Be ἅλας to be ἁλιεῖς


Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Ethnics, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.”

St. Matthew wrote these words and they serve as the beginning of the Galilean Ministry. May in Reno, Nevada presuppose that Jesus and his followers were poor, fisherman by trade. Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest followers, present at his crucifixion, and at his resurrection. On the shores of Lake Galilee was a village, Magdala Nunayya, or the Tower of the fisheries. Mary Magdalene was from this village. In the Jewish War, 3:10, Josephus tells us the town, being a place of fisheries, was very wealthy.

Herod Antipas built Sepphoris, a town about nine miles from Jesus’ home at Nazareth. He also built his capital Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Flavius Josephus wrote, “One may call this place the ambition of Nature.” Josephus also reported a thriving fishing industry at this time, with 230 boats regularly working in the lake. The Sea of Galilee was very much like Lake Tahoe, the lake on the Nevada, California border where all the rich people live.

This brings us to Matthew 4:15. “Galilee of the Ethnics,” tells us something very important about this region. “Galilee” is Hebrew for “Land of the Rolling Hills.” Galilee is the land of the rolling hills and it is the region of the Ethnics.

John 18:33 has Jesus and Pontius Pilate in extended dialogue. It would be less than feasible to expect a backwoods carpenter to discuss issues in Latin, the language of Pontius Pilate. The Romans had the same problem with their administrators that Americans have with their diplomats. The Roman Emperor picked people based upon their political positions, not their diplomatic skills. The Lingua Franca of the region was Koine Greek. The fishermen of that region, and by extension Jesus, were bilingual, speaking both Greek and Aramaic. Pilate, coming from that region, was bilingual, speaking Latin and Greek. The conversation was in their common language, Koine Greek.

Another intentional pun in St. Matthew comes in Matthew 9:16 and 9:24. The Aramaic word for wineskin and the Aramaic word for a little girl is, “טלית.” One does not poor new wine into an old wineskin. In the same way, the little girl rises into new life, not like she lived in the past. St. Matthew uses puns from both languages. He was bilingual, as were the other apostles.

If Jesus and the apostles were bilingual, and came from prosperous fishing villages, we must again look at who they were as people. They were not backwoods people like the back villages of Appalachia. They were sophisticated people from a place like Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada. We can look at the Gospels and see artisans in the art of writing.

The Gospel of St. Matthew relates, “Walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon, called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting nets; they were fishermen/ἁλιεῖς. Jesus them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They left their nets and followed him. He saw two other brothers, James, and his brother John the son of Zebedee. They were in a boat, with their father, mending/doing catharsis/καταρτίζοντα, their nets.”

A chapter later St. Matthew quotes Jesus, “You are the salt /ἅλας of the earth. If salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer strong for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” Fishermen/ ἁλιεῖς and salt/ ἅλας alliterate nicely with each other. This is an artisan at his craft. We are both the fishers sent out by Jesus and salt, which seasons the earth.

The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When full, they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is beautiful into buckets. What is toilsome they throw away.” The fishermen, now fishers of men cast off their nets. Some they accept while others they cast off. The ones they accept have ἅλας, salt. The people the apostles accept add flavor to the world. They become fishermen, giving catharsis to the world. They mend the people, giving them the salt/flavor they need to survive in a very hostile world.

When the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He asked, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ The man was reduced to silence. The king commanded his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

What did this hapless man do? What is the wedding garment? It comes back to being that ἁλιεῖς, that ἅλας. He did not have flavor. He was not that spice of life for others. In spite of the hostility of this world order, this cosmos, he did not flavor himself. He did not put on the new man. Somebody has to be the leader. When nobody else leads, when nobody else is the light of the world, remember, there are a billion stars in the sky. If the sun does not shine, let your star shine before men.

In this election season, we again complain that there are no leaders willing to promote Catholic Social Doctrine. We graduate 70,000 students from 225 Catholic colleges, universities, and law schools each hear and we have nobody to run for public office. We should provide that leadership, and not wait for others to do it for us.

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