Matthew 4: 12-23 – commentary

I was inspired by this reading, which I was able to examine closely and take notes about, since I was the scripture reader today.


Matthew 4 is about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Here’s the passage in its entirety:

Matthew 4:12-23

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It seems he did this on purpose, so that it would fit the Old Testament prophecy. A smart way to start!

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers (how long was he walking – what is the time frame – before he came across them?), Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

How are we to read and interpret this? I would see it as an allegory – fishing is an allegory for “catching” or “fishing for” people who are oppressed or in need. I would also interpret this as taking place over a period of at least several months. Why would they leave their fishing boats “immediately” and go with him? What else did he say to them first? Had they heard about him already? Also, I think the author, Matthew, used the word “immediately” as exaggeration – to stress Jesus’ importance and the recognition that he was someone special. It could be that Jesus came across these two sets of brothers and spent several days talking to them first. It disturbed me that they would leave their families just like that, to follow this guy if they didn’t know him well. (There have been too many so-called “prophets” in recent times who insisted that people who wanted to join their religious movement needed to isolate themselves, even cut off ties, from their families and friends. These “prophets” preyed upon people who were looking for meaning in life.)

Rev. Co gave us some historical background:

The Roman government created an economy which benefited themselves. They imposed taxes on everything – we complain about taxes, but back then it was much worse. Fishermen had to pay taxes on their equipment; if they owned their boat, they paid taxes on it and if they rented it, they had to pay usage tax. Then they had to pay for a fishing permit. Afterward, when they brought in their haul, even if their net was full of fish they didn’t end up with much: there was an official on Mathew4 (vb)shore who counted every single fish caught and the fishermen had to pay a tax for each fish! And on top of that, all citizens were expected to pay a sort of tribute tax to honor their rulers’ authority.

Tax collectors could humiliate you and beat you up in the street with immunity if you tried to evade paying taxes. No wonder they were so reviled!

By the time the fisherman was on his way home after a day of hard work, he didn’t have much to show for it income-wise. In fact, he would end up with less money than the minimum wage of those days for the same amount of work. There was no prestige to being a fisherman – it was a very lowly job.

Perhaps this is why Jesus chose his first disciples among this class of people. There wouldn’t have been much incentive to stay in that profession, especially if Jesus had already attained some notoriety so they’d already heard of him and his message, knew he was legit. If Jesus was already known, Zebedee may have encouraged his sons to go with him. Here was hope, the opportunity to make a better life, to be part of a movement.

One of the hymns we sang today fit perfectly in with this Scripture: Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore, a song translated from Spanish, “Tú has venido a la orilla”. I sang it very softly in Spanish. Here are the words:

Tú has venido a la orilla,
no has buscado ni a sabios ni a ricos,
tan sólo quieres que yo te siga.

Señor, me has mirado a los ojos,
y sonriendo has dicho mi nombre;
en la arena he dejado mi barca,
junto a ti buscaré otro mar.

Tú sabes bien lo que tengo:
en mi barca no hay oro ni espadas,
tan sólo redes y mi trabajo.

Señor… (etc.)

Tú necesitas mis manos,
mi cansancio que a otros descanse,
amor que quiera seguir amando.

Señor… (etc.)

Tú, pescador de otros mares,
ansia eterna de almas que esperan,
amigo bueno, que así me llamas.

Señor… (etc.)

I like the words to this song because I feel they express the love inspired by Jesus’ demeanor toward them: “Lord, you have looked into my eyes, and smiling, you said my name; I have left my boat in the sand, together with you I will seek other seas.” It was easy to follow a man like this, who treated them with kindness and respect.

It goes on to say, “You know what I have – in my boat is neither gold nor sword; only nets and my work. …You need my hands, my fatigue so that others may rest, love that wants to continue to love.” This was their mission with Jesus.ImageImage

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