On this Sunday, we start the reading of Matthew’s gospel that will accompany us during the present liturgical year. Since the gospels are four and we read them in pieces, in a discontinuous way, it is difficult for us to have a comprehensive view of them. Today’s passage can help us to assemble the different details we have about Jesus’ movements. We know that Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth in Galilee; but Jesus was born at Bethlehem in Judea, because of a census. After the visit of the magi, his family was forced to take refuge in Egypt, to avoid the persecution of Herod. After Herod’s death, they came back to the land of Israel and settled down in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up and lived until he was thirty (that is why he was known as Jesus of Nazareth or the Nazarene). The baptism, with which he began his public life, and the following temptations in the desert took place in Judea. Today’s gospel tells us that, since John the Baptist had been arrested, Jesus prudently preferred to withdraw to his homeland, Galilee. Then Matthew states that Jesus “left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum.” He does not tell us why; but we know from Luke that he was forced to leave his hometown after visiting the synagogue there, when he said: “No prophet is accepted in his own native place” (Lk 4:16-30). Therefore, he took up his residence in Capernaum, a town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, around thirty kilometers from Nazareth, and made it his headquarters. There he started his ministry, which was not confined to Capernaum, but covered the whole Galilee.
So, Jesus hailed from Galilee, and performed his ministry in Galilee. It could seem obvious; but it has a profound meaning. We cannot ignore that Galilee was a despised region: the Jews considered it as a half-pagan country. In the Old Testament, it had been conquered by the Assyrians, who had deported its people replacing them with people of pagan religion. For that reason, it was known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” Well, Jesus precisely chose that region to start his ministry. Matthew sees in this fact the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen” (lux orta est). Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness. But we can see in this choice of Jesus even another meaning: it is a foretaste of what would happen in the future, when the gospel was refused by the Jews and the apostles had to turn to the Gentiles, who accepted it.
What does Jesus do during his ministry? Matthew answers this question as follows: “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.” Jesus speaks and acts—preaches and heals. Both of these activities are for announcing good news: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These are the same words pronounced by John the Baptist; Jesus takes them up, but with a different meaning: with him the kingdom of God has already begun to be present.
Jesus does not want to perform his ministry by himself; he looks for some disciples, who may share in his work. Usually, at that time, it was the disciples that chose their master; in this case, instead, it is Jesus that calls his collaborators. Today’s gospel relates the call of the first four disciples. They are two pairs of brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John. All of them are fishermen. Even in this case, Jesus does not choose learned people, but simple workers. He asks them to abandon everything and follow him. He promises them to change their lives: from fishermen to fishers of men. And they accept his proposal quickly: at once they leave their job and their families and follow Jesus. The same promptness Jesus expects of us, if we want to be his disciples and share in his mission.