3rd Sunday after Epiphany (A): Participating in the Restoration of the World
By: Colin Cushman
As is the case with most other types of literature, we as Biblical interpreters should give an exceptional amount of weight to the beginning and end of major formal elements in books of the Bible. They are often quite revealing regarding what the author is trying to communicate through his story. This passage from Matthew 4 stands at a pivotal moment in the form of Matthew’s gospel: this is the point where we move from Jesus’ pre-ministry to his ministry proper. As such, this passage is particularly important for understanding Matthew’s gospel message.
Our story starts off with an ominous sign. In a foreshadowing of Jesus’ eventual fate, Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist (who modern scholarship suggests was Jesus’s mentor) was arrested. Jesus’ response to this was to leave home and move to Capernaum. Exegetes for millennia have tried to figure out why Jesus did this. He certainly wasn’t fleeing for his safety: Capernaum was directly in the center of the Galilee, the very domain of Herod Antipas, the Roman-installed client-king who was responsible for John’s arrest, who would later kill John the Baptist, and would put Jesus on trial. So clearly, Jesus is not fleeing toward safety here.
Interestingly, this is in contrast to his parents under the previous Herod (“the Great,” Herod Antipas’ father). The Holy Family fled as refugees to Egypt to prevent Jesus from being killed in the so-called Slaughter of the Innocents. At this time however, Jesus, now convicted of his ministry, steels himself and moves straight into the lion’s den, toward his confrontation with the powers that be. Over and over again, Jesus foretells his own death: throughout his entire ministry, he has a resoluteness about his behavior and rarely shies away from delivering his message, even though it comes at considerable personal risk.
In reflecting on Jesus’ relocation, Matthew cites a passage from First Isaiah. Along with the whole of Jewish biblical interpretation in this time period (including both Rabbinic and early Christian interpretation), Matthew would fail a modern exegesis class. He cherry-picks a ”prophecy” from the Bible (remember, there was only one Testament at this time), which he appropriates, giving little if any regard to its original context, simply plucking out the phrase that suits his purposes and disregarding the entire rest of the passage. This would not go over well under the rules of modern exegesis; he violates the most core principles of the discipline of Biblical Studies. However, in Matthew’s defense, few if any Jews in the first century C.E. would pass muster by modern exegetical standards. So Matthew’s use of Scripture here indeed is crass, but he also is behaving within the interpretive principles of this time.
However, all is not lost. We can still understand the intertextual relationship between Isaiah’s passage and Matthew’s productively, even if we add more nuance than he does. The original passage, coming from First Isaiah, reflects on the Jewish experience of exile. The people ”who sat in darkness” are those hauled off into exile in Babylon. (Which, note, is a classed experience. The Babylonians didn’t see it as worth the effort to haul off the poor into exile.) These elites who used to be so high on the cultural totem pole have now suffered a severe reversal of status and have been kicked out of their homeland, never to go back within their lifetimes. Notice as well that for many of these exiles, their descendants would never end up returning to the Holy Land. Despite the prophets’ best urgings and the laments of some of the most fervent of those exiled, many Israelites did not experience the Babylonian exile as suffering and in fact saw a marked increase in their standard of living. This then created the conditions whereby they would decline to move back to the Holy Land when they were allowed to, creating a significant Jewish community in Babylon. (This Babylonian Jewish community is so significant that it will eventually produce one of the versions of the Talmud.)
However, Isaiah is not speaking from this perspective of those who have accommodated to life in Babylonia, but from the perspective of one who sees the Holy Land itself as a fundamental part of God’s promises to Israel. Thus, beyond the emotional distress and trauma of forced displacement, the Israelites have suffered the loss of God’s gift to them. So for Isaiah, returning home was indeed a blessing, a “great light.” These people who have been sitting in darkness, as Matthew adapts Isaiah poetry to say, are finally able to return.
For Isaiah, this is fundamentally a story of God’s restoration at work in the world, restoring that which has been broken. And for Matthew, this same restoration that Isaiah talked about has come to be through the person Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.
Matthew continues to expand upon Isaiah’s prophecy in verse 17 by describing what Jesus’s mission ministry looks like. It contains the core of the message for Matthew’s Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Change your lives, for this restoration that God is bringing to pass has arrived. Come participate in this restored world. And what does this restoration look like? Verse 23 demonstrates that Jesus’ restoration-ministry consists of preaching, teaching, and healing. The restorations of hearts, minds, and bodies that have been broken down by Empire and exile—finally restored to how God originally wanted them to be.
So Matthew provides us a fitting beginning for Jesus’s ministry: encapsulating Jesus’ emphases, providing a characteristic example of Matthew’s crass deployment of Scripture to try to prove his point, and demonstrating how Jesus’ message fits within the broader narrative of God’s redemption of the world that the people had been waiting for in the figure of the Messiah—all of which done is a characteristically Matthean fashion to demonstrate who exactly Jesus was.
Colin Cushman is passionate about teaching the Bible. His particular areas of interest are around the intersection of social justice and the Bible: race, sexism, imperialism, poverty, etc. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife, daughter, and dog.