Despair can be beaten by God

  • January 17, 2008

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A), Jan. 27 (Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17-18; Matthew 4:12-23)

It is very difficult to give hope and encouragement to those who have lost everything. What does one say to the victims of natural disasters or wars who have no homes to live in and only the rubble of their cities? Any words of comfort seem like empty platitudes.

The people of northern Israel had been devastated by the Assyrian invasions of the late eighth century BC. The land was laid waste and many were sent into exile. Today we can view similarly bleak landscapes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other places. The words of the prophet assure them that things will not just get better, but that they will again know joy. In view of the circumstances this was no small promise. The profundity of their present darkness will be exceeded by the brilliance of future light.

The promise probably was intended for the near future — it is hard to imagine any consolation in an event 700 years in the future. But divine consolation is something that touches us in many different times and places. Darkness and misery is not God’s activity but usually the result of human selfishness and cruelty. Destruction is not God’s last word in any situation — it is always hope, new life and the future. In our own age, we are prone to wallow in the negative and dark and even find fault with any attempt to find cause to hope.

The human ego can become almost demonic when it becomes inflated with a sense of power and importance. The unity of Corinth’s tiny Christian community was shattered by dominant and charismatic individuals who were bent on making a name for themselves and drawing a following. Many new and growing movements — even those with high and noble ideals — come to ruin when the struggle for power and control results in factionalism and strife. Paul’s advice — no, command — is to be united in the same mind and purpose. This is not some sort of group think where everyone has the same opinion. There will always be different points of view, and that is an asset rather than a liability. But community members should be on the same page about the things that count most.

Paul proposes the cross as the symbolic leveler and deflator of human pretensions. The cross asks simple but razor-like questions: Does this word, thought, or action serve self or others, the good of a select few or the common good? Does it build up and heal, or tear down and destroy? It is a principle that could be quite useful in our own time in all areas of human endeavour.

For Matthew, it is very important to situate Jesus within Jewish salvation history. Many of the events in the life of Jesus are interpreted as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and His return to Capernaum is no exception, for it is in the midst of the “Land of Zebulun, Land of Naphtali.”

The passage from Isaiah enjoys a second life as it portrays Jesus as the great light promised so many centuries ago. The Great Light begins His ministry by calling people to have an inner change of mind and heart, an inner revolution. The reason: God is close at hand and is going to restore the world to His loving but firm hand.

The image of the net is often used to signify the ingathering of the people of God. To make one a fisher of people is a positive role rather than a predatory one — the one who seeks out and brings souls to God. The attraction of Jesus’ personality and speech must have been overpowering, for many literally dropped what they were doing and abandoned their ordinary lives in order to follow Him. Strangely, many were repelled by His words and rejected Jesus and everything for which He stood.

Much depended on the listener’s interior state. An attitude of seeking and openness and a fervent desire for God seems to have been a tremendous advantage. Some eagerly seek the light while others flee from it and the situation is no different today.

The light is never absent — it is in our midst and is ours to see if we so choose. The darkness has only as much power over us as we allow.