Off-Center – Jett Villarin, SJ

Matthew 4:12-23, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sea of Galilee

Jesus begins his ministry off-center. Not in his hometown Nazareth nor in the center of religion, Jerusalem. His proclamation of the good news is preceded by bad news. John’s arrest prompts him to move northward to Galilee, “west of the Jordan, the District of the Gentiles”, to a melting pot of a place called “Capernaum by the sea”.

The prophet Isaiah tells us in the first reading that it is a desolate place, a place where people have been walking in darkness, “dwelling in a land overshadowed by death”. Jesus begins his ministry off-center, away from the hub of light and life, at the margins of wealth and power, in the shadows. 

And so our first point. If you are looking for Jesus, if you are listening for God, do not look for him only in places of light and life. We tend to equate God with goodness, with blessed things that surround us, with holy places like churches and temples, with the fragrance of incense and candles, the gold of victory and honor, and rightly so. But God is not just in the center. 

In Capernaum, in Galilee of the Gentiles, when Jesus proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand, the goodness and newness of that news is his assurance to us that God is also in the shadows. God is also in places where we think he is absent, in moments of need and loss, at the edges of our longing, even in the land of tears. 

When Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is at hand, when he proclaims to us that the loving power of God is already in our midst, he precedes that message with a strong verb: repent, metanoiete. It is more than about being sorry for our sinfulness or regretful of our transgressions. The root of the action word is metanoia or conversion. 

The second point then. If you are looking for Jesus, if you are listening for God, do not look for him in those who have no need of conversion. Do not look for him in pretty places that have no need of renovation. You will not find God in static mindsets and hardened hearts that are like immoveable monuments that have petrified over time and over pride. 

Look for Jesus not outside, but inside you. Listen for God in the beating of your heart, in your desire to be healed and forgiven, in your yearning to be good again, to love again. Confess to yourself the hollow places in your heart, hungers that cannot be satisfied. Look to your longing to come home to God again. Look for God in your desire to believe in someone who does not rest until you rest in his love.  

When Jesus starts his ministry, he does not go it alone. He goes down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee to choose his first companions. They are fishermen, most likely unlettered, unsophisticated, perhaps in Gentile Galilee, even unchurched. His first companions are off-center, not exactly the expected, not the scribes or pharisees, not the religious or observant saints at the center. 

Third and last point. If you are looking for Jesus, know that he is looking for you. He is calling you to be his companion. Do not say you are not worthy. No one ever is. Do not say you are not ready. No one ever is. Do not even think that God is calling you to be an angel. You are not.

God loves you by calling you to his side. And he calls you right where your are, as you are, in all your uniqueness. He does not call you to become another person, much less another angel. Only that you become who you truly are in his eyes, in the likeness of every child beloved of God. If you are looking for God, know that he is looking for you to labor with him in working the earth, in shaping our unfinished lives with his love. 

Jesus begins and ends his ministry off-center. If you are looking for Jesus, look for him not only in places where there are no shadows. You will not find him in those who will not be moved, who have no need of metanoia or conversion. Look for him looking for you, listen for him calling you longingly and lovingly, and you will find him.

*photo by Harvey Mateo, SJ

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