Sunday reflection: Matthew 4:12–23
posted at 11:31 am on January 22, 2017 by Ed Morrissey
This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 4:12–23:
When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen. From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.
Ever wonder how life would have taken shape had you walked down a different path? If I knew then what I know now, many of us have cause to think, even those of us whose lives are particularly blessed, such as myself. Sometimes it’s pretty amusing to run down those threads of time travel; I like to tell people that if I could go back to my childhood, I would have taught myself to be a placekicker in football. If you get good enough, the pay’s great, your uniform stays clean, and you can do that job until you’re in your forties. (Just don’t get stuck doing the punting, about which none of the previous is true.)
Alas, as anyone who watched me play football could tell you, that was not my calling — and neither was baseball, and especially not basketball. I had other talents and gifts, some of which were more apparent than others back in my youth, but little understanding of how to apply them. Nor did I take much time to discern them properly, professionally or otherwise, but floated a bit aimlessly from one situation to another for the first few years of my adult life.
In today’s Gospel, we can see a much more dramatic example of a crossroads in the lives of two apostles, and at least a couple of different senses of calling. Jesus has withdrawn to Galilee after John’s arrest, a signal that the time of His ministry had truly come. Jesus, who is both fully human and fully divine and in full communion with the Father, has been called in a sense to Galilee for that purpose. He must fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah to begin this ministry, not just for the sake of doing so, but so that the Israelites can understand how He is and what His ministry means. Isaiah was given that prophecy for that reason — a gift on which the Israelites can discern.
When Jesus arrives in Capernaum, He begins to preach and also to seek out those who have the gifts necessary for what the Lord calls. Peter and Andrew are local fishermen, as are James and John working with their father, all clearly old enough to have adopted this as a trade for life. (We know in subsequent passages that Peter was married, for instance.) Normally in this time, the worldly gifts of men were discerned in their youth. Those who had talent for academics were apprenticed to rabbis — teachers of the sacred scriptures — to lead the Israelites in their faith. Most young men were apprenticed to their fathers or other relatives to learn a trade. The four apostles working as fishermen in this passage were clearly among the latter, those who toiled anonymously for subsistence or perhaps just a little more.
In our egalitarian times, we sometimes miss that context of this passage. Jesus could have called on scholars galore, those who presumably would have studied the prophets and the scriptures continuously their entire lives. Those had not been blessed with the gifts the Lord sought for this mission, however, and instead Jesus discerned the hidden gifts given to Peter, Andrew, James, John, and the other apostles and disciples who formed the core of His church.
Imagine how that must have sounded to these working men at that time, at least in the very first moment of Jesus’ greeting. Jesus had already begun calling the people of Capernaum to repentance and the coming of God’s kingdom, and might have been known already as a preacher or evangelist in the small communities around Galilee. Perhaps they also had wondered about their own gifts and whether they had taken the right road in their lives, but it seems more likely that they were far too busy with the tasks of subsistence to put much worry into that. And yet, when Jesus calls to them, they discern immediately that the Lord has something else in mind for them, a higher purpose, and that they have been given the gifts to answer that call — or at the very least, the gifts to recognize it.
The Gospel tells us that their discernment on this call was brief; Peter and Andrew responded “at once” by leaving their nets in the sea, while James and John “immediately” left their father to follow Jesus. Those are dramatic examples of answering calls from the Lord. They walked away from their old lives, and fully embraced the new life to which Jesus called the world. That foreshadows the complete submission to the Father’s will that Jesus will eventually demonstrate in defeating death and sin, as well as the martyrdom of almost all of the apostles later for the Word of God.
What does this tell us about how we should approach our own callings? It usually takes longer to discern them than it did the apostles in this passage. After all, Christ doesn’t usually walk up to us at work and tap us on the shoulder, no matter how much we might wish for an experience with that kind of directness and explicit purpose. But once we discern them, we should have a similarly dramatic embrace of Christ. Peter, Andrew, James, and John left behind their honorable work on a moment’s notice with the grace of the Holy Spirit allowing them instant discernment; all we are called to do in most cases is leave behind sin and antipathy, but to abandon them completely without looking back or yearning for their seeming pleasures.
Paul wrote about this in a way in his first letter to the Corinthians. He scolded the church in Corinth not only for continuing to engage in immoral practices and pagan rituals, but also for dividing themselves up needlessly into factions. The Corinthians have not fully embraced Christ and abandoned their old ways, but have tried to have it both ways rather than allow themselves to fully answer Christ’s call. That is why Paul urges them to “agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” Paul is not arguing for censorship or falsity; he is advising them to let go of their own predilections for power and prestige and to follow Christ fully, in which no divisions need occur. If the Corinthians answered the call fully, they wouldn’t have fallen into sinful practices and disunity in the first place.
We need to take this example to heart. It us up to us to choose between the great light of salvation, or to choose the darkness of death in sin.Peter and Andrew left their nets, and James and John left their father, in order to give us the truth of Christ. If we are to become fully Christian, it needs to become who we are in every aspect of our lives, because we have fully abandoned sin and antipathy to follow Christ. We may stumble and transgress, but even then we must still discern the call in order to know that we have done so, rather than rationalize our sinfulness in an attempt try to eat our cake and have it too.
Either we make that dramatic choice at some point, or we punt. And … you really don’t want to punt.
The front page image is “Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew,” English engraving c. 1160-1180, on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.