Matthew 4:18-22; 9:9
September 2, 2012
“You Can’t Take it With You”
This morning we begin a series of worship services that focus on Jesus’ disciples. We’ll look at some of the apostles–the 12: Judas, Peter, James and John; and we’ll look at others who follow Jesus: two of the Marys, Niccodemus, even the crowd.
Today, though, the focus is not on a particular disciple, but on the call stories in the Gospel of Matthew. In these readings we see Jesus call Peter, Andrew, James, John, and Matthew–5 of the–eventually–12 apostles.
Think, for a minute, about a time this past week that you were at work–your job work or working on some project or responsibility. You are grading papers or standing in front of a class full of kids. You are making lunch for your own kids or cleaning your house. You are making phone calls or painting a wall or weeding the garden or cataloging books. Whatever work you did this past week, imagine yourself doing it. . . .
Now imagine an interruption. The phone rings. A child needs a form signed. Your boss wants to talk to you for a minute. What does your interruption look like? . . . How does it make you feel? . . .
I’ll tell you how interruptions make me feel–grumpy! In fact, I’m trying to discipline myself to not do certain types of work in the evenings because I get so grumpy when I’m interrupted. And, of course, with three kids in the house, I can count on interruptions. If I am typing up a particularly profound blog entry or crafting a spiritually sensitive email, I might snap at the needy child to “wait just a minute, can’t you see I’m busy.” If there is blood involved, I might stop typing–but you better believe I hit “save” before I get the bandaid.
One thing I rarely do is willingly abandon my work. Not when I’m right in the middle of something. Not just because someone else wants my attention.
Yet Peter and Andrew, James and John and Matthew all quit their work to follow Jesus–just because he asks. They don’t dismiss Jesus with an irritated excuse–the way I’m likely to talk to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, assuming I even answer the door. “Well, I’d love to chat about exactly how many people will get into heaven, but I’m just about to haul in this big load of fish, so I can’t really talk right now. You can leave your pamphlet right there on that rock. I’ll take a look later.”
They don’t take a brief time-out to talk to Jesus, all the while glancing back towards the net, the boat, the booth–they way I often deal with my children’s interruptions. “O.K. I’ve got two minutes here. What do you need? Huh? What?”
They don’t even say, “Look, Jesus, just let me give my two weeks’ notice and I’ll catch up with you down the road.”
“Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
“Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
Here’s one of my questions: Why did they have to leave their nets? They had to eat on the road, right? Jesus was always hanging out in fishing villages, so they could have taken their nets along, used their skills to catch fish and feed all the disciples. They could even have used the net to haul the lame people to Jesus or to help build a shelter on rainy nights or . . . I don’t know. It just seems like a net could be useful.
Isn’t it enough that Peter and Andrew follow Jesus in the first place? Why do they have to leave their nets?
What about Matthew? He’s there at his tax booth. Collecting money. And he just goes off with Jesus. I mean, does he take the money for travel expenses? Does he just leave it there on the table for people to grab? Or maybe Jesus and the guys swing by the closest Roman government offices to drop off the tax payments?
Jesus “said to Matthew, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” I can’t imagine he took much, if anything, with him.
The most troubling of these stories, though, is the one about James and John. They don’t just leave nets or money–they leave their dad. They leave him just sitting there in the boat with the half-mended nets. As you might imagine, a half-mended net is no better than no net at all when it comes to catching fish. Not that poor Zebedee could use the net by himself anyway–it’s not a one-person job.
To be fair here, the biblical pronoun is pretty ambiguous: “Jesus saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.” Is Jesus only calling the sons, or does his call include Zebedee who, for whatever reasons, decides to stay in the boat?
Either way, the boys leave their dad in the lurch; put the family business in jeopardy. For what? To follow some itinerant rabbi they just met. How’s that for family values?
I mean, I see how all of these guys could think that following Jesus would be a fun adventure–an interesting side trip. Definitely something different. Good stories for the grandkids someday. I get the appeal of taking on something new.
It’s the giving up–the walking away–that strikes me as hard. Really almost unfair.
It’s always hard to know how we would act in certain, hypothetical, situations. So I can’t say for sure. But I think that if Jesus had called me–once I got over my initial irritation at being interrupted; once I finished up the paragraph I was typing and saved the document; once I checked a couple of references to make sure the guy wasn’t a total nut job–I think I would have been willing to follow him. But the nets, the cash, the dad–they would be coming with me.
It’s not just that I would want to take along my stuff. I’m actually a pretty light packer. I wouldn’t need my curling iron or my waffle maker or even, I suppose, my art supplies. But my Facebook account and my saved documents; my cell phone and a paper pad and pencil. My Bible and my family and the Peace Mennonite directory.
If you were called away on an adventure, what would you be willing to leave behind? What would you want to take along? . . .
Peter and Andrew, James and John and Matthew don’t just leave behind stuff, they leave behind their most comfortable identities–the work and family relationships that give them value in the eyes of society and, probably, in their own eyes as well. They don’t just leave behind stuff, they leave behind their identities. They go from fisherman or tax collector to, “fisher of people,” follower of Jesus–whatever that is!
And there is something else that the new disciples must leave behind–there on the lake shore, there at the tax booth. It is something that is not obvious at first. Something I never thought of at all until I came across a fascinating article this week by K.C. Hanson titled, “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition.”
For the one or two of you likewise fascinated by this topic, email me and I’ll send you a link to the article. For the rest of you, here’s the pertinent information: “Fishermen received capitalization along with fishing rights, and were therefore indebted to local brokers responsible for the harbors and for fishing leases. The location of [Matthew's] toll office in Capernaum—an important fishing locale—probably identifies him as just such a contractor of royal fishing rights.”
This means that Matthew could have been the tax collector who took the exorbitant government fees from Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Matthew could have been the tax collector that overcharged them so he could have a nice paycheck for himself.
Regardless of whether Matthew was the tax collector, he definitely was a tax collector and therefore represented the most intimate form of Roman oppression that the fishermen experienced; he represented the system that kept them scrambling for a living while they were forced to help provide the means for others to live in luxury.
There is Matthew, at his tax booth. Imagine what Peter and the rest must have thought when they noticed that Jesus was approaching the booth. When they saw that Jesus was about to say something to the tax collector. They were probably pretty excited, mischievous gleams in their eyes. “Ahhh, look,” they would say to each other, “Jesus is gonna let that tax collector have it! He’s gonna go tell him that Jews have no business sucking up to Rome, making money off of their own people, living in luxury while we practically starve. He’s gonna turn over that table and tell him where he can stick all those denarius. Jesus is gonna march right up to that tax collector and say–”
That is not what they expected Jesus to say.
And then that tax collector left his tax booth and joined them all as they followed Jesus down the streets of Capernum.
That is not what they expected the tax collector to do.
Yes, the fishermen leave behind their nets. Yes, Matthew leaves behind his booth. They also find they must leave behind their prejudices, their expectations about other people, and even their expectations about Jesus.
It’s hard. It’s hard to leave behind the things we know, the life we are comfortable with. It’s hard to commit ourselves to follow One we barely know.
I don’t know what it was like for Peter and Andrew, or James or John or Matthew. To hear Jesus speak those words: “Follow me.” To see his outstretched hand in front of you, the life you know behind you and to know that you have to make a choice.
I don’t know what it would be like. But maybe it was something like a story that Rachel told me this story. A story told to her by her foster brother, Henry Rempel.
He had come over to the U.S. from Russia with his two older sisters. A family in Henderson, NE, had paid his passage in exchange for him working for them for a year, but when he got here they didn’t want him–he was too weak and puny. So there was an “auction” for the boy and Rachel’s dad went. He ended up paying the money for the boy’s passage in exchange for having the boy come and live with them.
Henry remembered that day. He told Rachel that he and his sisters were waiting in the house, in an upstairs room, scared to death about what would happen. Once Rachel’s father had paid for the boy’s passage, he went up to the room where Henry was and knocked on the door. He went into the room and asked the boy, “Would you like to come home with me?”
Henry says he never even asked the man’s name. Henry didn’t know anything about this man’s home or what lie ahead. But the man’s eyes were kind, said Henry. So very kind. And so when the man asked, “Do you want to come home with me?”, Henry simply answered, “Yes.”