by Father Mike Stubbs
In 1665, the bubonic plague was ravaging Cambridge, England. As a precaution, the university there shut down. Many of its inhabitants fled the city for a healthier environment.
Among them was Isaac Newton. He moved to a farm outside the small village of Woolsthorpe-by- Colsterworth. There he spent two years in peace and calm.
In the relative leisure of that time out in the country, Newton was able to reflect on the nature of things and to speculate on possible explanations of their workings. He developed his theories, which served as the basis for the science of physics.
And it all happened because of the plague.
There sometimes are unforeseen consequences of an event that can turn out to be beneficial. That may have been the case with Jesus. This Sunday’s Gospel, Mt 4:12-23, supports that possibility. It begins with the words: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.”
The Gospel goes on to explain this move of Jesus by the reason “that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled, ‘Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has shown.’”
In retrospect, the Gospel writer interprets this event in
Jesus’ life as part of God’s plan, as the fulfillment of a prophecy uttered centuries earlier. At the same time, when that event took place, there may have been a simpler and more obvious explanation. That explanation is suggested by the timing of the event: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” Jesus may have moved up to Galilee to avoid the same fate as John the Baptist. He may have been seeking a place of relative safety, just as Newton left London to avoid the plague.
And similarly, just as Newton’s exile benefited the world, so also Jesus’ stay in Galilee proved to be of wide-reaching benefit. The region of Galilee felt the immediate benefit of Jesus’ presence, as the Gospel attests: “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.”
Eventually, that benefit extends beyond the region of Galilee. Through his disciples, the message of Jesus has reached every corner of the globe and his healing continues to touch the ills of this world. But it all begins in Galilee.
It is significant that the prophecy of Isaiah describes Galilee as “of the Gentiles.” The term “Galilee” meant “district.” In other words, this was a region populated by Gentiles, rather than Israelites. It was appropriate that an outreach to the Gentiles of the world should begin in an area of Israel known to be inhabited by Gentiles.
By means of this Isaiah quotation, Matthew anticipates the universal direction of Jesus’ ministry. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will reaffirm the universal dimension of that ministry through his instruction to the disciples: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”