Homily – 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Fr Henry O’Shea OSB

Is our renown’d Dominion then so small
As not to hold a new inhabitant?
Or are her means so pitiably scant
As not to yield a livelihood to all?
Or are we lesser men and women,
foredoom’d to thrall?
Or so much better than the immigrant
That we should make our hearts as adamant
And guard against defilement with a wall?
Nay, but our land is large and rich enough
For us and ours and millions more …
…And Christian, owning all mankind as kin.
W. M. Mackeracher

Some of us, if we are eager followers of futuristic fantasy- or science-
fiction films or series in the media, may be familiar with names of exotic non- existent people or places – and we take these as part of the game. Most of us, though, when it comes to strange names in Scripture can, I think, be a little nonplussed. That is, when we do actually think about such names at all. Names such as Zebulun and Naphtali which are mentioned in today’s first reading from the Book of Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew, are more likely to make us think of exotic soap or oils used in aromatherapy.

Today’s double mention of Zebulun and Naphtali is a typical example
of the attempt made throughout the Sunday liturgy to link the first reading – usually from the Old Testament – with the Gospel of the day. In many cases, the gospel reading says, either explicitly or implicitly, that what was foretold in the Old Testament has been fulfilled, brought to completion in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

For the authors of the Book of Isaiah, writing, scholars tell us from
anytime between the end of the sixth to the beginning of the second centuries BC, the phrase ‘lands of Zebulun and Naphtali’ was a kind of shorthand for all that was foreign and in particular, for those who had abandoned God’s covenant with or promises to his people Israel.

At every stage of history, people seem to need groups of outsiders. These outsiders help the insiders to define themselves. These outsiders may be as harmless as members of another football-team or may be a whole race of people seen as a threat and even turned into hate-figures.
Yet, in today’s first reading the writer is foretelling that the very lands
and peoples who epitomised the outsider will receive glory, will receive favour, from the Lord. Those who were written off and believed to be wandering in the darkness of ignorance, rejection and non-belonging will see a great light.

They will receive joy and their burdens will be lifted. Outsiders will receive favours that were regarded as the preserve, as the right, of the insiders. Insiders, in turn, will learn that they are not the only beautiful people. All are entitled to be entitled. It is part of the craft of archaeologists, historians and literary critics, to name only a few such professionals, constantly to discuss and argue about their discoveries – or what they believe to be discoveries. There are some who suggest that Jesus was from Zebulun – ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth’ – and was therefore, by definition, an outsider. So, when today’s gospel tells us that Jesus, prompted by the arrest of John the Baptist, went back to Galilee and settled on the borders of Zebulun and Napthali, we are being told that Jesus chose to be in the space or spaces between insiders and outsiders.

Matthew tell us specifically that Jesus’s choice is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the foreign and rejected, concerning the excluded and the rejecting. Jesus, literally going worlds beyond the confines of the geographical Zebulun and Naphtali – going well beyond all social, political, spiritual and intellectual Zebuluns and Naphtalis – this Jesus is the great light, unconfined and available to all. All are invited to be insiders. The land of the living is open to all.
Just one element of what being insiders might look like and, importantly, what it might demand of us, who are members of one another through our shared baptism, is illustrated in today’s second reading. St Paul tells the Corinthians and tells us, to stop our endless squabbling, our splitting of hairs and forming of opposing factions. It is appropriate that we should bear this in mind particularly on this Sunday in the middle of the week of prayer for Christian unity
St Paul tells us to stop making outsiders of others. The life, death and
resurrection of Jesus cannot be reduced to a political agenda, to a social
programme or to an excluding and comfortable blanket of religious certainty.

Jesus cannot be monopolised by or become the property of any group. Jesus cannot be manipulated, exploited by those who wish to indulge in ‘othering’ or culture-cancelling.

In today’s psalm we have already sung about the summons to allow our
hearts be expanded beyond these smallnesses:

The Lord is my light and my help;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
before whom shall I shrink?
I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness
in the land of the living.
Hope in him, hold firm and take heart.
Hope in the Lord!

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