Epiphany 3 – Sermon – Matthew 4.12-23
With the publication of the Bishops’ report on Living in Love and Faith this week, there was a certain temptation to preach on this morning’s Epistle given Paul’s demand of the Corinthians that there be no divisions among them, but I’ve resisted that temptation to focus on the gospel reading from Matthew, because despite its familiarity it seems to provoke an increasing number of questions for me.
The passage of course marks the start of Jesus’ public ministry. It follows Jesus’ temptation by the Devil in the desert and the arrest of John the Baptist. Matthew points to the fulfilment of Scripture – Jesus is the ideal ruler prophesied in Isaiah, the one who has come to release people from oppression, to help those who walk in deep darkness move into the light. He is the light shining in the area of Galilee as prophesied, the light that is also referenced in our psalm for today.
We are told that Jesus withdraws to Galilee following the arrest of John. That word withdraw has the connotation of escaping danger. Galilee was a relatively small area and its people were looked down upon by their Judean counterparts. Galileans were regarded as uncultured and religious. One commentator describes them as “country bumpkins”.
Jesus’ ministry then doesn’t begin in some glamorous, elite place but rather in Capernaum, which was nonetheless a busy city where his message would reach more people more quickly. The Synoptic Gospels have Jesus’ ministry largely confined to the region of Galilee with just his final fateful days spent in Jerusalem. It’s in that smaller area that Jesus’ ministry is focused and it’s from that small area that it expands and grows rapidly.
I wonder what that may say to us today about where to focus our own ministries?
Fishing was a major major industry on the sea of Galilee with some 30 fishing villages in its surrounding area. Debates continue to rage as to how well off these first four disciples would have been, with some suggesting fishing would have been a productive industry and that the disciples would have owned their own equipment, whilst others suggest they would have endured more of a subsistence lifestyle with them being poorer and less well educated, possibly illiterate.
Traditionally the first disciples are held out as shining examples of wholehearted obedience to Christ, followers who drop everything and leave it all behind to follow Jesus. They are depicted as men who leave behind families and stable and secure lives and opt for something more unpredictable and costly. The immediate response of Simon and Andrew and James and John to Jesus’ call is sometimes contrasted with that of Elisha who asked for time to say goodbye to his family and to offer a sacrifice before he followed his master, Elijah. In Matthew’s account there is no “Hang on a moment whilst we say goodbye and sort out our affairs”. The response, on the surface at least, appears instantaneous with Matthew repeatedly using the word “immediately” to convey the impression of a sudden and dramatic response to Jesus’ call.
But I can’t help but wonder if it was quite as simple as that?
Matthew gives us little information by way of background. One might gain the impression that the four disciples were responding spontaneously to some passing charismatic stranger (some commentaries speak of Jesus’ magnetic attraction) but whereas Matthew doesn’t say if these men had met Jesus before it’s of note that in John’s gospel we are told that Simon and Andrew were already disciples of John the Baptist who had pointed out Jesus as the Messiah to them. So perhaps they had effectively turned their backs on their previous lifestyle as fishermen some time ago? How much time, I wonder, had they already spent with Jesus? How much had they learned about him? Did they know about his temptation in the desert? How much of his message had they heard before they upped sticks and left?
And what of James and John? I can’t help but wonder about their relationship with their father Zebedee, who they leave behind without any apparent regret and with unrepaired nets. Not the kindest of ways to treat one’s father you might think!
Perhaps James and John were not too thrilled to be working with or for Daddy? Forgive the pun but were they angling to escape the family business? Perhaps they didn’t want to follow in Zebedee’s footsteps? How much were they really giving up, I wonder? We’re not told what Zebedee’s reaction was, but I rather doubt that he was thrilled by their departure.
Maybe James and John had followed John too. Maybe they had already been searching for a teacher to follow. Were they anxious to spread their wings and see a bit more of the world? Was the timing of Jesus’ call actually quite convenient so far as they were concerned?
It may be, of course, that these disciples had indeed already encountered Jesus, listened to him preach, witnessed him cure the sick, heard his warnings about the kingdom of heaven being near and had been sufficiently excited by his message to act rashly and leap to his command, but given what we later learn about Jesus’ closest followers, their doubts and their frailties, Peter’s bold words and subsequent denials, I can’t help but wonder if their initial response to Jesus’ call was quite so grand and sacrificial a gesture as Matthew’s version would appear to suggest.
What would have struck Jewish audiences about Matthew’s account was that it describes Jesus choosing his disciples rather than the other way round. For it was customary for disciples to search out a teacher rather than for the teacher to take the initiative by choosing and summoning those he wanted to follow him. Respectable teachers usually waited for disciples to choose them. Only the most radical of sages were reputed to choose their own disciples. What’s more apparently disciples were usually in their teens.
The response of the first disciples to Jesus’ call is traditionally held out as an example of wholehearted obedience and commitment to Christ. Seemingly, without any inducements, they dropped everything to join him in order to become fishers of people. They are applauded for giving up everything to follow him, leaving their families and livelihoods behind.
But I worry that that explanation burdens us Christians today with unrealistic expectations and with the idea that the first Christians were far less fallible and doubtful than they actually were.
That a place with Christ in God’s eternal kingdom is worth giving up EVERYTHING we know and love for is indisputable (and later chapters in Matthew’s gospel certainly make clear the sacrifices that Jesus expects his disciples to make) but surely the reality is that most of us are a work in progress when it comes to having sufficient faith and trust actually to do that is concerned? And the INSTANTANEOUS dropping of all our baggage is, for most of us fallible followers of Jesus, surely more of an unattainable ideal than a realistic objective?
Only last week Alma spoke of the uncomfortable changes that we as Christians are required to make in our lives, changes which most of us spend a lifetime trying to accomplish.
I don’t think we should be disheartened by the fact that sometimes change doesn’t come quickly.
Dare I suggest that it would be reassuring to think that those first disciples might have had additional reasons and motives for leaving behind the life that was familiar to them and that a more gradual development of our faith, with the consequent loosening of our earthly attachments, is no less valuable in the eyes of God than the dramatic and sudden renunciations which Matthew describes.
Any good fisherman will tell you that fishing requires patience. Perhaps sometimes we need to be a little more patient with ourselves.
Richard Young (Rector)