25 Jan 2015
“They left their nets and followed [Jesus].” (Mark 1:18) In the name …
Today’s Gospel is about the call to follow Jesus. Over the course of some 2,000 years we have turned the story of the first followers of Jesus into legend. We have made them into super-believers, and that may actually be counter-productive. It may make them seem so different from us that their example doesn’t resonate with us as today’s followers of Jesus. When I was a kid in the 1960’s, GI Joe was a regular looking soldier. There’s a picture of him at the bottom left of your song sheet. Those regular guys took down the Nazis and the Japanese at the same time. GI Joe today is so bulked-up that he could pick up and tank to use as his gun. His picture is on the bottom right. But he’s only make-believe. There’s no realistic lesson of duty, sacrifice or valour when GI Joe turns into a super-soldier. Mark presents the followers of Jesus as intentionally ordinary. They have moral flaws; they make mistakes; they fail to understand; they even abandon Jesus at the cross. They’re like us, in other words, and that means their example is meaningful to us as today’s followers of Jesus.
Maybe your memory is better than mine, but in case you may have forgotten last Sunday’s Gospel, let me summarize. In the Gospel of John, the story we heard was that two of John the Baptist’s followers split off from the Baptist and they began to follow Jesus. One is left unnamed – I can’t go into now but he’s supposed to represent us, and the other is Andrew. Andrew then peels away and he brings his brother Peter to Jesus. In Mark’s account today, however, it is Jesus who initiates the encounter: “‘Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.’” (1:17) Also, Mark locates the calling at the Sea of Galilee, but in John it’s in Judea in the desert wilderness. This means that in these two Gospels, we don’t have the same place, story or even the same characters.
The writers are not telling us lies. What we have in these two Gospels, instead, is an indication that the details surrounding the first followers of Jesus were already lost by about 40 years after the event. This means that the details of who, when and where were not judged the most important. Mark continues down this path. He says that Jesus has just returned home to Galilee after being with John the Baptist. He has started preaching, and His first miracle is yet to come. Jesus walks up to Peter and Andrew and invites them to follow Him, and they do. But why? There is no indication they have heard Jesus preach and there has not yet been a single miracle. Then the three of them walk a bit farther and Jesus asks James and John the same thing, but He does not invite Zebedee their father or any of the hired hands working with them. Why only James and John, and again, why do they follow Him? Now we’re starting to see that the particulars of why don’t even seem essential to the story.
What we’re left with, in each of these cases, is a message of commitment. In John’s Gospel, the first two followers leave their teacher behind. They separate from John the Baptist, the one they had looked up to as a man of God, and they begin to follow Jesus instead. In Mark, we are told that the first followers leave behind their livelihoods. I sometimes wonder about Zebedee. Later in the Gospels we hear that his wife is also following Jesus (Matt. 20:20). Was Zebedee angry at Jesus’ intrusion into his life, that his sons and wife were gone, or was he proud of them? We can only wonder. But what does emerge is that the first followers placed a priority on their commitment to Jesus.
And this is why turning them into legends, into super-believers, works against the Gospel message. The first followers of Jesus were more ordinary than extraordinary. They were meant to connect with us. In today’s Gospel this is made explicit. Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen. Now James and John, we are told, were wealthy enough to own their own boat and to have hired hands. Peter and Andrew, however, fished by only throwing their nets into the sea from the shore. To the first audience of Mark’s Gospel, we have here an intentional connection. These are working families, some a bit better off than the others, but these are people with calluses on their hands. And except for a small minority of the population 2,000 years ago, everyone had calluses on their hands. Everyone had to struggle to make a living. And therefore everyone could connect with these first followers.
On Wednesday I’m listening to the news on my car radio as I’m out blessing houses. That’s when I heard about Jeff Green who is a billionaire real estate investor. He was in Davos, Switzerland, attending the World Economic Forum, the gathering of the world’s ultra rich and powerful. He had flown there on his private jet, with his wife, two children and their two nannies. And the billionaire says to Bloomberg News: ““America’s lifestyle expectations are far too high and need to be adjusted so that we have less things and a smaller, better existence.” So says the billionaire to the rest of us. When I heard his words, I didn’t give them too much credibility. His expectation of “less things and a smaller, better existence” is probably more than what I will ever have or need. There’s no connection between the two of us. And that’s the opposite of the first followers of Jesus. They are like us so the Gospel message is that we can be like them. When the Gospels tell us their stories, it’s not to set them apart and have us be in awe of them. It’s so that we can see our connection with them and be in awe of what they did, and see what they did as what we can do. Faith means making a real choice to follow Jesus like they did, to commit ourselves to Jesus like they did. And what a great lead-in this is as we stand on the threshold of Pre-Lent and Lent, the time for us to look more closely at where Jesus and we stand. Let us pray that we may follow the example of the first followers of Jesus and make a real and sustained commitment to Him. For this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo