Thursday, January 09, 2014

First Thoughts on the First Disciples

jesus_and_net[1]As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

It's just a short passage, there are still a few things that come to mind immediately. One is that Jesus is not calling these, his first disciples, in isolation, but in pairs. Peter and Andrew are brothers, and James and John are brothers. Thus, right from the start, he is affirming the importance of family -- and specifically of siblings -- in the Kingdom of God.

Which is rather interesting, if you consider the history of siblings in the Bible: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Amnon and Absalom, and Solomon and Adonijah, just to name a few. I have three brothers, and I think we would all agree that there is no one in all the world who can drive you nuts faster than a brother. Heck, my younger brother is 41, and he doesn't just find ways to annoy the older three of us. He has been known to go out of his way to look for them. Sometimes I suspect the psalmist was feeling particularly wistful when he wrote, "How pleasant and sweet it is when brothers dwell together in unity."

Based on this pattern of behavior among brothers, one might say this enterprise of Jesus is doomed from the start, except there clearly are times when brothers put aside all their differences and band together so that no one will come between them. The author of the book of Proverbs also says, without a trace of irony, "There are those who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother," and thus holds up brothers as the gold standard for measuring the value of a friendship. What's that definition? "A brother is someone who will make fun of you relentlessly, and will beat up anyone else who tries."

So, in a sense, Jesus right from the start is building his kingdom on a fractious group. It gets even worse when you consider that the gospel writer notes that James and John left their father, Zebedee, with the hired men. This was a family business that they stood to inherit, making them fairly well-off. Peter and Andrew, meanwhile, appear just to have been hired workers. So the invitation to follow him is made without respect of social class or education. In many ways it's like trying to forge a community out of the children of the 1 percent, and the children of working-class parents.

And what strikes me about this is that in this gospel, Jesus promises Peter and Andrew something specific -- come with me and I will teach you how to fish for men -- but all he says to John and James is to follow him.

Let me close with an observation here that Jesus didn't talk to anyone at this point about morality, or sin. His entire message so far has been "The Kingdom of God is here" and "Come, follow me." Since the apocalyptic tradition of Judaism from which Jesus comes was concerned with the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the radical restructuring of the world order so that social injustice was ended, and not with the stuff that we get so worked up about today, this is a radically different and much more welcoming message from what we're used to hearing. It's not "God wants to save you from the sins you have committed," although that surely is a part of it; as much as it is, "God wants to save the world, and he wants you to be a part of it."

Copyright @copy; 2014 by David Learn. Used with permission.