Today’s gospel lesson makes a profound spiritual and theological point, but it’s one we’re likely to miss. Unless we have some familiarity with the cultural and historical context of first-century Palestine, it’ll blow right by us. And this spiritual and theological point is especially important for us, because it bears immediately on how we think of ourselves as followers or disciples of Jesus.
Let me cut right to the chase. Here’s the part of this morning’s gospel that I think is so profound: “As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers … casting a net into the sea—for they were fisherman. And he said to them, ‘Follow me’.” That’s it; that’s huge.
We see it again in this part of the gospel: “As he went from there, he saw two other brothers … in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.” There it is again.
What’s the big deal here? The big deal here has to do with the way rabbis chose their disciples in first century Palestine. As usual, Jesus is going about it all wrong.
If yours was a Jewish family and you had a son who wanted to be a rabbi, he had to start learning at an early age. Young Jewish boys were all expected to receive a certain amount of training in the scriptures and the law; all Jewish males needed to have at least as much knowledge as they would need to fulfill their obligations as members of the covenant community. Everyone needed to know the basics about how to behave as a member of the house of Israel: when to worship and where, what kinds of sacrifices to offer, what to eat and what not to eat, how to interact with other Jews and how to interact with Gentiles. There was a foundation that all young boys were expected to learn—kind of like grade school.
After grade school, pretty much everybody went to work. But there were some who seemed better suited to study than to labor. Some boys not only wanted to hear the stories but wanted to be able to read them for themselves. Some boys were not content with learning the law, they wanted to know why the law said what it said. What did it really mean to be faithful to this or that part of the covenant? Some young Jewish boys took to those questions like a duck to water; they were drawn to stories about the covenant, drawn to conversations about the law, drawn to the opportunity to go to Jerusalem and worship at the temple.
And the rabbis were watching; they were always on the lookout for the particularly bright young men who asked the right questions, the insightful ones who went the extra mile and did their homework and showed up for all their lessons. If the story of the young boy Jesus questioning the teachers in the temple is any indicator, it seems likely that Jesus was one of these boys. The rabbis would groom these students, they would encourage them in their studies, they would talk to their parents and suggest that the boy be allowed to continue his studies instead of going to work in the family business.
And then, when a young man was ready, he would submit himself to be a disciple; he’d choose a rabbi and would go to that rabbi and offer himself as a student, and then the real testing would begin. The rabbi would drill the young man about his knowledge of the scriptures, he’d ask him about the law and the histories and the prophets, he’d ask him about his lifestyle, he’d test the boy’s commitment to learning everything the rabbi would have to teach him. Rabbis who had made names for themselves would attract the best students and could be very selective about who they did and who they did not accept as disciples. In first-century Palestine, it was a big deal to be recognized as the disciple of an important and well-known rabbi.
Now, what light does that shed on our gospel lesson? Just this: Jesus didn’t select his disciples the way other rabbis did. He didn’t wait for students to come to him; instead, he went looking for them. He didn’t hold out for the best and the brightest; he chose people who…well, to be honest, it’s not really clear why he chose the people he did.
You might think that the reason Jesus chose disciples the way he did was because he was himself not a very recognized or respected rabbi. I don’t think that would be right: everything we know about Jesus suggests that he was very well known and that other rabbis were very interested in what he had to say. Everything we know about him suggests that he knew the scriptures backwards and forwards and was able to interpret the faith and practice of Israel in very fresh and creative ways. If the historical record is any indicator, it’s probably not far from the truth to say that Jesus was among the very best of the rabbis of his time.
And yet here he is, inviting a bunch of rabbi school dropouts to be his disciples. Other rabbis would have made it a point of pride to have only the best and the brightest following them around as disciples, but not Jesus. He goes out and handpicks people that no other rabbi would have dreamed of choosing: fishermen. Common laborers.
And he didn’t stop there. He calls Levi, a tax collector. He calls Simon the Zealot, Simon the revolutionary fanatic. It’s interesting to think about the conversations those two would have had, isn’t it? Levi the tax collector and Simon the Zealot: one guy working for Rome and the other guy committed to overthrowing the Rome occupiers through violent revolution. That must have been fun. And Jesus didn’t stop there. He called Thomas, the doubter. And he called Judas, the thief and the traitor.
What a mess, right? Not a lot of first-round picks for the rabbi draft in that bunch. Can you imagine these guys walking around Palestine, trying to figure out what their rabbi’s talking about, not sure how they feel about one another, maybe a little insecure about not being as with-it as the disciples of some of the other rabbis? Some days they must have looked like the Keystone Kops.
And here we are today because of that group of misfits. Yes, we’re here because of Jesus, but we’re also here because of the testimony and the witness that group of mismatched underachievers, because what they found in following Jesus was a wisdom and a holiness and a glory and a power they were willing to die for.
Now, we need to be a little careful here; I don’t think we should over-romanticize this thing. We’re culturally conditioned to root for the underdog, so it would be easy for us to look at the choices Jesus made when he chose his disciples and to think that the reason he chose these guys was because of his faith in the common man or his belief in the equality of all people or something like that. If we say that, though, we risk missing the point.
When you read through the whole biblical story, one thing that you see happening repeatedly is God choosing to work with people who have little to no chance of actually being able to succeed on their own in what he asks them to do. God’s not in the business of setting up people for failure; but God is in the business of calling people who know what it means to depend completely on him.
St. Paul wrote about this in his letters to the Corinthian church. He wrote, “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” He made the same point in a slightly more pointed way when he wrote, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not[, God chose non-entities] to reduce to nothing things that are. … [So] let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
I don’t think we have any reason to believe that God has changed his game plan: he’s still in the business of calling people who know what it means to be needy, who know what it means to be foolish and to be weak and to be low and despised and to offer themselves to God in the midst of their limitations. We have this treasure—the gift of God’s salvation—but we hold this treasure in fragile earthen vessels so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
A tax collector and a Zealot, a skeptic, a thief, and a bunch of rabbi school drop-outs. And yet, in the hands of God they become a group of fearless, powerful, inspiring witnesses, ready to lay down their lives, ready to die for the sake of what they had to say about Jesus. If God can do that with them, what can God do with us?
Are we ready to respond to the call to follow Jesus? Are we ready to call ourselves his disciples? At this point, you’d better not be thinking that you have some good reason for not being able to make the cut; Jesus isn’t interested in people who are trying to make the cut. Jesus had only one criterion when he called disciples, and we heard it in our gospel lesson: “follow me.” That’s it. “Follow me.” Fall in.
You’d also better not be thinking Jesus doesn’t need you. “Well, there are lots of missionaries in the world, lots of bishops and priests and deacons and pastors and theologians; they’ve got this covered. Jesus doesn’t need me.” There is an entire world out there still sitting in darkness that longs to hear a word about light. There are people out there still living under the shadow of death who no longer believe they’re ever going to see the light again.
“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” And we who are members of the Body of Christ, we who are his hands, his feet, his heart, we who have been blessed through his Holy Spirit with the mind of Christ, we are now the ones called to this work.
Do you know someone who needs to hear the good news? Do you know someone longing for deliverance from a burden they’ve been carrying for so long they no longer have any hope of ever putting it down? You are the one Jesus has called to carry his gospel to them.
Jesus isn’t interested in people who are trying to make the cut. Jesus had only one criterion when he called disciples, and we heard it in our gospel lesson: “follow me.” That’s it. Are we ready to do that?