The Fifth Gospel

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The Gospel Reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany (Matthew 4:12-23) quotes a passage from Isaiah 9:1-4 in the Christian Old Testament and Isaiah 8:23 in the Hebrew Bible, or Tanakh, which refers to “the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali…the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations”.

The late biblical archaeologist and Benedictine monk Bargil Pixner (1921-2002) once noted that the geography of the Holy Land is the fifth gospel in the New Testament. Indeed, a full grasp of the message in Matthew and Isaiah requires some familiarity with the physical world of the authors.

In distributing the land to the tribes of Israel, the northern-most territory was allotted to Dan. What is today the Jezreel Valley and the area of the Sea of Galilee was allotted to Zebulun and Naphtali. Along with the reference to Galilee, we territory the writers are referring to.

“The way of the sea” was an actual highway, known as “Derech HaYam” in Hebrew, and more popularly, “Via Maris” in Latin. Along with the “Ridge Route” and the “King’s Highway”, they were the three major trade routes in ancient Israel.  According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Via Maris “is situated from the Galilee to the North to Samaria to the South, running through the Jezreel Valley. At the Philistine Plain, the Way broke into two branches, one on the coast and one inland (through the Jezreel Valley, the Sea of Galilee, and Dan), which unites at Megiddo (“Armageddon”)”.

Because of its location Megiddo was the site of many historic battles. Communities along a trade route sometimes prosper and at other times they are also crushed by opposing powers. There is an African saying that “when two elephants fight the grass gets trampled”.

During the Jewish diaspora, the Jezreel Valley was swampy, almost uninhabitable.

And now, Isaiah comes with the message: “But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations” These are “the people who walked in darkness (and now) have seen a great light; (they are) those who lived in a land of deep darkness – (and now) on them light has shined” (9:1-2).

That is where Matthew picks up to introduce his readers to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus is that light that shines to those in darkness and in anguish.

As I read these texts I re-live every single moment I spent in Galilee and I clearly see why the Land of the Bible is the Fifth Gospel.

The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of our Lord

We pointed out previously that western Christianity associates the Epiphany with the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus in Bethlehem while eastern Christianity associates Theophany with the baptism of Jesus. On the First Sunday after the Epiphany, we commemorate the baptism of our Lord, and the Sunday is so designated in the Lectionary.

The First Reading from Isaiah 42:1-9 is one of the first of the Four Servant Songs in the book of Isaiah. The other three are in Isaiah 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12.

Although Christians identify the servant of these songs with Jesus – especially on the basis of suffering – Isaiah’s servant can be identified as the people of Israel. In some instances, the prophet (like Jeremiah) can also be identified as the suffering servant. I am aware that the fourth song is accepted by some in the Christian tradition as irrefutable proof that Isaiah prophesied the coming of Jesus. Nonetheless, one needs to look at the preceding verses – 41:8-9; 44:1; 44:21; 45:4; 48:20; and 49:3 – where there are explicit references to Jacob or Israel.

In its Hebrew Bible setting, therefore, God reveals his purpose for his servant: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness…”.That is the mission of the servant – in its simplest terms, to be a light to the nations.

The Lord further declares that there is a new era, a new beginning: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare”. This is, indeed, the second lesson in this text: The Lord is God of new beginnings, not once, but again and again. The third point is that of a covenant between God and his people.

In the New Testament, there is a new beginning in Jesus who is the light to the nations. In the Epistle Reading from Acts 10:34-43 Peter declares that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him”.

Take a moment to reflect on that declaration and think of all the barriers that our faith systems have created. Think about all those we exclude from the realm of God’s reach! Yes, there is a covenant in baptism, and indeed, we ask God – in the Collect – “that all who are baptized into his Name (Jesus’ name) may keep the covenant they have made…” But this is not a call to exclusion. The call is to “boldly confess him as Lord and Savior”.

Truly bold confession is in deeds that show Jesus as the light of the world; that open the eyes of the blind; that bring out the prisoners from the dungeon; that bring out those sitting in the darkness of all kinds of prisons.