Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Follow Me

This article appears in the Cycle A Sunday Resources feature series. View the full series.

As Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Peter and Andrew and said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They left their nets. A little further down the way he saw James and John and called them. They, too, left their boat and their father and followed him.

What was happening on that seashore? How can anybody explain the fact that four grown men simply left behind everything they had worked for to follow Jesus. What did their wives say?

Many will read the story of the fishermen as a pious tale, an exaggeration that doesn’t reflect the details of any real event. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis, would tell us that’s heresy, an example of cheap grace, a degradation of the Gospel. Bonhoeffer, with strong backup from Matthew and Mark, insists that when Jesus said “Follow me,” the disciples did just that. He says in The Cost of Discipleship: “Until that day … they could remain in obscurity, pursuing their work …observing the law and waiting for the coming of the Messiah.” But, he says, with Jesus’ call they had to get up and go. They could have stayed as they were, and Jesus could have been their friend, even their consoler, but he would not have been their Lord.

Somehow Jesus’ message unsettled those fishermen. His preaching didn’t just strike a new chord with them, it played on them like a symphony. Jesus’ call to conversion is described with the Greek term metanoia, a word which means much more than the English “repent.” Metanoia was an invitation to an alternative reality, a new kind of existence. Jesus named that new existence the reigning of God, or in Matthew’s words, the kingdom of heaven. There is no definition of that kingdom, no parable or encyclopedia that summarizes its characteristics. It is not a place, but a way of being. Jesus showed what it was like in everything he said and did. Matthew gave it a shorthand description saying that Jesus went all around, proclaiming the kingdom, making it present by curing every disease and illness – making everything the way it ought to be. An encounter with Jesus was an encounter with the reigning of God and an instant invitation to metanoia. It set people on fire.

The greatest obstacle to metanoia, Jesus’ greatest adversary, was not the demons or the power of oppression. It was an attitude of submission to the way things had always been, the belief that nothing can really change, that heaven might be different but that history will always repeat itself. That attitude, often dressed up with pious platitudes about virtues like patience and acceptance, provides a greater threat to metanoia than any persecution ever will.

Metanoia is not something the disciples could achieve, they could only be open to it. When it was offered, they had to make a decision, the most important decision of their lives. They had to decide whether to believe in what Jesus offered, to accept him as Lord, or simply respect him as another interesting philosopher whose ideas they could talk about when the seas were calm. We hear about the fishermen who decided to leave behind everything that tied them to “normal life.” In the very act of leaving their boats, they were opening themselves to what Jesus was offering. They would no longer be fishermen. Rather than catch food to sell to nourish others, they themselves would become the nourishment others needed. Rather than being tied to one family, one neighborhood, they would receive a hundred times more. And who’s to say their own wives and children didn’t share their decision and travel with them on the road?

Their radical decision was not irrevocable. They had to renew it time and again. Day by day they had to bet their lives on what they knew of Jesus’ kingdom of heaven. They had to believe that God’s reigning was manifest in their relationship with Jesus and the life he shared with them and that its power overruled everything that could rise up against them.

Each of us is called to make the same decision. We have to choose either to regard Christianity as a nice idea, a comfort in difficult times or to make the following of Christ the only thing that makes sense of our life. Christ’s call comes to each of us individually and promises to transform us into everything we could possibly be. Yet, while each must decide for her or himself, we are called together because only together can we make Christ present in our world. What happened on that seashore continues to happen in our own lives. When Christ’s call strikes a chord with us, it’s an invitation to play our part in God’s new world symphony.

Isaiah 8:23-9:3

The essential reason for choosing this passage from Isaiah for this Sunday is that it is part of a messianic promise and it specifically mentions the place Matthew identifies as the area where Jesus began his ministry. The tribal regions of Zebulun and Naphtali became known as upper and lower Galilee after Assyria conquered the territory around 740 B.C.E. The name change was the least of their problems. Foreign occupation of the promised land was so serious that it caused Israel to question the power of God who had brought them to that land. Isaiah reinterpreted their conquest by insisting that the foreigners themselves were under God’s power and the occupation was God’s will for an unfaithful people. The oracle we hear today announced the promise of a new Davidic king in whom the people placed their hopes for restoration. Our reading stops before going into all the titles of the coming king, names like Wonder-Counselor and Prince of Peace made famous by G. F. Handel. The point of the reading is that God is still in charge of history. God degraded the land but will glorify it.

Isaiah’s prophecy describes a time of joy that the people can imagine because it is the inverse of what they have known. They will rejoice as at the harvest, that moment when abundance overflows and the memories of drought and hunger fade. They will party just like their enemies did while plundering Israel’s homes and Temple. Finally, the people who were victimized by armed bullies will see the torturers’ instruments shattered so that cowering servitude becomes a thing of the past.

Those visions articulate the hopes of any exploited people and can be analogously applied to any situation of injustice and oppression. When Matthew cited this prophecy in the opening of his Gospel it fell on the people’s ears like a song of freedom, a remembrance of God’s loving concern and will to save. Framing his Gospel against the backdrop of Galilee helps make sense of the disciples’ radical response to Jesus’ call. Matthew set up his story so that Jesus would appear on the turf of the long-awaited savior, the one who would bring light to the land once known as Zebulun and Naphtali.

1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17

In the opening of the First Letter to the Corinthians Paul claimed authentic apostolic authority. Now he goes further, speaking in Christ’s name to demand that the people act like a community. When he says “I urge you in the name of Jesus Christ,” we might remember Blessed Oscar Romero’s last Sunday homily in 1980 when he spoke to the soldiers in the Salvadoran army who were fighting against the people of their own villages. On March 14, 1980, Romero used his radio homily to say: “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.” Ten days later he was shot while celebrating the Eucharist. Many people believe that Romero’s message to the common soldiers was the last straw leading to his martyrdom.

While we might argue that Paul was facing a far less serious situation than did Bishop Romero, it’s possible that Paul would disagree. As this letter goes on, Paul claims that the divisions in the community actually make the people responsible for Christ’s body and blood, meaning the death of Christ (1 Cor. 11:17-29). In Paul’s mind the problem of a divided community was no playground quarrel! It was such a scandal that Paul saw it as inhibiting Christ’s presence in the world – which was simply the other side of the coin of his calling the community the body of Christ.

It’s very hard to decipher today exactly what the problem was among the Corinthians. Paul used the names of different preachers as part of his almost satirical depiction of their divisions. This will not be the only time he taunts this community. It’s clear that he was emotionally involved in the message he was delivering, and probably wishing that he could roar at them instead of committing it all to writing. (They might have counted their lucky stars for the distance between them!)

It’s tempting to put more contemporary labels on what Paul is saying. One might be a John Paul II Christian and another claim to be with John XXIII or Francis; it could be the fans of the Steubenville Conference in contrast to the Sant’Eggidio Community … the list could go on and on. Paul is not against the fervor these people feel. Not at all. Rather, he was adamantly opposed to their tendency to misplace their loyalty. Was Dorothy Day crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Saint Faustina? Is Christ divided? Is Christ going to take sides in the holy company mentioned above?

Paul then says that his only task is to preach the Gospel so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning. The not so subtle implication here is that the divisions in the Christian community empty the cross of its meaning – and that, too, is a pretty strong accusation. It describes a form of apostasy, defection, betrayal of the community.

Paul judges the divisions in the community as rifts over secondary issues. The task of the Christian community is to be the body of Christ. That means its members are to be ready to pour out their lives for the Gospel and in love for each other. When that is their attitude toward one another they will learn how to allow diverse opinions to become sources of truth and grace rather than community cancers.

Matthew 4:12-23

Matthew situates the inauguration of Jesus’ mission in the temporal context of the “handing over” of John the Baptist and the geography of Galilee, fertile with images from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. (Note: the same word the reading translated here as “arrested” is translated as “handed over” in the passion narrative.) There should be no doubt about what constituted the appropriate time for Jesus to begin his ministry: danger was in the air for people like him.

In terms of the geographical context, Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth for Capernaum, the place of the appearance of the great death-conquering light prophesied by Isaiah. That alerts the reader to the fact that Jesus was doing God’s will and that God was about to do something wonderful for Israel. The opening lines assure us that the story which follows is going to be about serious struggles.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus preached the same message as John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That one phrase could sum up the entire Gospel message.

“Repent!” The Greek word metanoia implies a total turn-around: meta means beyond or after and noeo refers to perception or understanding or even the mind itself. In the world of psychology the term metanoia suggests a falling apart and reconstitution of the personality. Pope John Paul II explained that metanoia implies a Gospel-based revision of a person’s underlying motivations, and therefore a thorough change in attitude and action (Ecclesia in America #26). This is something far deeper than sorrow for sin and a firm purpose of amendment. In fact, the emotion it implies would be more like excitement, even passion. Metanoia will be associated with fervor that may or may not include asceticism but necessarily involves an intensity and depth that can be nurtured over the long haul.

Such a change of heart and mind does not spring from an intellectual insight or a dogmatic assertion. As Matthew points out with his stories, metanoia happens as the result of an encounter with Jesus and the message he embodied: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” That phrase was the core of Jesus’ living and eventually the accusation that led to his execution.

Matthew’s decision to refer to the kingdom “of heaven” rather than “of God,” is fortuitous in that it indicates that “kingdom” does not refer to a spatial reality. Rather than speaking of kingdom as a noun, we come closer to its meaning when we think of it as a verb form translatable as “the reigning of heaven,” or the “reigning of God.” That speaks of a quality of relationships rather than geography.

Jesus preached that the reigning of heaven was germinating in the midst of the people. Pope Francis explains that “Jesus lived in full harmony with creation, and others were amazed” (“Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” #98). Jesus’ preaching, born out in his works of healing, was as immensely attractive to some as it was threatening to others.

It is only that attraction that can explain the response of the fishermen. Jesus awakened something in them, something that caused metanoia, something that led them to say, “There’s nothing else that makes sense any longer if this is true.” So they followed him.

Planning: 3rd Sunday in OrdinaryTime

By: Lawrence Mick

It is easy this week to see epiphany connections again. The first reading speaks of people who walked in darkness now seeing a great light, which leads to great rejoicing. The psalm picks up the theme of light: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” St. Paul challenges the Corinthians (and us) to avoid divisions, since Christ died on the cross for all people. The Gospel quotes the first reading as Jesus begins preaching and calling disciples to help him proclaim the kingdom of God. Do you recognize epiphany themes of manifestation and worldwide mission in these texts?

If you have looked at the readings for all seven Sundays of winter Ordinary Time, you may have noticed that we are following two books of the Bible consistently. The Gospel this year is generally taken from Matthew’s account, and throughout these weeks, we are also reading from 1 Corinthians each week. These are known as “semi-continuous readings,” meaning we are working our way through these books of the Christian Scriptures step by step but not including every verse. This might be a good time to urge parishioners to study Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians more deeply, and to remind them to study Matthew’s Gospel all year. Bible study groups might be the first place to promote such Scripture reading, but it is also helpful to suggest resources and offer encouragement for parishioners to engage in such learning on an individual basis. Would it be helpful, for example, to put a short item in the bulletin each week to highlight some aspect of Paul’s first letter to Corinth? Besides fostering Bible study outside the liturgy, this would also help the assembly more fully grasp the meaning and context of the passages proclaimed at these Sunday Masses.

Prayer for the Unborn: Today marks the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion throughout the United States. Because it falls on Sunday this year, the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children is transferred to Monday. On Monday, you may choose from a list of readings found in the Ordo (check the sacristy counter) or use the readings assigned to Monday of the Third Week of Ordinary Time. The Mass texts may be taken from the Mass, “For Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life” (#48/1 in Masses for Various Needs) or the Mass, “For the Preservation of Peace and Justice (#30 in Various Needs). The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (#373) indicates that white vestments are used with #38 and violet vestments with #30. It is not permitted to use these texts on Sunday, but it is certainly appropriate to include this concern in the general intercessions today.


Prayers: 3rd Sunday in OrdinaryTime

By: Joan DeMerchant


Jesus begins his healing ministry by calling ordinary people — simple fishermen — to follow him. What was it about his invitation that appealed to them, caused them to accept it? One would not have guessed what was yet to come of his being and doing. We never know the outcome of an invitation or a promise that is made. We are called in many ways, most of them simple. We don’t know where we will be led. Our task is to keep our hearts and minds open to God’s calling, however or whenever it may come.

Penitential Act

  • Lord Jesus, you began your ministry by preaching repentance: Lord, have mercy.
  • Christ Jesus, you called simple fishermen to follow you: Christ, have mercy.
  • Lord Jesus, you call us, too, in unexpected ways: Lord, have mercy.

Prayer of the Faithful

Presider Let us pray for the concerns of our lives and the concerns of all the world.

Minister For the church, that it may be a support to all who seek to know their calling ... we pray,

  • For courage when we are called to act on behalf of others, especially those most in need ... we pray,
  • For those who have no sense of direction or do not realize that they are being called ... we pray,
  • For those who feel alone in their ministry or life calling ... we pray,
  • For those who are ministering in dangerous situations or places ... we pray,
    For those whose calling is impeded by others — by individuals or institutions ... we pray,
  • For our Protestant and Orthodox sisters and brothers, during this Week of Christian Unity ... we pray,
  • For the poor, the discouraged, the sick and the dying; and for those called to minister to them ... we pray,
  • For those who have died ... (names) ... and for those who grieve for them ... we pray,

Presider God, who calls us as you called Jesus, we come to you for your help. Give us the desire to know him more deeply, to understand the meaning of our calling, and the strength to follow him wherever we must go. We ask this in his holy name, Amen.

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