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Ver. 12.—When Jesus had heard, &c. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all omit the embassy of the Jews to John the Baptist, asking him if he were the Messiah. To this first year of Christ’s ministry pertain also the turning water into wine, the driving the buyers and sellers out of the temple, and the discourse with Nicodemus. These all took place before the imprisonment of the Baptist, and are related only by S. John. For before his imprisonment Christ had committed to John the work of preaching, but now He took that office upon Himself. Moreover, when Christ heard of John’s imprisonment, He departed out of Judæa into Galilee, because He fled from Herod, that he might not imprison Him as he had done John. In Galilee, therefore, he began solemnly to preach, that He might fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy, of which more presently.
You may say—Herod reigned in Galilee, not in Judæa. Why then did Christ, to avoid Herod, flee into Galilee? I reply, because John, preaching in Judæa, near Jericho, and gathering together the multitudes, was accused to Herod, probably by the Scribes and Pharisees. For they had been sharply rebuked by John, and called “a brood of vipers.” In their anger they suggested to Herod, who they knew was hostile to John, that he should apprehend him, lest he should make a tumult, and incite the people to rebellion. Josephus (Ant., lib. 18, c. 7), says that Herod slew John through fear of a rising of the people who flocked to John. The same Scribes and Pharisees were, it is probable, hostile to Christ, who had been pointed out by John, and who was wont, equally with John, freely and publicly to rebuke their vices. And although John had baptized in Judæa, he had perhaps passed into the neighbouring Peræa, which was subject to Herod. When Christ therefore heard of John’s apprehension, He fled from Judæa into Galilee, lest He should be delivered by the same Scribes and Pharisees, with the connivance of the Roman governor, to Herod. But Jesus was not afraid of Herod himself, because He had not offended him personally, as John had, by reproving his adultery. This Herod Antipas was the son of Herod of Ascalon, the murderer of the innocents.
This was the second departure of Christ from Judæa into Galilee. The first is related in John i. 43, and is the same which is referred to by S. Mar_1:14, S. Luke (Luk_4:14), and S. John (Joh_4:3, Joh_4:43.)
Ver. 13.—And leaving his own city, &c. Leaving i.e., passing it by. Jesus did not wish to enter Nazareth, although it was His own city, to begin His preaching there. S. John gives the reason ( Joh_4:44), “A prophet hath no honour in his own country.” Therefore He went to Capharnaum, and set up there His Chair of preaching.
Observe, there were two Galilees, one, Lower Galilee in the tribes of Issachar and Zabulon, in which was Nazareth: and Upper Galilee in the tribes of Aser and Nephtali, in which was Capharnaum, and which was called Galilee of the Gentiles, because it bordered upon Phoenicia, and was largely peopled by Gentiles. A considerable portion of it was given by Solomon to Hiram, king of Tyre. (See 1Sam 9:11.)
Capharnaum, which is by the sea. Because it was near the Jordan, where it flows into the Sea of Galilee. From its situation it became a most celebrated emporium for merchandise, and the metropolis of Galilee. In wealth, luxury, and beauty it far surpassed all the other cities of Galilee, and thence derived its name. For Capharnaum is as though כפר caphar נעים naim, i.e., “the field of pleasantness or delight,” as S. Jerome says on Hebrew names.
In this city then, Christ began to preach the kingdom of God, and to rebuke the luxury and vices of its citizens, and to call them away from earthly goods, from wealth and pride, to the heavenly riches. This He did both by His preaching and His miracles. It was here that He healed the paralytic man, who was let down through the roof upon a bed. In Capharnaum He restored to sight two blind men, and healed the dumb man who was possessed of a devil. Here, whilst walking in the street, He cured the palsied servant of the centurion. Here He healed the woman with an issue of blood, who touched the fringe of His garment. Here He raised from death Jairus’ daughter.
But when its inhabitants, swelling with pride and luxury, gave no heed either to His words or His miracles, and would not be moved to repentance, at last He pronounced upon them the sentence, “And thou, Capharnaum,” &c., Matt 11:23.
Vs. 14 That it might be fulfilled, &c. There is an apposition here. 1. There is the land of Zabulon and Naphtali, which is by the way of the sea. 2. There is the country across the Jordan. And the whole district was called Galilee of the Gentiles. This land, I say, was illuminated by Christ making known the light of the Gospel to them that dwelt therein. The word Gentiles here denotes that Christ was about to transfer the Kingdom of God from the Jews, because of their unbelief, to the Gentiles. So S. Chrysostom.
The people that sat in darkness, &c. I have expounded this prophecy at length in Isa 9:1: which see. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to his commentary on Isaiah.
Matthew is quoting Isaiah 9:1 (8:23 in some translations) which speaks of the beginning of the exile when the two tribes mentioned were carried into captivity by the Assyrians circa 734 BC. This was followed circa 721 BC by the mass deportation of the entire ten tribes of the Northern kingdom of Israel. Part of the mission of the Messiah is to unite all the tribes of Israel which have been scattered since these events. Since the ten northern tribes were for the most part lost to history, being assimilated by Gentiles, the reunification takes place due to the mission to the Gentiles.
Vs. 17. From that time Jesus began, &c. This was the sum and the scope of the preaching of Christ, to invite men to repentance, to change their course of action, and lead them to a holy life. For this is true wisdom, this our end, our goal, our good, our happiness. Truly says the Gloss, “To the Gospel pertains the promise of blessedness, the remission of sins, adoption, resurrection, the heavenly inheritance, the society of angels. By the Gospel, kings are made and a kingdom given, not earthly and transitory, but heavenly and eternal.”
Wherefore Babylas, the play-actor, who had two concubines, hearing these words of the Gospel read, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, being touched by the finger of God, learned wisdom, and shut himself up in a cell, to do penance for the rest of his life. He left his riches to his concubines, but they too, pricked with compunction by his example, also shut themselves up in cells, and did continual penance. (See John Moschus, Spiritual Meadow, c. 32.) Verily the word of the Gospel is quick and powerful. (Heb 4:12.)
Appositely did Christ preach repentance in Galilee because Galilee is the same as transmigration, say S. Gregory and others, from the root נלה galah, “he migrated.” For in Galilee Christ taught men in mind, and affection, and love, to migrate from earth to heaven. Wherefore also He chose for apostles none but Galilæans, i.e., migrators, men who were but pilgrims upon earth and citizens of heaven.
This transmigration is accomplished by penitence. How strict, and of how long duration, was the penance upon bread and water in former times! This appears from the Roman Pœnitential, and from the Penitential Canons of SS. Basil, Gregory Nyssen, and Bede, of Rabanus Maurus, and Burchardus, which are still extant. In Spain, the sick and those about to die did penance, clothed in the monastic habit, and received the tonsure, by which they made profession of a monastic life; and if they afterwards recovered they were bound not to return to the world, but to pass the rest of their life in a monastery. This appears from the Twelfth Council of Toledo, cap. 2. Wamba, king of Spain, a great example to posterity, did this about A.D. 674. (See Mariana, and Baronius, tom. 8, A. D . 680, in fine.) For this reason the Pontifical Penitentiaries at Rome carry a rod in their hands, because they are apostolic judges in the tribunal of conscience. For a straight rod is borne before a judge as an emblem of the rectitude of justice, according to that which is said of Christ, Psa_45:7, “The sceptre of thy kingdom is the sceptre of uprightness.” (Vulg.); because also in grave and public offences, especially those to which excommunication was annexed, the Penitentiaries, reciting the Psalm Miserere, used to beat the guilty person with a rod; and thus they gave absolution, as is appointed even now in the ancient ritual of the Church, sanctioned by the canons, in solemn absolution from excommunication. Thus S. Anno, Archbishop of Cologne, sharply whipped the emperor Henry II. as a penance, A.D. 1056, as can be seen in his life in Surius. And the use of this discipline, as it is commonly called, by rods, inflicted, either by the penitent himself, or by the Penitentiary, was very common in the time of blessed Peter Damian, who flourished A.D. 1040, as is plain from many of his Epistles, also from the life of S. Dominic Loricatus, where he says that a hundred years’ penance is performed by reciting the whole Psalter twenty times, accompanied by constant flagellation, for one Psalter so said is equal to five years of penance.
Thus Henry II., King of England, because he had given occasion for the murder of S. Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, came as a penitent, with bare feet, to the tomb of S. Thomas, and prostrate on the earth, confessed his sin with tears at the feet of the bishops, and, baring his shoulders, received from them five flagellations, and from each of the monks, who were eighty in number, he received three strokes of the rod. This was about A.D. 1170. What does our delicateness say to this? What has become of the ancient penance?
Let us hear what S. Jerome says of S. Paula in her epitaph. “She did not sleep upon a bed, but upon sackcloth spread upon the bare ground, if, indeed, that could be called sleep which was interrupted by almost continual prayers, day and night, fulfilling the words of the Psalm, “Every night wash I my bed, and water my couch with my tears.” You might have thought she was possessed of a fountain of tears; so did she weep over her trifling faults, that you might have imagined her guilty of the most dreadful crimes. Often did we admonish her to have mercy upon her eyes, and preserve them for the reading of the Gospel. But she said, “It is meet that this face should be defiled, which so often, against the command of God, has been adorned with cosmetics and vermilion. It is meet that this body should be afflicted which indulged in so many luxuries. A long laughter shall be recompensed with constant weeping. Soft kerchiefs and precious silks shall give place to rough sackcloth. I who pleased my husband and the world now desire to please Christ.” See the same Epistle (30), graphically describing the rare penance of Fabiola.
Vs. 18. And Jesus walking by the sea, &c. It is not the first vocation of Peter and Andrew which is here recorded. This is related by S. John 1:36, among the events of the first year of Christ’s ministry. The second vocation of Peter and Andrew was after the Baptist’s imprisonment, when they surrendered themselves at Christ’s call to become His disciples; when they constantly cleave to Him, and never return to their former occupations. This second calling of these Apostles is related both by Matthew and Luke; by the former, compendiously; whilst S. Luke, after his wont, narrates the particulars of the history more at length. So S. Chrysostom.
Walking, not by chance, not merely for recreation, but that He might call to Him Peter and Andrew, James and John. Let Christians, especially priests and religious, strive to imitate Christ, and do nothing aimlessly, but seek fruit in all things.
By the sea of Galilee. Capharnaum, where Christ had chosen a house for receiving His disciples was near this lake.
Simon, this is from the Hebrew שמע soama, “hearing,” “obeying.” See what I have said on Gen 29:33.
Andrew is a Greek name, which the Jews after the time of Alexander the Great took from the Greeks, together with such names as Jason, Lysimachus, Menelaus. (See 1 Mac. 4, &c.) Andrew means strong, brave. And such indeed S. Andrew was upon his cross.
Casting a net. We must supply from S. Luke, chap. 5, that Christ went up into Peter’s ship, and taught the multitudes from thence, that after that He bade Peter cast a net into the sea, which immediately caught a vast number of fishes, so that the net brake, that by this miracle Peter was converted, together with Andrew, James, and John, that then Christ said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” as S. Matthew here records.
Vs 19. Fishers of men. For Christians are like fishes swimming in the waters of baptism.
“There are merchandise and nets and ropes:
Death the reward, virtue the prow, the keel is health above;
Faith the ropes, true godliness the mast,
The sail is hope, the oars are grace, the captain is true love.”
This is the ship of Christ’s Church in which we sail to heaven. I have noticed nineteen analogies between fishes and men, upon Habakkuk 1:14, which if you please you may consult.
Hence Christ is called by the early Christians ֹ׳ָױ׃, a Fish, because its initial letters make this acrostic, ֹחףןע ׳סיףפן̀ע ָון ױע ׃פחס, or Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour; on which there is extant a verse of the Erythræan Sibyl in S. Augustine (Civ. Dei, 18. 23.) See Tertullian (de Bapt.), and Prosper (part. prædict. 2. 39).
S. Luke says, “From henceforth thou shalt catch men,” Gr. “take them alive”, catch them for life. S. Ambrose translates, “make them live.” As though Christ had said, “Fishermen take fishes for death, that they may kill them, but thou, O Peter, shalt catch men unto life, that they may begin a new life, and live unto God in holiness.”
Well does S. Augustine say (Tract, 7 in Joan.), Christ, wishing to break the nets of the proud, sought not the fisherman by means of the orator, but from the fisherman he gained the emperor. Great is Cyprian the orator, but first was Peter the fisherman. In this was fulfilled the prophecy of Jer 16:16, “Behold, I will send many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish you.”
Vs 20. Leaving their nets. Under the term nets understand also ships, houses, occupation, servants, parents, relations, and all other things whatsoever, according to that saying of S. Peter to Christ, “Lo! we have left all things and followed thee.” When then we read that after Christ’s death the Apostles went a-fishing (John 21:3), we do not understand that they again betook themselves to their old vocation, but only did it to pass the time, and to divert their minds from the affliction which they were enduring at the loss of their Master.
Wisely does S. Bernard say to those who fear to follow God’s call to high and arduous things, “Why dost thou fear? Why dost thou hesitate? The Angel of great counsel calls thee. No one is wiser than He is; no one is stronger; no one is more faithful.”
Tropologically, the scholiast on S. Jerome says, “Let us leave the spiders’ nets which are the vanities of the world in which we are held.
Vs 21. And going on from thence, &c. James, in Hebrew Jacob, meaning a supplanter; for he supplanted the world, and all worldly things, that he (James) might follow Christ.
Zebedee, i.e., liberal, munificent. For though he was an old man he willingly gave to Christ his two sons, who were the staff of his old age. The Hebrew זבד (zabad), means to give, to bestow.
John, meaning, the grace of God, for Christ poured His grace upon John more abundantly than upon the rest of the Apostles. “By this apostolic chariot of four horses we are carried to heaven; on these four corner-stones the Church was first built.”
Ver. 22.—They straightway, &c. Observe Luke 5:11 rolls the vocation of these four Apostles into one; but S. Matthew relates the particulars of the calling: 1, of Andrew and Peter; 2, of James and John. The historical sequence is as follows—Christ having been carried in Peter’s boat, and having landed on the shore, then called Peter and Andrew. Going on a little further, he saw James and John mending the nets which had been broken by the miraculous draught of fishes; then He called these two, saying, “Follow me.” They, being moved by the miracle, and the example of their partners, straightway left their father and all things, and followed Christ. So S. Augustine (de Consens. Evan. lib. 2, c. 17).
And Jesus went about, &c. Sickness—Greek, νοσον,—an habitual, organic, or incurable disease, says Euthymius. Disease—Greek, μαλακιαν—i.e., languor, infinity, failure of strength.