Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 26, 2014
Isaiah 9: 1-4
1 Corinthians: 1: 10-18
Matthew 4: 12- 23
Along among the broken nets
he watched them go. His flesh,
now grown, but still his hope, not just
for those declining years of splicing rope
and spinning yarns among his peers, but for
that fragile continuity
the simple rightly see avenging death.
What father doesn’t long to have
his sons about him at the end?
Yet secretly, he’d always known
they weren’t cut out for this. The younger
an incorrigible scribbler,
who spent tomorrow’s catch on books;
the other, driven by God knew
what wanderlust. That was
the mother’s influence: she always said
“They need a bigger pond than Galilee.”
Well, now she had her wish.
But quit like that? Throw twenty years’
apprenticeship and steady work away,
after five minutes chat with some
smooth-talking landsman, offering dreams for pay?
The old man studied his hemp-hardened hands,
not daring to admit he might have gone
had he been called. Instead he thought
about a wasted life of toil,
of hauling fish to buy this boat
and, through his boys, leave something to
posterity. Now, who would ever hear
the name of Zebedee?
~ Antony Smith (America Magazine, April 1986)
At the start of the church year’s Ordinary Season, the Sunday gospel readings go back to the beginning, to the opening stages of Jesus’ public ministry. In last week’s episode, Paul reminded us that we are called to be saints: Claimed, set apart by God, called to be more and more – for our ourselves, for our communities, for all nations. John told about Andrew and Simon Peter being called into Jesus’ service. Transformation begins, as it always has, with the invitation to follow. Invitations are nice to get – but useless we respond. Today, we’re going to dig a little deeper into Jesus’ invitation to discipleship: Who is called? How do we respond?
We begin with Matthew’s introduction to Jesus’ ministry – a moment of enormous significance. Like all the first witnesses of Jesus, Matthew shared the conviction that when Jesus stepped out of the obscurity of His early life and started to announce the arrival of God’s reign, a new stage in salvation history had begun. To emphasize this, Matthew uses the lines from the prophet Isaiah – the prophet of liberation. We recall similar words spoken on Christmas Eve, remembering the night when creation held its breath and light was given to the world. The light, of course, is Jesus, but it has to be acknowledged that not so many people were aware of its light shining on them.
Some were awake, however, and today we heard the continuation of the call to discipleship. Jesus moved from his hometown of Nazareth and set up shop in Capernaum, rather a strange choice. Galilee was the wild west of Palestine, a rough, unruly harbor town, a population of cutthroats and pagans considered by the religious elite in Jerusalem to be at best semi-literate. A Jew in Roman-controlled, territory, Jesus located Himself among the marginal – with the rural peasants, not the urban elite, with the ruled, not the rulers. Not the easiest place to begin a ministry – but perhaps this is exactly why Jesus chose Galilee. This place needed Him.
So, unlike most teachers of the time, Jesus didn’t sit among the learned and clever, waiting for disciples to come to Him. Instead, our Rabbi goes out among the people and finds his own friends. Where He saw promise, He called a new disciple to follow Him.
And we meet some of these disciples in the gospel today, young fellas, probably around 15 years old but already men in their community. Fishermen. they worked their nets out on the Sea of Galilee. No wives, no steady girls that we know of. Working men. James and John worked for their father; Andrew and Peter might have worked for Mr. Zebedee as well. “Follow me,” Jesus said – and they did. They left their jobs and nets and livelihoods; James and John left their father and mother and went off with the smooth-talking landsman.
According to G.K. Chesterton, an adventure is something that comes to us, that chooses us. Were these four guys ready for the adventure that chose them, the adventure of discipleship? Perhaps they hoped the Great Adventure for which they were selected meant they were chosen for Great Things. After all, Jesus was sort of a Big Fish Himself – and after the years of hard work, those days of fishing that so resembled one another – the prospect of being at the side of this up-and-comer when the New Reign arrived – well, their immediate “yes!” could have been a simple, youthful response to the knock of enlightened self-interest. Who could blame them?
And, as we know, subsequent events do not demonstrate that our boys were particularly fit for the call. Perhaps Jesus should have checked their references a bit more closely. Peter betrayed Jesus is an even more bold-faced than the others. James and John, nicknamed the Sons of Thunder, were not the most agreeable pair to have around. Andrew hardly appears on the radar again. Maybe his weakness was playing it safe.
But Jesus at the waterside wasn’t interested in collecting resumes. Today’s gospel reminds us that Jesus doesn’t always choose the most talented, most promising people to be His closest associates. In fact, He often calls the most unlikely folks imaginable. The inclusive net of Jesus caught our fishermen in the same way as it catches the rest of us: In our daily life and work, as they – as we – really are: Vulnerable to the one-upping and factions that lurk when two or more are gathered (as Paul reminded us this morning); ordinary, imperfect, spiritually hungry, asking again for second –and third and 100th do-overs.
Jesus didn’t seem to worry about any of this. When He said, “Follow me,” He apparently wasn’t concerned that the followers might not turn out to be model disciples. Instead, Jesus points us to the many things they had that God could use: A boat from which to teach. Some nets for a miracle. The discipline of hard work. A habit of hopefulness gained from a job where there are good days and bad days, and it is not always skill or smarts that makes the difference. Maybe Jesus called these four because fishermen in first century Galilee knew how to find fish. Andres and Peter, James and John, knew that if you wanted to catch fish, you had to go where they were, not where you wanted them to be. Maybe Jesus chose these guys because they were trained to look – and to look again. To deal with reality, to go where they needed to be, not where they wanted to be.
And let’s not forget all the others that Jesus called and loved, people as diverse as the fishers’ catch: There were those who traveled with him, mothers who took their babies to be blest and then returned to their housework, business people who returned to their shops, women like Lydia and Dorcas, co-workers with the disciples, who lived their faith and supported the fledgling Christian community with their charity and their resources.
So here’s the thing. God casts a wide net – and has caught us all. Discipleship isn’t only leaving everything behind, although some everyday prophets are still called to this. Zebedee was caught in that wide net; his call to stability just wasn’t the High Romance of a bigger pond than Galilee. We are asked simply to be open to saying yes to the call of God within us, open to the mystery that is the Way. Chittister reminds us that “openness is the door through which wisdom travels,” the way that we learn, just like the disciples did, that the world out there is much bigger than we’d imagined, that God’s net holds truths that are different from – and more expansive than – our own. God is present in the voices of tax collectors and prostitutes, in the faces of our neighbors and politicians, and saying yes to unlikely invitations from unlikely people immerses us in the search and possibilities for community.
And here’s another thing. Discipleship is almost never what we imagine, whether it’s James’ and John’s dreams of grandeur or Zebedee’s fears of obscurity. A call doesn’t usually make sense – and it doesn’t have to. For our boys, the surprises of discipleship might have included their own (seemingly inexhaustible) capacity for blindness, personal failure, and misunderstanding. How amazing it must have seemed to them that failing forward, continuing through dashed hopes and perpetual disappointment, turned out to be the key to heaven. Zebedee may have discovered that legacies take many forms: Not just boats and nets but also the model of faith embodied in the giving up and giving away of the sons he loved into the hands of a wandering, itinerant preacher.
And one last thing. Discipleship is not a one-time choice, made and put behind us. Like Jesus, like the disciples, we are called to rediscover and recommit every day to the process of becoming more, to making the choice over and over to leave things that tug at our heartstrings. Responding to Jesus’ invitation is keeping our eyes open and seeing what is right here, right around us – in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our work – and growing beyond our small plans for ourselves to enhance all of humanity.
When we follow faithfully, it’s a life-changing experience. When we see things as a disciple might, everyday activities are imbued with a new meaning. As far as Jesus is concerned, our willingness to wake up, get up, and get moving is credential enough.