Calling the Disciples

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.  In yesterday’s post we explored the meaning behind the Biblical land travelog that opens our gospel passage. Today we look to the people called to accompany Jesus on his mission.

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people. (Mt 4:17-23)

Matthew includes the first of two important markers for the ministry of Jesus by telling us that “From that time on Jesus began to preach …” (4:17). The focus of the Gospel is no longer the identification of Jesus based upon the witness of others, but rather Jesus’ self-revelation in his words, deeds and signs. It is in these things he is revealed as the messenger of the Covenant, the King who declared that the kingdom of heaven was breaking into the experience of men and women.

The beginning of this record of Jesus’ ministry is marked by a note about those who followed him. Two sets of brothers are called by Jesus and become the first disciples. They are Simon Peter and Andrew, followed by James and John. The first call to discipleship is to fishermen, whose work is now to be ‘fishers of men’ – pointing to the later commissioning and mission to Israel and then to the ends of the earth.  In addition to the special call of the disciples, the ministry of Jesus calls out to a wider audience. As he teaches throughout Galilee and heals the sick, “great crowds followed him” (4:25).  But he does more than heal, Jesus is setting the stage to bridge to the “Sermon on the Mount.”

From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The very wording of the passage indicates a fresh start, a new phase of Jesus’ activity. At the heart of this new ministry is the proclamation of a message identical with that of John the Baptist (3:2), and later to be echoed by Jesus’ disciples (10:7). Jesus calls for a decisive response to a new situation, the arrival in his ministry of the kingdom of heaven.

The first to make that decisive response are the first disciples. The story of the call of Simon Peter and Andrew is very similar to the following story about the call of James and John. Both stories echo the story of Elijah’s call of Elisha (1 Kgs 19:19–21; and the prophets generally, cf Amos 7:15) – people divinely called, uprooted from ordinary existence. The calls similarly possess a four part structure: (1) the appearance of Jesus; (2) the comment on the work of the prospective disciples; (3) the call to discipleship; and (4) obedience to the call.

The first disciples encountered Jesus coming to them in their everyday occupation of fishing in the Sea of Galilee — then as now, an important and profitable business in Israel’s economy. It is easy to assume that Jesus has made an ad hoc metaphor. However, the image of a deity calling people to a new life – in both Judaism and local pagan cults – as “fishing” was common. The common theme of this metaphor was that the person was being called to participate in the divine work.  Here God’s saving and judging mission to the world is represented by Jesus who calls disciples to participate in the divine mission to humanity.  This scene anticipates the formal mission sending (9:36 ff) and the wider mission imperative to the whole world (28:19-20)

Without any preparation and with little or no deliberation, they leave behind their business and their families in order to follow Jesus. Discipleship is first and foremost being with Jesus, and the quick response of the first disciples (“at once” according to verses 20, 22) suggests how appealing the invitation to be with Jesus must have been. But discipleship also involves sharing in the mission of Jesus (“fishers of men” according to v.19), and that dimension too is stressed from the very beginning.

Boring (The Gospel of Matthew, 169) notes that “Despite its small size, this pericope represents a major subsection of Matthew’s structure…The call of the first disciples is the beginning of the messianic community: the church. Jesus’ baptism and temptation were not merely individualistic religious experiences of a ‘great man,’ but the recapitulation of the birth of Israel in the Red Sea and the wilderness testing; they lead to the formation of a new community, the Messiah’s people (1:21).”

It is here that we gain some insight into Matthew’s understanding of discipleship. A modern reader is tempted to refashion this biblical picture of discipleship into more manageable categories: accept Jesus’ principles for living, accept Jesus as a personal savior.  Jesus “barges” into our midst and does not call us to admire him or accept his principles, but issues the divine imperative to follow him. The reasonable reply, “Where are you going?” is suborned to discovery along the way.  Even without the language, the call of the disciples is a story of “belief,” “faith” and “trust.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship, notes that Jesus comes to men already leading useful lives.

Image credit: Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter, c. 1636-40, by Nicholas Poussin, Public Domain

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