After the conclusion of John the Baptist’s mission, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. It became the centre of his activities for nearly three years.
Matthew does not merely record Jesus’ change of residence. Galilee was inhabited by Israelites regarded by all as semi-pagans, because they were born from the intermingling of different peoples.
The Jews of Jerusalem despised them because they were considered poorly educated, ignorant of the law, corrupt and less observant of the rabbinic provisions.
In this region of “Galilee of the Gentiles” (v.15), Jesus begins his mission, indicating the first recipients of his light: not the pure Jews, but the excluded, the distant.
Admiring the faith of the centurion of Roman soldiers living in Capernaum—he will one day exclaim: “I tell you, I have not found such faith in Israel. I say to you, many will come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of heaven; but their heirs of the kingdom will be thrown out” (Matthew 8:10-11).
The gospel presents the proclamation of Jesus: “Repent because the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v.17). Converting yourself is not equivalent to “becoming a little better, praying better, doing more good work,” but “to radically change the way of thinking and acting.”
In the second part of the passage, the calling of the first four disciples is narrated. It is a piece of catechesis that wants the disciple to understand what it means to say yes to Christ’s invitation to follow. It is an example, an illustration of what it means to be converted.
Who is called must realise that he will not be granted any rest. Jesus wants to be followed throughout life. There are no moments of exemption from commitments taken.
The answer then must be prompt and as generous as that of Peter, Andrew, James and John, who “immediately they left their nets, their boat and their father and followed him” (vv.20,22).
The abandonment of your own father does not mean that anyone who chooses the religious and consecrated life must ignore their own parents.
Among the Jewish people, the father was the symbol of the link with the ancestors and of attachment to tradition. And it is this dependence on the past that must be broken when it constitutes an impediment to welcome the novelty of the gospel.
To the invitation to follow him, Jesus adds the charge, “I will make you fish for people” (v.19). The image is taken from the work done by the first apostles.
In biblical symbolism, the sea was the abode of the devil, of diseases and everything that opposed life. It was deep, dark, dangerous, mysterious and terrible.
Fishing for people means to get them out of the condition of death where they are. It means to pull them out from the forces of evil that, like the raging waters, dominate, engulf and overwhelm them.
Jesus does not give up hope of saving a brother, even when he is in a humanly desperate situation: a slave of drugs and alcohol, unbridled passion, irascible, aggressive and intractable character.
In whatever situation he is he will be saved by the disciple of Christ.
• Father Fernando Armellini SCJ