The tribes of Zebulun and Nephtali settled in the north of Galilee. In 732 BC, King Tiglath-Pileser III and his Assyrian troops raided the north of Galilee. They deported many of those who lived there and settled people from other nations in their place. In this time of this desolation, Isaiah spoke words of encouragement, “Land of Zebulun! Land of Naphtali! ... Galilee of the Nations! The people that sat in darkness have seen a great light. On those who sat in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen” (Is 8:23-9:1).
About seven hundred and sixty years later, Jesus began His preaching ministry in northern Galilee. As we see in today’s Gospel (Mt 4:12-23), Matthew does not consider this to be a coincidence: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah” (Mt 4:14)
Thomas Aquinas recognizes that Jesus began in “Galilee of the Nations,” home to both Jews and Gentiles, “to show that He called both.”
Elsewhere, Isaiah speaks of “Those who walk in darkness and have no light yet trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon God” (Is 50:10). Thomas observes that people with hope of finding light can “walk” in darkness but those who are dazed can only stand still. Before the coming of Christ, the Jews had the hope that someone would come and so they had some preparation for His coming. The Gentiles did not have that hope because they didn’t expect anyone would come.
Thomas affirms, “Light has dawned for the Gentiles, because they did not go to the light, but the light came to them” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 16). John’s Gospel announces: ‘The light came into the world’ (Jn 3:19). Isaiah prophesied: "I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Is. 49:6).
Jesus came for all people. The First Letter to Timothy states: "Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners" (1 Tim 1:15). This would include all people, as Paul writes: "For all have sinned and need the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).
Jesus begins His preaching by calling people to “Repent.” But He also promises something else: the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mt 4:17).
Thomas asserts that this is a new teaching: “The doctrine of Christ is called the New Testament, because in it a new pact between us and God was struck concerning the kingdom of heaven: ‘I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah’” (Jer 31:31).
For Thomas, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” means the possibility of “eternal happiness.” He says “at hand,” “because the One who gave it came down to us, since we were unable to go up to God.” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 17).
Thomas notes the phrase, “As Jesus walked.”: “To walk signifies His birth in time. Therefore, by the fact that when walking He called His disciples is signified that He drew us to Himself by the mystery of the Incarnation” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 18). Christ came in our likeness: “God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3).
Jesus wanted others to join Him in His ministry: “After He began to preach, He wanted ministers of His preaching. Hence, He calls them to Himself.” Thomas alerts us that Jesus began with two sets of brothers:
“And note that the same thing is signified by two and brothers, for both pertain to charity, which consists in the love of God and neighbor. Therefore, He chose by two's, and by two's He sent them to preach. By this He wished spiritual charity to be signified, because charity is made more firm, when it is founded on nature: ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Ps 133:1) (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 18).
Thomas reflects that “the New Law is based on charity.” Even two brothers, Aaron and Moses were called, “because even there the command about charity was given” Here Jesus calls two sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew, James and John, because the New Law is “even more perfect.”
Following the example of the disciples who quickly answered Jesus call, preachers should be obedient, comprehending and courageous, as Thomas explains:
For a preacher should be obedient, that he might invite others to it: ‘The obedient man shall speak of victories’ (Pr 21:28); comprehending, that he may know how to instruct others: ‘I had rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others’ (1 Cor 14:19); courageous, in order not to be terrified by threats: ‘I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall’ (Jer 1:18); ‘I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads. Like adamant harder than flint I have made your face’ (Ez 3:8).
Jesus finds these first disciples as they are casting their fishing nets into the sea. Jesus declares to them: “Come after Me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). Thomas relates this to the future call of preachers: “By this act the action of future preachers was prefigured, for men are drawn by the words of the preacher as though by nets” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 18).
Thomas finds fishermen simpler than other people: “The Lord wanted to have and to pick men of the simplest condition, so that what they accomplished would not be attributed to human wisdom” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 18). St. Paul stated: “Consider your calling, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:26).
Jesus invites them, “Come after Me.” Thomas reflects: “This is entirely from God's generosity that He draws them to Himself” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 18).
Later in the Gospel, Jesus announces: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
Jesus says, “after Me.” Thomas understands this “As if to say: I go, and you come after Me, because I will be your leader.” Words from the Book of Proverbs apply: “I will teach you the way of wisdom; I will lead you into the paths of righteousness. When you walk, your step will not be hampered; and if you run, you will not stumble” (Pr 4:11).
Jesus declares: “I will make you.” Thomas recalls God’s word in Jeremiah: “I shall send for many fishermen, says the Lord, and these shall catch them” (Jer 16:16). Thomas comments that Jesus announces “I will make you, ”because the preacher labors in vain outwardly, unless the grace of the Redeemer is present inwardly; for it is not by his power that he draws men but by the action of Christ” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 19).
Thomas recalls the teaching of the fifth-century Syrian monk, Dionysius, “Nothing is more dignified among men's occupations than to be made a cooperator with God.” Thomas observes “Those so enlightened as to enlighten others draw more closely to that dignity.” The Book of Daniel announces: “Those who turn many to righteousness shall shine like the stars forever and ever” (Dan 12:3).
Thomas points out the obedience of the disciples: “immediately they abandoned their nets and followed Him” (Mt 4:22). They were prompt. Sirach teaches: "Do not postpone from day to day" (Sir 5:7). Paul writes of his quick response to God’ call: “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace..., I did not confer with flesh and blood” (Gal 1:15). Isaiah also asserts: “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward” (Is 50:5).
Thomas notices that it was not the amount of what they left but the affection with which they left it since wealth is an obstacle to virtue as it lessens the desire for eternal things. Thomas compares this to the single-mindedness of athletes: "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things" (1 Cor 9:25).
Thomas calls attention to the words, “They followed Him” (Mt 4:22). Thomas insists that leaving all things in itself is not perfection:
“For it is no great thing to leave all things, but perfection consists in following, which is through charity: ‘If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing' (1 Cor 13:3). For perfection per se does not consist in external things, namely, poverty, chastity and the like, except in the sense that they are instruments to charity. Therefore, he says “followed him” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 20).
Thomas affirms that Jesus called them “inwardly and outwardly.” He explains: “To call inwardly is no more than to offer help to the human mind, when he wills to convert us” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 21).
Thomas questions whether the disciples should have left their father alone with the nets. Thomas comments: “The answer is that a counsel never conflicts with a precept; but ‘honor your father and mother’ is a precept. Therefore, if a father can in no way live without help from his son, the son should not enter the religious life” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 21).
Thomas notices that the Gospel says that “Jesus went about” (Mt 4:23). He recalls Paul’s admonition: "Never flag in zeal" (Rom 12:11). Jesus did not make distinctions: “Let us go on to the next towns that I may preach there also” (Mk 1:38).
Thomas points out that the Gospel says that Jesus “taught in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom” (Mt 4:23). Thomas compares “teaching” with present realities and “preaching” with future ones. Some have proposed that “teaching” applied to natural virtues but Thomas differs: “Natural virtues do not seem able to be called virtues, because virtues exist through grace. The answer is that the inclination and beginning is natural; but the perfection, by which a man is made pleasing, is from grace, discipline and from habit” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 23).
Jesus sought out “the multitudes.” His preaching was confirmed by miracles of healing: “Disease can refer to bodily sickness; infirmity to infirmity of the soul, for the infirmities of the soul are not less than those of the body.”
Thomas concludes that preachers should confirm their preaching with signs: “We are also given to understand by that, that preachers should confirm their teaching with works; if not by miracles, then by a virtuous life” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 23).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by R.F. Larcher, O.P. The full text may be found on the web site of the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/