This week the gospel reading was Matthew’s account of the calling of the first four disciples. I got the congregation to think about the reaction they might have got from their families.
Family is the most important thing in the world! Perhaps that’s one of the most famous things that Princess Diana ever said. And it’s a sentiment that many people would echo, though perhaps sometimes we are not always as honest as we might be about the real nature of family life today. One of my favourite quotes about family is this from George Carlin, an American comedian who died in 2008, and who was a little more realistic: The other night I ate in a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going. But in spite of the realities of family life today, ask most people “Is family important?” and they’d probably say, “Yes, of course it is!”
At the time of Jesus family was very important – the family unit was very close-knit and interdependent upon each other. And people took very seriously their family responsibilities. People might not always have got on with their relatives – people, after all, are people and the same then as now. But the family unit was the glue that held Jewish society together. The expectation was that families looked after those members who could no longer look after themselves for no-one else would – people who were too old to work, or too ill, widows and orphans from other parts of the family. Otherwise you were destitute. And so a prime duty for Jews was to marry and have children. The family was the most important thing – it had to be! And family members took their responsibilities seriously. And yet today we see in our gospel reading Jesus calling people to behave seemingly irresponsibly! Today we see how Jesus calls people to challenge their priorities, and their beliefs about family, and behave in a way that many people would say was wrong today, let alone then.
In our gospel reading we hear Matthew’s account of how four working men, following an encounter with Jesus, embark upon a way of life that would lead them to become the founding leaders of an organization that would extend across the world and stretch down the centuries – the Church of Jesus Christ.
It’s a story we have heard so often. Jesus, walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee comes upon two fishermen, Simon and Andrew. They are casting their net into the sea. “Follow me,” said Jesus, “and I will make you fish for people,” So, Matthew tells us, they immediately left their nets and followed him. And then, a little further on, they come upon James and John, also fishermen. They’re with their father Zebedee in the boat mending the nets. Jesus calls them. And they immediately leave their father and go along with Jesus, Simon and Andrew. The four of them became the first four chosen disciples of Jesus. Simon, James and John were to become the three who were closest to him.
But just think for a moment. What about their responsibilities? What about their families? What would have happened had they said to Jesus, “Hang on a moment! We can’t just up and leave everything! We need to weigh up the pros and cons! We need to discuss this with our families – because we can’t just leave them behind. After all, there’s nothing more important than family, is there!” And yet they said none of that. Jesus called them and they upped and left everything behind to follow him.
And what I want you to do this morning is put yourself into the position of those they left behind. How do you think they might have felt? Remember that this was a society that had no benefits system. You needed to work, or be supported by someone who was working, in order to be housed, fed and clothed.
Let’s think about Simon and Andrew first. We know that Simon had a family who were dependent upon him. At the beginning of Mark’s gospel we are told that Simon and Andrew were sharing a house, and that Jesus went with Simon and Andrew and James and John to the house where they found that Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. So it is clear that Simon was married and had people dependent upon him. Simon’s wife isn’t mentioned in the gospels so we know nothing about her. Perhaps she had died, or was away somewhere. Traditionally in the Orthodox Church she is known as Saint Febronia. But at the very least Simon’s mother-in-law was very much dependent upon Simon bringing in a regular income. How do you think she might have felt when Simon and Andrew, who must also have contributed to the household expenses, dropped everything and went off following Jesus. Who was going to look after her, pay for her upkeep?
And what about James and John? They left their father Zebedee in the boat mending the nets. Imagine for a moment that you are Zebedee – what do you think your reaction might be to James’ and John’s behaviour? A great deal of time was spent by fisherman looking after the nets – the nets were key to their work and had to be painstakingly inspected and repaired otherwise they would be no use. And this was a family business. And then along comes Jesus and takes James and John with him. They just drop what they’re doing and go off. I know what I’d be thinking! How am I going to finish all these nets on my own! And I suspect that Zebedee would be starting to think about how he would cope without them. For the reality of working life then was that once Zebedee became too old to go out fishing he would rely upon his two sons to support him. They were his pension plan! But if they’ve gone off and followed Jesus what then?
For Simon and Andrew and James and John the call of Jesus was supremely important – so much so that they left everything behind to follow him. Who can know what was going through the minds of those four men when Jesus spoke to them? We can only surmise for we are not told – but they went without hesitating, or consulting anyone else about whether they were doing the right thing. They must have left behind relatives, friends perhaps, somewhat stunned by their action. Did they ever come to understand why the four had behaved in such an apparently inconsiderate way? Or were they angry that these members of their families had just walked out on them? Again, we can only surmise. But there is a compulsion for the four to obey the call and so off they go with Jesus without any discussion.
And we cannot help but be struck by the expectation that Jesus has, the expectation that they will leave everything behind and follow him. For Jesus expects them to behave in a way that many might call irresponsible, leaving behind people who were very much dependent upon them without a word.
Jesus, of course, still calls people to follow him. He calls us to follow him. And when we hear his call we, like the four fishermen, find that we are often presented with difficult choices. Families may not understand why Jesus is so important to us. They may not be happy with lifestyle choices we make because we put Jesus before all else. This is often the case for people who enter some form of recognized ministry in the church. My parents had struggled enough with my conversion to Christianity. I won’t go into details but it was an instant conversion on June 18th 1976. They didn’t go to church themselves and neither did I before then. And they were completely baffled when I immediately started the following week going to church twice on Sundays and every Wednesday evening to the parish fellowship. I’ve never forgotten the day I told my parents that I wanted to give up my job in a bank and join Church Army. I had some idea of what the reaction might be so I waited until I had been accepted and it was too late to be persuaded I was making a mistake. My mother’s response was immediate: “What have we done wrong? Why are you letting us down like this?” It took her fifteen years to get used to the idea.
Perhaps the relatives of those four fishermen had similar feelings. Or just plain puzzlement. But sometimes Jesus calls us to be irresponsible – at least in the eyes of other people. And then we are left with the choice – do we follow the call or not? Of course, in a way it was easy for Simon and Andrew and James and John. They had Jesus standing right in front of them waiting for a response, and so putting Jesus first was, perhaps, easier for them than it is for us. He knew what their vocation was even if at this point they didn’t understand it – to be fishers for people.
What does he want of us? What is our vocation, as an individual, to be as a follow of Jesus? What does he want of us? And how does that affect the people around us? The task of discernment, of deciding what Jesus might be calling us to, is not always straightforward. The voice of Jesus is not always heard with great clarity, and we may need to talk to other Christians about it, and about what we think he might want of us. But listening for the voice of Jesus calling to us is surely essential. For ultimately Jesus, and only Jesus, can determine what our true vocation is. And to follow that vocation is to put Jesus before all else – even family.