Today’s Gospel reading is Mark’s incredibly brief account of Jesus’ calling of his first disciples. Having been empowered by the Spirit and tested by Satan, Jesus began his public ministry. Mark’s account continues with a short statement on the arrest of John the Baptist, marking the shift in focus from John’s ministry to that of Jesus. Now in Galilee, Jesus proclaims the good news of God: God’s time is fulfilled with the coming of Jesus, and in him the “kingdom of God is at hand.”
This first image of Jesus is that of preacher, one of Mark’s three favorite portraits of him, teacher and exorcist being the other two. The response Jesus calls for in his announcement of the good news is repentance and belief in the Gospel. To repent is to turn around, reorient one’s life to God. To believe in the good news is to have faith in what God has done and now promises to do.
As the passage continues, Jesus summons his first disciples with the call to action they have been waiting for. They hear the good news and they believe it. The four fishermen will leave everything behind and follow him. They will become the backbone of his missionary movement.
Jesus’ call to Andrew and Simon was, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (v. 17). They will turn their attention from fish to people, to round up a human catch in a metaphorical net. They will be asked to risk everything, their families and livelihood, and take up a completely new vocation. Their call was to be fishers of souls, to pluck others from their familiar lives and challenge them, as they were challenged, to a life of faith and service that they themselves would lead.
In Mark’s brief account, there is no indication of prior contact between Jesus and these fishermen. I find it hard to believe that Jesus had not been with these men before this day. No doubt they had stood in the crowd and listened to Jesus’ preaching the good news. No doubt they had stayed with Jesus after the crowd had departed. No doubt they had experienced the power of his presence and fire in their hearts when he spoke. We do know that Jesus spoke with authority and power, and these four men were compelled to follow him on a life-changing journey.
Jesus didn’t say to them, “I have a theological system I would like to discuss with you; I have certain theories about God I would like you to investigate with me; I have a unique ethical system I would like you to follow.” He did say, “Follow me!” It all began with a personal reaction to Jesus himself. It began with a response of the heart.
Jesus’ words and ardent faith in God lit a fire in these two sets of fishermen-brothers that inspired them to leave everything behind to follow him. Be assured that these four men had their scoffers who let them know that to follow Jesus would be to show themselves to be a mad as he (Mk. 3:21). Yet following Jesus is what they decide to do.
Mark leaves out the details of the preparation that must have gone into the disciples’ decision-making process. Instead Mark presents us with a brisk, breath-taking story: Jesus invites – the disciples follow. We get the point. Discipleship requires a decisive, trusting response to Jesus. We are called to leave our former life behind and take up the new life that Jesus offers. And do it now.
Notice what Jesus offered these early followers. He offered them a task. He called them not to a life of ease but to service. It’s been said that we all need something in which to invest our lives – a purpose. Jesus called his disciples, not to a life of comfortable ease. He called them to a task in which they would spend themselves for his sake and for the sake of others.
Now, can you imagine picking up and leaving everything and everyone to follow Jesus? Most of us, including me, I suspect would find it very hard to leave family, friends, work and all the rest to venture into such an uncertain future. Does that mean we are failures as Christians? Or, at least, does that mean we are less faithful than Andrew, Peter, James and John?
Yes, these disciples did leave much behind to follow Jesus. But let’s not forget that they will persistently misunderstand Jesus and his mission even as they follow him. They will disappoint, deny, and abandon him at various points of the gospel story. So, what’s Mark’s point? What kind of lesson did Mark intend for us?
No doubt we are meant to find this story of these first disciples willing to follow Jesus inspiring. Perhaps Mark’s message to early Christians as well as to us in the 21st century, was more about following Jesus now, not just about leaving everything behind.
We know that we can follow Jesus in ways that may or may not be like those first disciples. We can follow Jesus in all the different situations we find ourselves by trying our best to imitate him, by treating all people with the same respect, love and patience that he did.
This is at the very heart of being a Christian: striving to live and treat others as Jesus did, embracing the values of respect, love, compassion, forgiveness that he radiated in word and deed. “The time is now,” Jesus presses us. His call and our response cannot be put off indefinitely or we will have missed that graced moment of time that will make all the difference to us and the world we live in. Amen.
Resources: Fr. John Boll, 2015; Synthesis, 2015; 2018; David Lose, 2015, 2018; Fred Craddock, et al, 1984; William Barclay, 2017.