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Zebulun and Naphtali, What Do They Have To Do With Us?

Homily for the

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

Given at St. Jude January 21, 2023

By Deacon Ken Steponaitis

When I first started preparing for this homily, it seemed like a given that I would talk about how Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James and John to be his followers, and their responses. But what kept gnawing at me was Zebulun and Naphtali. We heard these names three times in our readings. So it seems to me there must be something important about these places that the Church wants us to know about.

I kept wondering, what do these regions have to do with anything and maybe more importantly what do they have to do with us today? The Gospel writer Matthew wants so much to show us how the ancient prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled with Jesus. That Jesus is the Messiah.

In order to understand the significance of Zebulun and Naphtali, we have to know a bit about the history. Historically these regions were west of the sea of Galilee in what was formerly the Northern Nation of Israel. When Assyria invaded Israel in the 700s BC, they were the first two areas to see the wrath of the Assyrians. It was a dark time. The land given to the Israelites was being plundered and decimated. It was being taken away. But even before the invasion, the Israelites were being warned that they cannot turn away from their trust in God. That their power to overcome evil cannot come from earthly powers. The people who lived in these lands in the 700’s BC entered into a dark time of destruction.

But as we read in our first reading, Isaiah is prophesying about a light; a time that is to come when something wonderful would happen that would bring light to a place of darkness. Isn’t it interesting that the first places of destruction for the nations of Israel and Judah, is the first the first place where Jesus begins his ministry?

I have shared before that there was a time in my life when I did not know God, or at least my conceptions of God were not what they should have been. I considered myself an atheist.

As I look back on my late teen years and into my mid-thirties, I see from my current perspective, that I was living in a dark time. And what is so unfortunate was, I didn’t know I was in the dark. I didn’t know I was living a life that was at least spiritually destructive if not psychologically and maybe even physically destructive. All I knew at the time was, I was mostly never satisfied with my life. I was not at peace, and I didn’t know why. That time of my life was my Zebulun and Naphtali.

But God never gives up, thankfully. In fact, God never gives up on any of us. And while it took a very tragic situation in my life for me to recognize that something had to change, it was in tragedy that I turned to God, almost out of instinct. It was in my time of great distress, in great darkness that I would most clearly see the light. And Jesus shows up and I see him, and I follow, and frankly, I don’t really understand why.

But here’s the thing, I had to become aware of my distress first. And like any place that is dark, it takes light to see the truth of the place where you are. This is why Jesus said in our Gospel today, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

Most often we think of repentance as being sorry for our sins. But that’s only part of what repentance is. More importantly repentance calls us to change. To truly repent, is to change. To have a change in mind and heart. To repent is to see something different than what was seen before, or to turn back to the source of all that is good; to be open to a possibility that we don’t necessarily understand. When Jesus was saying, “repent,” what he was really saying is, yes you may be in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali, but I want to show you something that is going to flip your world upside. Just be open to it, because there is great news! … The kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Notice Jesus did not say the Kingdom will be at hand, it is not some future event. No, the Kingdom of heaven is now! Even in the darkness, even when things seem to be going all wrong, even when there is evil and destruction, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Let me give you an example of the kingdom of heaven even in a distressful time.

Not too long ago, I was ministering to a family where the husband had severe dementia. From the time I first met him, I brought him Eucharist every week. One day I called his wife to setup a time to go over to his assisted living facility, and she told me, you might just want to come over and give him a blessing, which I did. When I arrived, it was so clear he was in physical distress, he could not swallow as they attempted to give him water. He was shifting in the bed and clearly uncomfortable. And when I arrived 3 of his 4 sons were there, comforting him, caressing him, adjusting him in his bed. Not too long after I arrived, his 4th son came to be with us as well and immediately went to him and helped his brothers to comfort their father. And all the while I was talking to them about unimportant things, I wasn’t paying attention to the discussion because I was so enthralled by the great love the sons had for this man. In a way, I was viewing a beatific vision of the perfect love of the sons and the father. I was seeing the great light in a distressful situation.

In our daily lives, Jesus is calling to us. And in my stubbornness, I needed a wakeup call, and I got it through a great tragedy. But some of us are given a gift of immediacy. Some of us even in the noise of this world answer Jesus’ call quickly. For me, I had to enter into the land of Zebulun and Naphtali before I could see the light.

One of the most intriguing things about our Gospel reading today is how Peter, Andrew, James and John, when asked by Jesus to follow Him, did so at once. Immediately, they left their nets, their boats and their father, and followed Him.

All effective leaders have a certain charisma. It is not something they learned. It is something that is just part of their nature. There are people I follow because they rank over me. But then there are people I follow simply because I see something in them that draws me to them. A certain kind of truth and positivity; a hopeful air surrounds them. I want to follow these kinds of leaders, not because I have to, but because I feel compelled to. Jesus is that kind of person. There is something about Jesus that compelled these four men to repent, change their lives completely and dedicate themselves to Jesus.

Nevertheless, there are people who feel threatened by Jesus. There are people who are skeptical of Him. In our world today, there is so much darkness. It’s as though we live in a time of Zebulun and Naphtali. There is so much wrong headedness. Our society seems to be going off the deep end. But today, right here and right now, there is a kingdom of heaven. And this kingdom can be lived in if only we can see it. If only we can enter the great light of Jesus. There is however a first step we must make, we must repent. We must have a change of heart, a change of mind, an openness to things that seem impossible. And let me make it clear, we only need to be open to change, then we need to set our ego’s aside and let Jesus take over. Allow Him to be the great light of truth that leads us to the kingdom.

Where are your Zebulun’s and Naphtali’s in your life. Where are those dark places that you enter which need repentance? As we continue our Journey in faith, as we repent and turn towards the great light, allow the graces that come from this Mass and the Eucharist to change you. Faith sets us free. Faith cures us. Faith destroys evil. Take the first step towards Jesus. Because when you do, the Kingdom of Heaven is truly at hand.

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