January 26, 2020: The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time - Pastor’s Corner
Everyone loves an underdog. Whether it’s the rags-to-riches rise of young entrepreneur who catches lightning in a bottle with a new invention or the historic success of an unheralded running back who wins the big game despite having been previously overlooked, we all delight in the story of the victorious underdog.
This weekend, our Sunday readings allude the story of Naphtali and his Tribe. It is potent, if unfamiliar, tale of the triumphant underdog. Remember that the story of salvation begins with God forging a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God renames Jacob to be Israel and his twelve sons become the Twelve Tribes which form the Chosen people. Naphtali is the sixth son of Jacob, the middle child. If you’re unacquainted with Naphtali’s story, you’re not alone. As the middle child, he is somewhat unremarkable in the development of Israel’s history. In fact, there are reasons which make Naphtali and his subsequent progeny unlikely as the source of God’s covenant blessings. First, Naphtali’s mother Bilhah was not married to Jacob. Jacob had two wives, Leigh and Rachel, who were sisters and rivals for Jacob’s attention and affection. Although Leigh bears four sons in rapid succession, Rachel initially thinks she is barren. So she convinces Jacob to sire a son through her maidservant Bilhah. (Ultimately, Rachel is able to conceive and has two children, Joseph and Benjamin, who become Jacob’s favorites.) As Bilhah is giving birth, Rachel refers to her proxy son as Naphtali, which means “my struggle,” referring to her competition to leave a greater legacy than her older sister. This puts Naphtali in a difficult position in relation to his brothers. He is a step child. In a time when parentage and blood lines were everything, the fact that Naphtali was not fully related to his other brothers who were the sons of Leigh or Rachel, makes him a “middle-child-outsider” from his beginning. Second, following this inauspicious origin, when it comes time to distribute the Promised land into legacy territories the Tribe of Naphtali gets the leftovers. Naphtali and his Tribe is given the northwestern area of the land which is overrun with Canaanites who are never really definitively driven out despite God’s command. There is intermarriage and, all too often, when Israel is attacked, Naphtali is targeted because they are the weakest link. Third, because of this, by the time of Jesus, the Tribe of Naphtali has a poor reputation for not being faithful to the covenant, being militarily weak and educational disadvantaged. In short, a place of dishonor. Thus is shocking that the Land of Naphtali, which includes Nazareth and Galilee, is precisely the place where Jesus choose to begin his preaching and teaching ministry. When people ask where Jesus is from, and the answer is “from Nazareth,” the universal response is “can anything good come from Nazareth.” This anti-Naphtali bias runs deep and is a constant and consistent taunt again Jesus.
However God loves an underdog. And so when it comes time for God to fulfill his covenant promises to Jacob, he sends his Son to begin his mission of salvation smack in the middle of the most unlike place and among the most dishonored people of Israel. Although this is striking, it shouldn’t be surprising. In fact, the Gospel of Mark reminds us of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Jesus left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: …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 arisen.” Jesus choses to grow up in the Land of Naphtali. He chooses to begin his ministry in this humble place. In fact, eleven of the original twelve apostles all come from the land Naphtali (except ironically Judas, who betrays Jesus). These Twelve apostles form the foundation of the Church which is the source of God’s continued blessings and presence.
When it comes to our relationship with God, we do well to remember that God does not love us because we are successful or are spiritually prosperous. God loves a humble heart. He wants to lift up the lowly and exalt the unpretentious. The meek shall inherit the earth precisely because God’s gifts come to those who are overlooked. Let’s place our trust in the God of Naphtali, the Lord who loves the underdog, that we might reign with him!
~ Fr. Michael