the deepest longing of our hearts. We need to help one another see Christ’s light. God will teach us to recognize it when we catch a glimpse: when a young father takes his newborn daughter into his arms for the first time; when a troubled couple falls in love again; when a family makes a pilgrimage to the bedside of a dying loved one and feels an unexplainable peace; when a single woman comes home to her solitary dwelling not as a place of emptiness but as a nest sheltered under the wing of God: when the light of Christ shines into the darkest places in our lives.  [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary,  p. 61]. 

If we’re to join Andrew and Simon, along with James and John, all four of whom seem to have dropped what they were doing, leaving behind their vocations, without hesitation (at least that’s what Matthew suggests), to join Jesus’ team, we can ask how we might take up this calling. As we do this we’ll need to watch for the points of light that are present amid the darkness. We will need to be aware of these signs of God’s presence that suggest that the Kingdom of Heaven draws near. Then, we can point out these signs to those who are experiencing darkness.

                What’s important to note here is that Jesus wasn’t a lone ranger prophet. He brought others into his ministry to share this task of proclaiming the kingdom of heaven. Together with this team, Jesus toured the region shining light into the darkness. Again, it’s helpful to contrast Matthew’s version of Jesus’ effort to build a team with John’s. According to John, Andrew went up to Jesus after the Baptist pointed him out and asked Jesus if he could be part of his team, after which he brought his brother Simon to Jesus. In Matthew’s version, Simon and Andrew are Galilean fishermen who are at work when Jesus invited them to join the team. To do so required a rather large sacrifice, as it’s likely they made a decent living catching fish. So, why would they want to drop their nets, leave their boats, and join up with this itinerant preacher? Nevertheless, the message was compelling, otherwise, they wouldn’t take up this new work. Fishing might be hard work, but it could bring in a pretty good living. As for Jesus, all he could offer was the expectation that they would live off the land the goodwill of the people who embraced their message along the way. They didn’t get a contract with a salary, a housing allowance, a pension, or a health plan. Despite this reality, they still dropped everything and followed Jesus. They did this without asking questions! At least in John’s Gospel, Andrew had John the Baptist’s recommendation to go on!

                Our reading closes with a word of summation:  In the closing verse of this lectionary reading, Matthew offers a word of summation:  “Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matt. 4:23). In keeping with our Epiphany emphasis, Jesus offered light to a people living in darkness. That light consisted of the good news that the kingdom of heaven was close at hand. Not only did he offer this message in words, but he also confirmed the message through acts of healing.

                Our reading begins with a word about Jesus’ decision to head to Galilee after John’s arrest. In keeping with the message we heard in Matthew 3, as John the Baptist stepped back Jesus stepped forward, continuing the work John had begun as he preached the gospel of the kingdom and baptized people based on their repentance. John’s work was preparatory to what Jesus would engage in. By creating this team, he was preparing a team to carry on the work after he was gone. Together with John the Baptist, Jesus, along with Andrew, Simon, James, and John, cast light into the darkness so the kingdom might be revealed.   

                It is worth noting that in the Gospel of Matthew after Jesus is crucified, buried, and resurrected, he will ultimately return to Galilee. It is from Galilee that Jesus departs after commissioning his followers to continue the work of shining light into the darkness by proclaiming the good news of God’s realm. Jesus begins building the team here in Matthew 4, a team to which he will ultimately pass the baton, so that they might make more disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This work would extend well beyond Galilee to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:16-20).

                As I ponder this passage, thinking about how this call to ministry issued by Jesus connects with our calling to ministry (whether lay or ordained) it might be helpful to connect it more broadly with the promise made by God to Abraham and Sarah, as God covenanted with them, promising that it would be through their descendants would be blessed (see chapter 1 of my book Called to Bless:Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots, where I reflect on the call of Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants, to be a blessing to the nations). It’s a foundational piece to Matthew’s vision of Jesus' ministry, as revealed in Matthew’s genealogy, which traces Jesus’ family heritage back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1-17). Thus, Jesus draws together a team that would carry out his vision of blessing to the nations. It’s a vision that has been passed on to us as we are brought onto the team. So:

Called as partners in Christ’s service,

called to ministries of grace,

We respond with deep commitment

fresh new lines of faith to trace.

May we learn the art of sharing,

side by side, and friend with friend,

equal partners in our caring to fulfill God’s chosen end.

—Jane Parker Huber (Chalice Hymnal, #453).