"What are you looking for?"

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 1:35–42:

John was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God.” The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi”—which translated means Teacher—, “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon. Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus. He first found his own brother Simon and told him, “We have found the Messiah” —which is translated Christ—. Then he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John; you will be called Cephas”—which is translated Peter.

Quite a long time ago, I went to a country music concert, probably the only one I’ve ever attended. How long ago was it? Garth Brooks performed, but he wasn’t the top-billed headliner. That’s how long ago it was. Brooks had just about reached that status with his No Fences album, but at least for this night he went on stage before The Judds and after Pirates of the Mississippi opened the concert. I remember clearly thinking that Brooks had stolen the show as we left the venue and that he wouldn’t be billed second for much longer.

I don’t actually recall too much from the concert nearly thirty years later, but one song always stuck in my mind. Most of Brooks’ set was high-energy, high-velocity modern country music, so “Unanswered Prayers” stuck out even more than it may have otherwise. The song talks about the realization that the things for which we pray may not be what we need or the ways in which God intends to bless us. “Some of God’s greatest gifts,” Brooks sings, “are unanswered prayers.”

That song stuck with me, quite obviously, and occasionally it comes to mind — as it did with today’s gospel and scripture readings. Jesus asks a tough question of Andrew and Peter, and it has echoes in what the Lord asks of Samuel in our first reading, too. What are you looking for?

Consider the stage of life in which John, Andrew, and Peter were when they first heard the call from Jesus. Men did not change careers in those days. They received a certain amount of education as boys, but only to the point where they could earn a living. The best students were chosen to be scholars, scribes, and rabbis, who then continued their education. The other boys either learned their father’s trade, apprenticed with some other tradesman, or went into physical labor. And that was their lot in life.

John is considered to be the youngest of the disciples, but Peter and Andrew were older and already established in their trade as fishermen. We know that Peter was already married, and had to provide for his family in an age where that took practically every minute of every day to accomplish. Their survival left them little room for scholarly pursuits, let alone contemplating the nature of the Messiah.

Under those circumstances, the most practical answer to Jesus’ question would have been “fish.”

However, we know now that the disciples were even more deeply committed to the Lord as they were to their duties. They wanted to serve the Lord and find their way to Him, despite their humble circumstances in a society that operated under the thumb of a foreign power. When Jesus asks Andrew, Peter, and John what they seek, they understand this as a call, an invitation to the Lord to serve Him. They do not know how, they do not know for how long, but they hear this invitation to serve as an answer to their own yearning, and their recognition that serving the Lord comes first before all other considerations.

In our first reading from 1 Samuel, a similar call goes out to the prophet-to-be. Samuel is asleep in the temple of the Lord when he hears this call, but he’s “not familiar with the Lord” and so does not recognize it. This differs from the situation with Jesus and His disciples, as Samuel had been raised in the temple as a servant to the prophet Eli; his mother Hannah had consecrated him to the temple as a child. One might have expected Samuel to have received enough formation to recognize the Lord’s call when it came, but the scriptures do not say how many others like Samuel may have been in the temple, either. Still, Samuel chooses service to the Lord in his response to the third call, regardless of what other ambitions he might have harbored in his life until that time.

The question Jesus asks is the question we all must answer. What are you looking for? Whatever we really want, we end up pursuing, and those actions speak louder than our words and intentions. Do we seek power and avarice as a hedge against others rather than trusting in the Lord? Do we choose to exploit others to save ourselves? Perhaps more simply, do we just keep our heads down and work without listening for the Lord’s call?

When we pray to God in our hearts and not just our words, for what do we truly yearn? And when we do not receive the specific requests for which we prayed, do we count ourselves blessed for the bounty of the Lord’s will, or do we just assume God wasn’t listening? What are we looking for?

Before the disciples received Jesus’ call, their prayers were likely simple — a bountiful catch, a chance to feed their families, and good weather to ply their trade. When they received their answer, they walked away from all of that to serve the Lord. May we have that much trust in Jesus Christ and His love for us, that much faith in His will for us … and Garth Brooks’ appreciation for unanswered prayers.

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.