Matthew 4:17-5:2

The Text

From that time Jesus began to make public proclamation, ‘Be changing your mind, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 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 lake, for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of humans.’ Immediately they abandoned their nets and joined him as disciples. Having gone on 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. Immediately abandoning the boat and their father, they joined him as disciples.

Jesus was going throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and making a public proclamation of the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, the demonized, epileptics and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds joined him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and from beyond the Jordan.

And having seen the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak and taught them, saying: . . .

A Reading

It is not by accident that I’ve included that the final verse of the previous passage. To take that verse in view of this passage—and indeed we’ll do so much for the next—as well as the preceding one is in part to recognize how integral the book of ‘Matthew’ is in its parts. When one verse connects with another further on, it creates a frame for the material in between, but when a passage makes multiple connections across the text, we have multiple, overlapping frames that enrich the story and make it difficult to isolate any particular part from the whole, lest we lose something of its texture and dimension. We’ve seen that 4:17, which bears Jesus’ explicit proclamation of the Kingdom, connects us to the beginning of chapter 3 as a significant parallel but also offers a remarkable conclusion to the first ‘chapter’ of Jesus’ ministry, which begins with his public act of repentance and climaxes in his trial. Thus, it’s a bookend to at least two preceding points in the story. Yet insofar as it will also act as a bookend to subsequent markers in the story, it’s a hinge in the narrative—otherwise put, a turning point—and the passages for which 4:17 acts as a header are among the several points in the text the narrative turns around. That is all to say, while the unity of 4:18-25 may be unclear, I hope that it will be taken for granted once we can explore the relationship of 4:17 to chapter 5 and following.

If ‘Matthew’ assumes a Jewish audience steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is not a lot of room to wonder what the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is—if not for its clarity in these writings then for the breadth of tradition behind it. The extent of the inclusion of the Gentiles, even of natural-born Israelites, for example, was a matter of debate, yet many connotations could generally be assumed, like judgment of the nations, the redemption of Israel to its land, the rule of Yhwh with some connection to a Davidic throne. To be sure, ‘Matthew’s original audiences would not be as inclined to wonder, ‘What on Earth is “kingdom of heaven”?’ as we are now, yet a self-assured notion of what such a kingdom looks like is prone to be questioned under the reading I presented last time, the explicit contrast of the kingdom of this messiah’s aim with ‘the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.’ To some extent ‘Matthew’ is taking up, deconstructing and defining what this long-anticipated kingdom is, and the subject of ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is raised here for this reason exactly.

If we take this notion of kingdom-formation seriously, then what we might expect among Jesus’ first acts to begin to gather a group of followers. Yet not merely a crowd, an unstructured, undisciplined mass for which he will be liable (e.g., to feed in the wilderness). More, Jesus will need an inner circle, a cabinet, a shadow government in exile. Thus no sooner does Jesus begin his public proclamations than he seeks out named players to join in that which he means to build. The first among them are fishermen. This is interestingly not merely because of the obvious play on words, ‘fishers of men,’ which suggests to us a ‘catching’ of people into the movement. Jesus’ wordplay apparently alludes to ‘Jeremiah’:

‘I am now sending for many fishermen,’ says Yhwh, ‘and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight. And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.’ (16:16-18)

The context of the passage is again with respect to exile, promising at once the certainty of a coming exile and a time coming in which Yhwh will not be known for the Exodus so much as for liberating Israel out of that exile. The ‘fishermen’ here are hard to separate from the ‘hunters,’ and the promise of return from exile is hard to separate from the promise of the punishment of exile that both feature in Jeremiah 16. ‘Matthew’ might be turning this trope on its head, but in ‘Jeremiah’ the fishermen seem to be catching people up out of the land and into exile. In any case, what ‘Matthew’ seems to have in view by making this allusion includes no less than judgment, exile and Israel’s relationship to the Gentile nations.

That Jesus chooses fishermen is also interesting simply because they are tradesmen, necessarily those who did not advance in rabbinical training; in social status they are better than day laborers but not especially educated, neither priests nor pharisees—in short, not those likely to be chosen to help head a new government. That these two pairs of brothers each respond ‘immediately’ does not necessarily suggest a mystical attractiveness that draws them obediently to Jesus as easily as it suggests that his reputation has already reached them. Jesus, after all, has been publicly active in the region of Capernaum (vv. 13, 17), which is on the Sea of Galilee, where the brothers were fishing, and is evidently the location of Peter’s home (see ch. 8). Neither do I think it’s a strong point to suppose that these men were simply so eager to be chosen by a rabbi that they would follow one in a heartbeat; firstly, ‘Matthew’ in no clear way suggests that Jesus is a legitimized rabbi with recognized authority, and as someone might have always dreamed of being drafted into the NFL, it’s just as absurd to think that he’d leave his mower running in the yard when the first man in a secondhand suit comes by saying that he’s forming a team and needs a quarterback. While it’s nice to think that Jesus bore a certain ineffable magnetism that drew people to him (which Isa 53:2 might question), a more significant point might be the attractiveness of his proclamations, which would cause people to forsake gainful trade in a dreadful economy and family in a world where kinship was every security and source of identity to follow a political figure who lives on the margins of Israel.

Thus we receive more insight into to the nature of this kingdom that Jesus is forming as a candidate Messiah: the kind of people it chooses for its leadership, the kind of appeal that it has. The rest of the passage does as much for us. From vv. 23-25 we see its marginal location centered on Galilee confirmed, as well as the reach of its appeal, now expanding—not just Jerusalem but alongside of it the Ten Cities, so-called in part because of their unique predominance of Greco-Roman culture for Palestinian cities. A greater diversity for that region would be difficult to list. At the center of this movement, evidently moving these crowds so swiftly toward Jesus, appear to be three activities: teaching in synagogues, public proclamation and healing of the disinherited. All of this takes place outside of Jerusalem, the social-political-economic center of Israel, yet Jesus’ base on the margins is through these activities becoming the center of Galilee, the Ten Cities and Jerusalem. And it is only once this diversity of crowds have come to follow Jesus that we hear him speak in words of his own . . .

Bringing it Home

The logic of governance is that you begin at the center and work outward toward the margins, where you improve and include them; you start with the best and brightest, the leaders, the decision-makers, the power-players; you gather your base, the naturalized, the middle class; then you extend your resource to bring others benevolently into the fold, be they the lower class or the emigrated or the under-developed nation. All of this pivots around, hangs on, the power of the capital, its social capitol and its normativity. Not so with the Messiah’s kingdom. From its inception, it rivals Rome and Jerusalem alike by being marginal, choosing leadership from the margins and marginal first citizens; it begins with the diseased, the afflicted, the desperate enough to travel all the way from their power structures in Jerusalem and Damascus to the far side of Galilee’s sea, to a carpenter’s bastard son. This is Jesus’ base and the DNA of his kingdom. From here, anyone of power or reputation, of status or worth, is invited into a kingdom that already belongs firstly to the poor and the disinherited. If any of us are poor, take heart, for the Kingdom is built for you. If any of us are wretched, take heart, for the Kingdom is built for you. If any of us are excluded from every other kingdom, take heart, for the Kingdom is built for you. If any of us are powerful, unjust, esteemed and self-sufficient but want a part of this kingdom . . . take heart, for Gød is merciful, and Gød has made a kingdom for the poor and wretched and disinherited, and there may be room for us to bear its disgrace with them.

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