This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:14–20:

After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Then they abandoned their nets and followed him. He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat mending their nets. Then he called them. So they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.

What do you want to be when you grow up? That’s a question we ask our children, our grandchildren, after we spend a few years asking it of ourselves. And how do we get from asking ourselves that question to where we end up? After all, the world can’t be filled with firefighters, cowboys, and ballerinas, although it might make for a more pleasant environment.

Some people find their vocation early in life. They set their sights on a particular goal very early and work hard to achieve it. Doctors, lawyers, and even ballerinas are usually not later-in-life choices. Those who are blessed with recognizing that ambition early and having the wherewithal to stick to a plan probably never worry too much about Plan Bs or curve balls coming later.

Others who plan less wait to see what opportunities life brings. That can work out pretty well, too; that has been my adventure for the most part. And still others worry less about vocation than they do about other aspects of their lives, such as providing for families, travel when available, and other goals.

In biblical eras, choice didn’t enter into it very often. Men made their livings either doing what their fathers did or by being fortunate enough to apprentice in some way — either in the trades or in scholarship. By the time they reached adulthood, their choices were all but locked in for life, as subsistence living made changing directions an existential choice.

In that context, we see two very different reactions to calls from God. In both cases, men had to choose between their worldly vocations and their duty to the Lord. The word “vocation” descends from the Latin voc or vox, meaning “voice,” which can very clearly mean calling. That is the word used for those who dedicate themselves to a particular profession or trade in such a way that they seem formed to it; it is who they are and not just what they do. It’s used specifically in those who enter religious life, who first must test whether they are indeed “called” to these vocations or merely desire them. Many sincerely want that life but have not been authentically called to it by the Lord.

And some who are authentically called to it resist the Lord’s word. In our first reading, we have perhaps the most famous example in the scriptures — Jonah. The reluctant prophet resisted the Lord’s will to such an extent that God sent a “great fish” to swallow Jonah and make him think about things for a bit. When Jonah finally agreed to answer the Lord’s call, the fish vomited up Jonah. He then proceeded to save Nineveh from destruction by proclaiming God’s Word and judgment, and warning the city to repent.

If you’d asked Jonah as a young boy, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, the answer was likely not “fish vomit.”

The same could likely be said of Simon and Andrew in today’s Gospel reading, too. Both men had a real trade, one that would have allowed their families to keep from starving in the Galilee region. We know that Simon (soon to be Peter) had at least a wife for whom he would have been responsible. Neither man was of an age where they would have started an apprenticeship, let alone the formation for a religious life in those days. It would have appeared insane for either or both of them to lay down their nets just to follow an itinerant rabbi.

And yet, this is precisely what both did, as did James and John after them. They abandoned their vocations to follow a new vocation — the call from God. They left everything behind without any idea of what would follow, and regardless of the consequences. Unlike Jonah, when God spoke to them, they immediately responded in trust and love. In doing so, they became the foundation of the church that Christ founded to bring salvation to the entire world and all its peoples.

What are we to learn from these two stories? Clearly, we are meant to model ourselves after Simon, Andrew, James, and John to respond fully and wholeheartedly to the Lord. But the Lord knows that not all of us can respond perfectly and wholeheartedly, and thus we have the story of Jonah to sustain us.

Jonah rejected the Lord’s call, even though the Lord had appointed Jonah to be the salvation of Nineveh. Jonah didn’t want a vocation from God at all, and tried to run partway around the world to escape it. The Lord still protected Jonah in his defiance — uncomfortably, perhaps, but still kept him safe while trying to reach Jonah. Only after the circumstances changed around him did Jonah finally form his own will to the Lord’s, and through that Nineveh received its salvation.

It’s easier to get to that point by following Simon and Andrew’s choice. But even so, we can be part of the Lord’s salvation by keeping our hearts open to Him, even while struggling to answer His call whatever it may be. It is through that process that most of us will learn what we really need to be when we grow up — a true child of God, and an instrument of His will.


The front-page image is a detail from “The Calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew” by Domenico Ghirlandio, 1481. On display in the Sistine Chapel. Via WikiArt

“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.