Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” (Luke 5:10)
By Alan Bean
This week we consider Jesus’ calling of the first disciples. In Mark’s gospel, the subject is covered in five short verses; Luke’s account is twice as long and doubly detailed. The evangelists (a fancy word for the men who write the four gospels) inherited scores of traditional stories about the life and work of Jesus and used this material with great freedom.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus appears to two groups of fisherman busy casting their nets into the sea. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fish for people.” Without a word, the men drop their nets and follow.
In Luke, the action if far more complex. Right at the end of John’s gospel, we find a story about a miraculous catch of fish. Luke gives us the same story, but he places it in a very different setting. In John, the risen Christ appears to his disheartened disciples and asks them to let down their nets for a catch. In Luke, this request is extended right at the beginning of Jesus’ teaching ministry.
As a teenager growing up in McLaurin Baptist Church in Edmonton, Canada, I discussed Mark’s story with Sadie Beggs, an Irish Baptist. “Jesus just walks up and tells these guys to follow, and they do,” I said. “I wonder what was going through their heads.”
Sadie told me she had always been mystified by the disciples’ willingness to follow a perfect stranger. “It must have been a miracle,” she said.
In Luke, the decision to follow Jesus is more understandable. Jesus heals the mother-in-law of a soon-to-be disciple named Simon just shortly before the two men meet by the sea of Galilee. The call to discipleship doesn’t come from a complete stranger, in other words, Simon has already seen Jesus at work.
And now Simon (with James and John looking on) gets a second miracle.
“Miracle” may be a bit strong. There is nothing supernatural about fishermen catching fish. They do it every day. But these men had toiled all day without catching a single minnow. One more cast of the net can’t possibly improve their lot.
But it does! In fact, they capture more fish in a single throw than they had caught all week. The incredible catch could be dismissed as a fluke, but Simon sees the face of God in the bulging nets.
And suddenly, like Isaiah hundreds of years before, Simon is overwhelmed with his own wretchedness. “Go away from me, Lord,” he blurts, “for I am a sinful man.”
Jesus doesn’t argue the point. But the relative merits and demerits of men like Simon (or you and me) never held much interest for Jesus. He wasn’t on the look out for moral exemplars. In fact, you get the impression that Jesus was selecting disciples at random. His first recruits were all fishermen because Jesus lived in a lakeside town.
Reading this story last night, I was reminded of the parable where the brightest and the best all decline to attend a banquet because they have more attractive options. So the master of the house tells his servants to invite the dullest and the least, with no vetting process whatsoever. People are invited at random because a party with no guests isn’t much of a party.
That’s what the kingdom of God is all about. Simon and his friends are called to throw out their nets and haul people, willy-nilly, into the Kingdom. A kingdom party with no guests isn’t much of a kingdom party.
An inspiring thought, but there is a troubling side to this story.
In Matthew and Mark’s account of this story, James and John are fishing with their father, Zebedee, when Jesus appears on the seashore. Jesus bids them follow and they do.
I wonder how old Zebedee felt about losing two sons (and unpaid employees) that way? And why didn’t Jesus invite the old man along for the ride?
Simon (also known as Peter) was married when he encountered Jesus (it’s hard to have a mother-in-law if you’re single). We must assume that he abandoned his wife in order to hit the road with Jesus.
The best parallel in our world would be an army reservist shipped off to Afghanistan. The life of a disciple, like that of a soldier, is fraught with painful decisions.
How does all of this apply to you and me? Are we supposed to leave our professions and our families to pursue a higher, more spiritual calling?
The earliest Christians certainly thought so. The various orders of monks and nuns were founded by men and women struggling to follow Jesus just as Simon and Mary Magdalene had followed their Master. Joining a religious order was no small thing. You committed yourself to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Once made, these vows could not be revoked.
The Protestant Reformation rejected this heroic understanding of discipleship. Some of you may have heard of John Calvin, the author of the famous Protestant work ethic. Writing in First Things, Alistair McGrath describes Calvin’s teaching on the Christian attitude to work and vocation.
To appreciate the significance of Calvin’s work ethic, it is necessary to understand the intense distaste with which the early Christian tradition, illustrated by the monastic writers, regarded work. For Eusebius of Caesarea, the perfect Christian life was one devoted to serving God, untainted by physical labor. Those who chose to work for a living were second–rate Christians. The early monastic tradition appears to have inherited this attitude, with the result that work often came to be seen as a debasing and demeaning activity, best left to one’s social—and spiritual—inferiors. If the social patricians of ancient Rome regarded work as below their status, it has to be said that a spiritual aristocracy appears to have developed within early Christianity with equally negative and dismissive attitudes towards manual labor. Such attitudes probably reached their height during the Middle Ages.
For Calvin, God places individuals where He wants them to be, which explains Calvin’s criticism of human ambition as an unwillingness to accept the sphere of action God has allocated to us. Social status is an irrelevance, a human invention of no spiritual importance; one cannot allow the human evaluation of an occupation’s importance to be placed above the judgment of God who put you there. All human work is capable of “appearing truly respectable and being considered highly important in the sight of God.” No occupation, no calling, is too mean or lowly to be graced by the presence of God.
Following Calvin’s lead, most Protestants have baptized the normal occupations of economic life as expressions of Christian discipleship. If you are a fisherman, the logic goes, catch fish to the glory of God.
There is great wisdom in this teaching, but does it capture the radicality of Jesus’ call to discipleship?
“When Christ calls a man,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “he bids him come and die.” The great Lutheran pastor wrote these words during the dark days of the Third Reich. Don’t think that you can go with the flow and follow Jesus, Bonhoeffer tells us. Sometimes we must choose between the way of Christ and the way of Caesar (or der Führer).
Just as Jesus chose his disciples randomly without regard for merit, many wise and noble men and women were never asked to join Jesus’ band of disciples. Old Zebedee may have been one of them. By calling disciples, Jesus wasn’t denigrating everyone else.
And yet the disciples were called to model what participation in kingdom life looks like. More often than not, they taught their lessons by screwing things up so royally that Jesus was forced to set them straight. Nonetheless, they received a high calling.
Have Protestant Christians domesticated discipleship? Can we learn important lessons from Roman Catholic Christians, or from a Lutheran pastor preaching from the heart of Nazi Germany.
Is there, in short, a radical break with the ordinary rhythms of life that must be made even if we pursue vocations as bankers, shop clerks and dental assistants? In our search for a practical, doable spirituality, have we dumbed things down a bit too much?
We grow into the kingdom as we wrestle with these questions. Jesus still calls us to fish for people. It isn’t about what we will do with our lives; it’s about the value we place on the lives of others. And sometimes, if we want to make things better for others (including our own children), we must make some very foolish career decisions.