Cast your mind back to when you applied to college (a few of you are not old enough; for others of you the memory will be fresh from last year; some of us will need to do some mental digging). There were applications to be filled out, visits to various schools to see if they were the right fit, interviews, standardized tests, essays. Whether we applied to one institution or to a handful, we went to them. We chose where we wanted to study; we appealed to those places, we tried hard to make them choose us over other worthy candidates. We tried to appear our very best, on paper and in person. Some of us had a strong favorite among the schools, the place we knew we belonged; we wanted badly to have them choose us.
Things were similar in the time of Jesus – not the SAT’s of course, but if you wanted to study with a rabbi, you had to appeal to him. You had to approach him, convince him, and hope that he would agree to take you on as a student, a disciple, a follower. I imagine that there were rabbis of very great reputation with whom many people wished to study, and that there was competition to do so. Lesser-known rabbis were easier to find a place with.
Now turn this all around – imagine Princeton not waiting for you to apply but coming to you, unexpected, with a warm invitation to start your degree immediately. Imagine a rabbi walking past fishermen in their boats and saying “Hey you! I’ve got a spot for you. You can start today!” Those fishermen don’t even think about it. They let the nets drop from their hands, jump into the water and, dripping wet, follow a stranger.
Jesus will take anyone! I’ve smiled to myself a few times in this past week, thinking of this passage and wondering if the evangelist Matthew, for brevity, only recorded Jesus’ successful invitations. Did Jesus call out to a merchant in his shop, “Hey, come follow me?” only to be told, “Freak show!” Did a Pharisee yell back, “Get a job!”? Perhaps Jesus never attempted to recruit the well-heeled of Capernaum to join him. Those who do are not elite; they do hard physical labor from the sun’s rising to its setting. They are dirty and sunburned; their hands are calloused from hauling rope nets. Father Zebedee, in his old age, must still work hard.
Jesus will take anyone, but perhaps not all have the faith or courage to say yes. And how many good people would feel too strongly the tug of responsibilities? I imagine that would have been me – can’t just leave the family, stop getting a paycheck and paying my mortgage. Do James and John, in that instant, decide that Zebedee can support their families for a while? One way of looking at the four fishermen’s split-second decision is that it is highly irresponsible.
Jesus was new to Capernaum. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus goes there because he hears that John the Baptist has been arrested. The Greek verb for “withdrew” to Capernaum implies that there was a threat – that Jesus needed to retreat to Galilee. John’s arrest was dangerous for Jesus. I’ve wondered if the Baptist’s arrest means that Jesus needs new colleagues – perhaps he had planned on having John as a lay disciple. Christ withdraws to a part of the territory where he can do his work safely, and the disciples he recruits are nobodies – they are unknowns, and they will attract no interest from the religious and secular authorities.
The reason that I want Jesus to have called these particular men, and the reason that I want them to have accepted, is because Jesus could see as he first looked at them that his was the voice they had been waiting all their lives to hear. It was instant recognition – them to him, him to them. Christ knew upon first glance that these were people who had been hungering to hear his call. Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard and saw something in the man calling to them from the shore. They had never laid eyes on him, but they saw the answer to their deepest spiritual need. In an instant they decided to risk separation from their families, to trust that they would remain secure, and to believe that the stranger in the distance would fulfill their hopes and heal their world. They were “called out” in every way – called out of their daily lives by a stranger on the move, and “called out” as we colloquially use that phrase – meaning to publicly name something (usually critical) about another person’s words, actions, motives. Christ “called out” the hunger they had lived with all their lives, their emptiness, their struggle to keep hoping in God in spite of Rome’s brutal occupation and their own poverty. Christ called out their short-comings and challenges while he called out their gifts: their faith, their ability to trust that a stranger’s call was worth risking everything, their humble confidence that accepting the stranger’s invitation was the best thing they could do with their lives to lift up their families, the Jewish people, and the whole hurting world.
The disciples couldn’t have really known – no human being could have – what they were really getting into. But they learned right away what were the tools, the projects, the media through which they were to work. As soon as they joined Christ, we read, “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” For what were the first disciples called out? Just following a man around? No, immediately they joined him in the work of preaching, teaching, and healing! Disciples, then and now, get right to work.
And our work, then and now, is preaching, teaching, and healing. Perhaps you are thinking, “I don’t have the training to do any of those things.” All twelve disciples said that to Jesus repeatedly. He reminded them that they only needed the faith of an infinitesimal mustard seed – they had it then, and we do now. Preaching? You don’t need a seminary degree to do that. Remember the beloved adage “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” We are all preaching something every moment of our lives. What is it? How do we inhabit the Gospel in every situation? Anger is the appropriate response in certain circumstances, so how do we express it through the lenses of love and justice? That is the gospel way. How do we preach forgiveness, mercy, and grace? It is about how we respond to every person who comes before us. Not every situation should earn our approval, and so preaching the gospel at all times can be hard. We are to “be doers of the word,” as Christ said, and not merely speakers.
And then there is our call to a teaching ministry. You don’t have a Masters in Education? Me either, but we are all still called to the task. We teach when we are intentional about using situations as moments for learning – when we share with humility the faithful wisdom we have gleaned, when we share what we know, including those spiritual lessons we learned the hard way. How much heartache or lost time can we spare others if we teach what we know about God and Christ? When we instruct and encourage, embolden and empower, we teach people not who they are but whose they are, and all that they can be as children of God.
You don’t have an R.N., M.D., psych. degree, etc.? Neither do I, but we are all called to a discipleship of healing. It is about making the broken whole – some can do that for body or mind; we all can do it for spirit. Some have gifts to heal the body politic, others to heal institutions, and others still to heal hurting souls one by one. We do that through a loving ministry of presence, sharing Christ’s compassion with those broken in pieces. We are indeed called to a ministry of healing.
In the end, Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John each heard a call to a new beginning. I think they answered because they wanted one. Do you? Do you want a new start to some or all things? Think of that as a call to discipleship: think of the places in your life where you would like to start anew, and then think about those issues as opportunities to inhabit the gospel. Is it a relationship that needs a new beginning? As a disciple of Christ, what are you called to do? If it is a vocational new beginning you need – again, what would a discipleship approach require of you? What would reflections on the love, mercy, and justice of Christ compel you to do? A new beginning is absolutely what the disciples got. If you want one, listen for the voice of Christ. He is saying to each of us always, “Follow me.”
Eric Barreto, “Commentary on Matthew 4:12-23,” www.workingpreacher.org, Jan. 11, 2011
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, ed. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 284-289