I was surprised and intrigued to find, while planning my preaching schedule, that the Revised Common Lectionary suggested the same story in back-to-back weeks, but from the perspective of two different gospels. It’s not often that we are given such an opportunity. In my previous post, we heard Jesus answer the spiritual seekers’ question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” with the life-saving invitation, “Come and see.” This week, we’ve once again read the story of how Jesus’ first disciples began to follow him. In this gospel, no one asks Jesus where he is staying, and no one ever utters that life-saving invitation. In fact, Matthew’s gospel doesn’t give the impression that Jesus’ first followers were seekers of anything at all. They appear to be ordinary people, doing ordinary things in the world, and not paying particular attention to Jesus or to anything else for that matter.
The two versions of this story are so different, that we have to be careful not to mix them up in our heads. In Matthew’s version, in contrast to John’s version, Andrew is not described as a disciple of John the Baptist; he is simply a fisherman going about his business with his brother Simon. Matthew doesn’t suggest that he was seeking anything; it doesn’t say he heard John the Baptist declare that Jesus was the Lamb of God. In fact, according to Matthew, John had, by this time, already been arrested by Herod.
So what we have, then, is the story of Jesus moving to Galilee after hearing that John had been arrested. And as he was walking by the sea, he noticed Simon and Andrew fishing. And he called to them, offering them a strange new task: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” That sounds just weird enough that it probably should have raised red flags in their minds which read, “Stranger Danger!” or at the very least made them chuckle and then go about their business. But it was also just enigmatic enough, just enough of an enticing mystery, that curiosity killed those cats, and they dropped everything to find out what the crazy guy on the shore was babbling about.
As he traveled on, Jesus came upon two other brothers, James and John, as well as their father Zebedee, sitting in their boat and mending their nets. He called to them, and immediately they left the boat—and their father—and, like Simon and Andrew, followed Jesus.
Now, I’m more struck by the second call story. We don’t know what Jesus said to them—or if Peter’s and Andrew’s presence helped them make up their minds—but James and John, called by Jesus while working with their father, simply dropped their nets and walked away. We’re not even sure that Jesus used his crafty “fish for people” line on them.
James and John are described as being in the boat with their father Zebedee, and Jesus is said to have “called them.” But when the call came, James and John stood up and walked away from their work while Zebedee stayed behind. What was wrong with him? Why didn’t Zebedee follow Jesus? The text explicitly says, “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” (4:22)
What about Zebedee? Was he included in the call, but chose not to go? Was he hard of hearing and didn’t know what was going on until it was too late, and he was left holding the broken nets by his two insensitive sons? Did he think about following as well, but was scared to take the risk? Did he see his sons’ snap judgment as some young and immature impulsive whim of which he would have no part? Was he proud of them for their adventuresome spirit, and did he pine for the days of his youth, when he too would have followed? Was he hurt or insulted that perhaps Jesus didn’t ask him to come along? Did he not get an invitation at all?
While we’re probably supposed to focus on the four disciples who answer the call—and admire them for doing so without a second thought—I can’t help but feel like Zebedee deserves our consideration. We’ve always been impressed with these first four disciples. Apparently Jesus was so compelling—his presence so irresistible—that they could not help but follow him. Throwing caution to the wind, they left everything, and began a whole new life.
Professor and scholar Eugene Boring notes that like last week’s story from John,
“in the Matthean story, these men have never seen Jesus before, have seen no miracles, heard no teachings. No explanation has been given them. They are not told why they should follow Jesus, what following him will mean, or where the path will lead them. We are met here with Jesus’ first miracle, the miracle of his powerful word that creates following, that makes disciples.”
But these guys have always made me feel inadequate and cowardly because, if I’m honest, the likelihood is that I would have stayed in that boat with Zebedee, mending the nets, and then spent the rest of my life wondering if I had made the right choice. I think I might have stayed behind, too, and for all the same reasons as Zebedee.
“In this text, Jesus appears disruptively in our midst and calls us not to admire him or accept his principles, not even to accept him as our personal Savior, but to follow him. A reasonable response to his command ‘Follow me’ would be ‘Where are you going?’ The fishermen do not yet know the destination, which they must learn along the way.”
Their decision seems radical and impulsive; they might be throwing their whole life away, and for what? Zebedee didn’t go, and perhaps he thought he was exercising wisdom.
Whenever we read a story—at least a good story—we identify with one of the characters. This is called empathy, and it can either be realistic empathy, in which we identify with someone because we realize that we are, in fact, a lot like that character; or it can be idealistic empathy, where we identify with a character because we want to be like him or her. As reported by Mark Allan Powell in his book What Do They Hear?: Bridging the Gap Between Pulpit and Pew, pastors who read stories from the gospels usually identify with Jesus, believing that they should emulate his teaching or leadership style. Laypeople who read the gospels, on the other hand, almost always identify with Jesus’ disciples—regular people with regular jobs who are trying to figure out how to be faithful followers of Jesus. Honestly, the clergy should probably have realistic empathy for the disciples too, but for whatever reason, they tend to have idealistic empathy with Jesus instead.
In any case, reading the Bible while trying to identify with one of the characters is a good way to read it—it helps us to engage in the story and give it meaning for us, personally. It can be interesting to read the same story over and over, asking yourself, “How would I feel if I were the prodigal son? How would I feel if I were his older brother? How would I feel if I was the father?” In our present case, we can ask ourselves, “How would I feel if I was Peter or Andrew, or James or John? How would I feel if I was Zebedee, and a strange man came along inviting me and my sons to walk away from the business I inherited from my father and my father’s father without a word of explanation?”
I wonder if Zebedee simply wasn’t a risk-taker. Perhaps when weighing his options, leaving it all behind was simply too great a risk. If this Jesus thing didn’t work out, his business, his livelihood, would be gone. So I ask you, Zebedee, are you willing to take the risks that are required in answering the call to follow Jesus?
I wonder if Zebedee simply was too practical. What Jesus had said just didn’t make sense, and if something doesn’t add up or make sense then it’s not doable—or at least not advisable!
“The fishermen are already at work, already doing something useful and important, thus they are not looking for a new life. Jesus’ call does not fill an obvious vacuum or meet an obvious need in their lives, but, like the call of prophets in the Hebrew Bible, it is intrusive and disruptive, calling them away from work and family.”
What Jesus asks of his disciples is rarely practical. So, Zebedee, does practicality ever hinder you from living as Jesus taught?
I wonder if Zebedee was simply content with the status quo. He had a life, a livelihood, a family to feed. Sure, he could traipse off to follow the Lord who promised abundant life, but the abundance Jesus talked about had nothing to do with financial security. So I ask you, Zebedee, are you more interested in safety and security than in answering the call to follow Jesus?
I wonder if Zebedee simply didn’t “get the invitation.” We all know (don’t we?) that many folks to assume that they are not good enough and not worthy to participate in the kingdom of God. I know that there are folks who feel that they must be excluded from God’s grace. But I don’t believe that is ever God’s doing. So I must ask you, Zebedee, have you excluded yourself from the call of God?
When I consider these possibilities of why Zebedee remained in the boat mending those nets and holding down the family business, it occurs to me that the call of Jesus requires us to be risk-takers. The call of Jesus requires us to leave behind our need for practicality and practice the unbelievable. The call of Jesus pushes us beyond all that makes us feel safe and secure. The call of Jesus forces us to accept that we are loved and forgiven and made good.
The disciples experienced, in a very real way, the same thing the Old Testament prophets experienced. In each case, God calls to them—completely out of nowhere—and disrupts their lives in a fundamental way. In fact, in some cases, like that of Jeremiah, the Scriptures say, “The word of the Lord came to me” (Jer. 1:4). Well, do we not confess that Jesus Christ is the Word of the Lord? As the gospel unfolds, then, we find more and more people—ordinary people leading ordinary lives, with whom we can empathize—whose stories might begin with the words, “The Word of the Lord came to me.”
The call of the prophets, like the call to discipleship, is akin to what we in the liturgy business call “Call and Response.”
I call, “God is Good!” and the congregation responds, “All the time!”
I call, “The Lord be with you,” and the congregation responds, “And also with you.”
I call, “Christ is risen!” and the congregation responds,”He is risen, indeed!”
Jesus is calling, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” What will your response be?
Will it be, “I’d like to, but—whoah! Stranger Danger! Following you sounds too risky”?
Will it be, “I would, but what you teach just isn’t practical”?
Will it be, “I would, but to be honest, I’m perfectly content with the way things are”?
Will it be, “Surely you don’t mean me, Jesus! I’m not worthy to be called your disciple”?
Or will you hear Jesus’ call: “Follow me!” and drop everything—everything you love and everything you’ve worked so hard to acquire and build and secure—and follow Him?
 M. Eugene Boring, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), page 169.
 Ibid., page 170.
 Ibid., page 171.