Matthew 4:12 – 23
Matthew’s gospel is clear that the trigger for the launch of Jesus’ public ministry is the arrest which led to the eventual execution of John the Baptist.
Maybe it happened that Jesus overheard one of John’s panic struck disciples racing into a village and screaming, “John has just been taken into custody”.
I imagine it would have rocked Jesus – the very person who so recently baptised him, his own cousin, one he shared a vision of the renewed society and even humanaity had been thrown into jail. We so often fudge over the point that the two radical proclaimers of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God – John and Jesus were not just arrested, imprisoned, but – were both executed. Not a nice fuzzy warm religious message at all it would seem. I mean you don’t get killed for just being a nice person, or trying to help out people.
However Jesus heard of this, whatever language was used to describe it, it seems like something of a crisis in the early “Kingdom of God is appearing on the horizon” movement that both John and Jesus were champions of. Now things like a crisis are usually unplanned. You might think you know yourself but when the brutal words come, “John has ben arrested”, “we have to let you go” or the “I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news” in the doctor’s room, or the police at the door at 3.00am or the partner says “We can’t go on like this anymore” you find out what you are made of. And then you have to decide how you will react. Withdrawing is an option; sometimes we do need to go to ground, retreat, lick our wounds, retreat into the safe and familiar territory to regroup. But not always. Other times a crisis is the time for bold and even risky action. It is precisely the time for going on the front foot and launching yourself into the unknown. Deciding which is right for you is a matter of some judgement.
So how did Jesus react? What was his response. Retreat or go on the front foot?
Well, bizarre as it sounds, but it depends to a large extent upon which translation of the bible you are reading. At least one translation has upon hearing the news Jesus “withdraws” to Galilee. Now this could be a misleading translation if we were in any sense to think that Matthew’s gospel is telling us that Jesus was pushed to the edges, that he skulked away out of fear for his own fate; that Herod intimidated and hence drove him away. Other translations of this verse say that Jesus “departed” or “went away” which I favour because withdraw has connotations of “retreat” about it and what makes me more sure that Jesus was not fleeing is that Galilee is precisely the territory that Herod who arrested John ruled over. I think Jesus is actually on the front foot here.
It is like Jesus is saying right the time is now, let’s do this, bring it on. I will step into the breach. Remember a lot has happened to Jesus already prior to this point – he has been baptised, and the spirit descended upon him, and he has been tempted, or better still, tested, in the wilderness. So a lot of preparation for Jesus, but now he is ready to launch his campaign. And like all great communicators Jesus has got it down to one memorable line. Not an original one, precisely the one John used, but in the mouth of Jesus it takes on an immediacy, a power, and personal nearness. The proclamation Jesus begins shouting is precisely the same as John. Repent, Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven (Kingdom of God in Luke and Mark) To repent, is not to feel bad, but to think differently. To repent doesn’t mean to grovel in self-hatred or pious sorrow. When you repent you turn around, change directions, choose a different path, or make a radical rupture. Repentance signals an abrupt end to life on auto-pilot or to business as usual.
Many people think of repentance, if they ever think of it at all, as a religious word with negative connotations. But ironically if you offered those same people to possibility of radical change for their lives a lot of them would say that was exactly what they long for.
Repent for in Jesus the Kingdom is drawing near.
So the first thing Jesus does is gather a community. Just before he delivers his signature speech that we call the Sermon on the Mount, he forms a new community.
This “new community” is not based on family or economic ties–quite the contrary, in fact; its first four members left their families and their boat. The new community is the one based around Jesus.
Matthew presents this stripped down story with no flourishes, no filling out, we do not know anything of the prior contact (if any) between Jesus and these fishermen. Rather, we have here the uncompromising call of Jesus met by the unconditional obedience of the disciples. Immediately they follow; this immediate response is to indicate the urgency and the total claim of the gospel upon these first disciples and to establish this response that these first four disciples makes as the one Jesus requires if we are to be found in his company.
So as this story has been told and retold it has been stripped down to the essentials, to what people recognise as the core, essential elements. In that way this story as it is becoming stripped down, made briefer, more succinct is actually becoming a larger, more universal story. This story of 4 ancient fishermen has become your story, my story; in some sense every person’s story who has ever heard the call to discipleship. Jesus comes to us calls us and we were given the grace to respond. What else do you need to be told? Doesn’t matter if you have never seen Lake Galilee, never fished from a boat, doesn’t matter that Peter, Andrew, James and John’s bones have been baked into dust by the hot Palestinian sun; we are still telling this story in inner urban Melbourne in 2017 because Jesus is still intent on calling people, “Come and follow me” and people are still responding and people’s lives are still being transformed.
Jesus comes to where these people are at work… he has walked right into their workplace, into their livelihood, and given an extraordinary invitation/command, “Follow me”… a bold step by a Rabbi who would normally be approached by a deferential prospective student/disciple. But no, in the Christian gospel we are told Jesus takes the initiative, he comes seeking company in this new movement termed the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus first comes to us, so that at the end of all our seeking we may come to that place of knowing. He captured my heart and caught my allegiance when I was not looking, before I knew how to call him, prior to my awareness of my need for him.
For these first disciples and for subsequent ones, call and commission go together. No sooner are Peter and Andrew, James and John disciples than they are evangelists.
“Come with me. I will make your fishers of humanity.”
What the Christian is to do, what you and I are to do, is disarmingly simple. We are to follow Christ. This releases us from a great many burdens. Where we are is no obstacle to Christ. What we do is no obstacle to Christ. Who we are is no obstacle to Christ. He calls us in our circumstances, not in spite of them.
Our lack of fitness is no obstacle. Christ does not look for us to be fit, but makes us fit. Our call and our commission go together. By calling us, Christ equips us. He makes it possible for us to follow him, to participate in the mystery of his death and resurrection, and to make that mystery visible to others. This is what discipleship requires.