Homily for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.
“Location, location, location.” This is, of course, the most famous saying in the real estate business. It makes the point, quite emphatically, that the most significant factor in determining the value of a piece of property is its location. This saying is also applicable to today’s gospel, except in a different sense. As is often the case in Sacred Scripture, the location something takes place is a significant factor in determining its meaning both historically and theologically.
When our gospel begins, Jesus is in the southern part of the promised land. Roughly rectangular in shape, the promised land is about 50 miles wide and 150 miles long. If you were to superimpose it on the state of Wisconsin, it would go from the border with Illinois in the south to Green Bay in the north, and from Lake Michigan in the east to Beloit in the west. While not the smallest country in the world, it’s not much bigger than the size of New Jersey, and Wisconsin alone is about eight times its size.
When Jesus hears of the arrest of John the Baptist, He travels from the southern part of the promised land to the northern part. Learning that the Packers didn’t make the playoffs, He heads to Green Bay. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” To understand why Jesus actually makes this journey, we have to know something about the history of the location to which Jesus travels. The gospel identifies this location as the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.
Just like the names “Green Bay” and “Beloit” wouldn’t have any significance for a first-century Jew, so also the names “Zebulun” and “Naphtali” don’t have any significance for us today, without a knowledge of Jewish history. To understand their significance, we have to begin with the most important event in Jewish history: the Exodus from Egypt.
About fourteen hundred years before Christ, Moses leads the twelve tribes of Israel out of Egypt, through the desert, to the border of the promised land. Moses’ successor, Joshua, then leads the twelve tribes into the promised land. They do so by crossing the Jordan River in the southern part of the promised land, and when they cross the river, the water splits in two. When they settle the land, each of the tribes is given a portion. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali get two of the most northern portions of the land. The tribes then live in a loose confederation for a number of years until they are united as a single kingdom under David, about a thousand years before Christ. God promises David at this time that his ancestor will have a kingdom that will endure forever.
Three significant historical events, however, put this promise in peril. The first is when the Davidic kingdom splits in two in the year 922 BC. Ten tribes break off and form their own kingdom to the north, and two tribes remain in the north. The northern ten tribes become known as the Kingdom of Israel, the two southern tribes as the Kingdom of Judah. The next perilous event takes place in 722 BC when the Kingdom of Israel is conquered by the mighty Assyrians, who exile the ten tribes and scatter them among the surrounding nations. The first of these tribes to be exiled were those of Zebulun and Naphtali. The final perilous event takes place in 587 BC when the Kingdom of Judah is conquered and exiled by the mightily Babylonians. Although these two tribes are allowed to return in 537 BC, the Davidic kingdom is in shambles; if it was once a mighty tree, it is now a humble stump.
When Jesus is about to begin His public ministry, He is first baptized in the Jordan River. And He is baptized in the same location where Joshua led the twelve tribes into the promised land. When Jesus, whose Hebrew name is “Joshua,” is baptized, the heavens are torn in two, just like the waters of the Jordan were split in two when the first Joshua crossed over them. Jesus then spends forty days in the desert, just like the twelve tribes spent forty years in the desert. If you are following where this is going, you can see that Jesus is very intentionally retracing the events of the Exodus from Egypt. The next step along this journey, then, would be for Jesus to gather the twelve tribes and lead them out of exile, even as Moses led the twelve tribes out of Egypt. And that is exactly what Jesus does next.
After hearing of the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus travels to the northern part of the promised land to the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. Jesus goes there first, because those were the first two tribes to experience the effects of exile. Jesus is reversing the effects of the events which put the Davidic kingdom in peril. That is why it is at this time that Jesus begins to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The Davidic kingdom had become a stump because of division and exile; Jesus is the new shoot growing from that stump—a shoot that, in time, will become a mighty tree. This mighty tree will not be an earthly kingdom, however, but a heavenly one. And it will incorporate not only the twelve tribes of Israel, but also the Gentiles. This mighty tree will be the Church.
Our gospel concludes with Jesus calling the twelve apostles. As you can see now, this is not just a random occurrence—it’s very deliberate. Jesus intends to gather the twelve tribes of Israel, even as Moses did, and so He calls twelve apostles. And He begins doing so in the place where the first two tribes were exiled. “Location, location, location.”
What does this mean for us? Apart from being interesting historically, what theological significance does it hold for us? The first take-away is that Jesus’ mission is one of mercy. Jesus goes to the darkest and most painful places in order to bring light and healing. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” God’s mercy can be defined as His goodness in removing affliction, the greatest affliction of which is sin. That is why Jesus’ first word is “Repent”—“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus knows that the most painful exile is not “horizontal,” the exile from one’s geographic home. Rather, the most painful exile is “vertical,” the exile from one’s eternal home in heaven, the exile caused by sin and death. Jesus comes to establish a kingdom of mercy, in which the effects of this exile are reversed.
If Jesus is willing to go the darkest and most painful places in order to bring light and healing, we must do so as well. This is the second take-away. Jesus’ mission of mercy must be our mission as well. We are called to help remove affliction, especially the affliction of sin. What this means concretely is practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. My challenge to all of us this week is to familiarize ourselves with these works of mercy—to look them up if we have forgotten them—and to pick one of these works to practice this week. The challenge is to find our own Zebulun and Naphtali, our own region of darkness and pain, and, like Jesus, to bring light and healing to that location. Then the words of the prophet Isaiah will be fulfilled through us as well, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” Amen.