Historical Cultural Context
The Gospel for this Sunday proposes three topics for our consideration: the Baptizer, Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’ disciples.
John The Baptizer
John is in prison; he will shortly be put to death. Matthew, Mark, and Luke make it clear that Jesus does not begin his own ministry until the Baptizer has completed his. In John’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry before the Baptizer’s imprisonment.
All the Gospels indicate that the Baptizer had a successful and effective ministry in his own right. During Jesus’ ministry, people often confused Jesus with or identified him as the Baptizer (Mt 1:13-14).
One plausible explanation for this confusion, proposed by contemporary scholars, is this. Moved to conversion by John’s preaching, Jesus became his disciple. When John was imprisoned, Jesus ventured out on his own and gathered disciples (Mt 4:18-22) but continued to baptize and broaden his ministry (Mt 11:2-6). Soon he began to experience the ability to cast out demons and realized he had a distinctive ministry of his own (Mt 12:22-28). With this, Jesus stopped baptizing and came into his own.
After John’s imprisonment, Jesus moves from Nazareth, his tiny hometown, to Capernaum, a larger crossroads town by the Sea of Galilee. He continues preaching John’s message: “Repent, for the reign of heaven has approached” (Mt 4:17).
Matthew encapsulates Jesus’ ministry in a summary statement (Mt 4:23): Jesus was teaching in the synagogues; preaching the good news, and healing.
In Jesus’ day the synagogue was a gathering place, like a modern community center, where males could meet on every day of the week to study or pray. Here Jesus read and listened to Torah, disputed and argued with others, but did not attend Sabbath services, for there were none at that time. For the ordinary first-century Jewish believer the Sabbath was not a day of worship; it was simply a day of rest.
As for his healing program, Jesus is clearly a “folk” healer and not a “professional” In contrast to the latter, Jesus attempts to heal people. He doesn’t just talk about healing.
The First Disciples
Jesus’ act of calling disciples is a common event in the Middle East. Usually, a person with a grievance invites people to join him in resolving the grievance. We don’t know Jesus’ grievance, but the disciples certainly did. This in part explains why they dropped everything to follow him. In unified groups there is strength.
Moreover, this is the dry season. Farmers simply wait for the harvest. Fishing partners can leave the fishing to others for the time being. Now is the time to be out and about, to be seen and heard, to pursue group interests.
Such group orientation or connectedness permeates this reading as it does the entire Bible. The lives of the Baptizer, the disciples, and healed clients are entirely intertwined with Jesus.
Jesus’ group-oriented culture lived by second nature what people like Samuel Gompers and Saul Alinsky would later have to teach to modern American individualists: Organize! Build your network! It’s the only way you can win.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
**From St. Louis University