Isaiah 9: 1-4 | Matt. 4:12-23
Can you remember last week’s sermon? As I remember it Chris explored the cryptic and enigmatic conversations, recorded in John’s gospel, between Philip and Nathaniel and then Nathaniel and Jesus, culminating in Nathaniel’s
confession, ‘Teacher you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ with the implication that Nathaniel then joined Jesus’ band of disciples.
This morning the Lectionary presents us with Matthew’s version of the call of Simon and Andrew and James and John. This version which almost word for word repeats Mark’s account is completely at variance with John’s narrative. If
we listened to Luke’s version we would hear a third alternative. There Jesus first begins his ministry of teaching and healing. Luke tells us that people were amazed because Jesus taught with authority and that they were impressed
that Jesus commanded evil spirits and healed people. With this background Jesus is walking along the shore of the lake teaching. The crowd is jostling him eager to get as close as possible. He sees two fishing boats pulled up on
the shore and he gets into one and asks the owner, Simon, to push it out a little way and continues to preach separated from the crowd. After he has finished he instructs Simon to push further out and let down the nets Simon
and Andrew do so and catch a large haul of fish and call their partners, James and John, to help. Then in this situation Jesus calls all four to follow him.
These irreconcilable versions should underline for us that the Gospel writers were not recording history. Their stories were told with a purpose: to convert their listeners to become followers of Jesus.
I believe if we listen to the four stories we can catch glimpses of the historical situation and setting which formed their seed bed. In all four gospels John the Baptist is a significant figure. He is the last of the prophets and the message he proclaims is, ‘Repent, the kingdom of God is near.’
All four have John baptising Jesus and this act is portrayed as marking Jesus’ sense of who he is and his vocation. As Jesus comes up out of the water the Spirit of God descends on him. The gospels identify God’s proclamation as being heard by an expanding audience. The wording in Mark implies that only Jesus hears God speaking whereas Matthew’s wording suggests that John the Baptist also hears God’s voice. Luke’s version implies everyone within earshot heard the voice. Significantly for me John’s gospel has John the Baptist testifying to some of his disciples that he saw the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove and remaining with him and this was the sign that Jesus was the Son of God. John’s gospel continues the story portraying Jesus as one of the group of John the Baptist’s disciples and Jesus selects from that group to form his group of disciples.
Matthew’s scenario is different. Jesus meets John the Baptist only once, when he along with many others went to be baptised in the River Jordan.
Immediately following his baptism Jesus is driven out into the Wilderness where he is temped. However, significantly it is the arrest of John the Baptist that galvanises Jesus into action. He leaves Nazareth and goes to live in Capernaum and begins his ministry with the identical message to that proclaimed by John, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ The next scene has Jesus calling two sets of brothers, all fishermen, Peter and Andrew and James and John whom he has never met, according to Matthew‘s narrative, to join his band of disciples.
I believe John and Luke’s versions provide more believable settings: Jesus already knows the four fishermen as they along with him have been followers of John the Baptist. Thus Jesus knew whom he was inviting, their strengths and weaknesses. Certainly to my mind, Luke’s setting of the large catch of fish makes an excellent backdrop for the call, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’
The questions I want us to explore this morning are: Why did Matthew tell thestory this way? and What can we learn from it which will touch our lives?
Firstly, Peter, Andrew, James and John are chosen and called by Jesus.
Matthew places the initiative solely with Jesus. Thus subtly affirming Jesus’ divinity. In Matthew the birth narratives have God as the main character. You could say ‘the puppeteer’ as God orchestrates everything. In this story the four fishermen do nothing except respond. Jesus acts as God has.
We are not told why Jesus, a carpenter, chose fishermen to form one third of his disciples. They must have formed a pressure group from the beginning. It should not be surprising that one of them became the disciples’ spokesman.
Further it lead to friction among the disciples, as the debate over who would get the plum positions in the kingdom illustrates. Obviously Jesus had not read today’s personnel handbooks because not only was the group skewed in terms of representation with four from one trade, he also included two sets of siblings, from today’s understanding of best practice a real ‘No No’. So Matthew is telling us the composition of Jesus’ band of disciples was his call and was determined from a divine not human perspective.
Secondly, the call came to them while they were at work. Jesus did not go to the local synagogue or the Temple in Jerusalem to find his disciples. It’s not because they did not go there but, I believe, because their faith and life were entwined together. For them there was no chasm between secular activity and the life of Faith. Centuries earlier Amos told those who bade him be quiet, ‘…the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”’ I believe we need to take our faith into work with us and into all our daily activities. Not only should our faith influence our actions, how we carry out our daily tasks but it may enable us to hear God calling us to some particular task.
In my youth a number of preachers exhorted me and my fellow teenagers to become ‘fishers of men’ paraphrasing Jesus’ call to Peter, Andrew, James and John. Generalising Jesus’ call like that obscures its message. I believe what Matthew is telling us, and it is even clearer in Luke, is that Jesus tailored his call to the people he was addressing. The call, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’ was specific to the four fishermen. He matched his call to what they were doing. The words Jesus used would have caught their imagination and sparked their enthusiasm to follow him.
Geza Vermes whom I have been reading makes the point that the metaphor of ‘catching men like fish’ was not invented by Jesus. Others had used it before him. But Jesus is the first to use it in a positive sense. From the fish’s perspective being caught in a net is undesirable and signifies death. But here Jesus implies that catching men is beneficial for both the fisher and those caught and this is a new twist.
The opening words, ‘Follow me’ in the NRSV and King James’ translation deserve some comment. While they are an exact word-for-word translation they miss the meaning. I’m reminded of Laurena’s tale from when she was teaching a bright young Korean 5th grader to match Australian colloquialisms with their simple meanings such as ‘I feel crook’ to ‘I am ill’. A crook to him was someone who steals. Matching ‘My mother hit the roof’ to ‘My mother was really angry’ threw him completely. He said ‘My mother wouldn’t hit the roof if she was angry. She would hit me.’
In the same fashion ‘Follow me’ is better translated as in the Good News, ‘Come with me’. It was an invitation to walk with Jesus, to share his life, to listen to him preach, and learn from his example. The call is a world away from the command of a general to his troops as he leads them into battle.
But the message I think Matthew wants us to be struck by most is the response of the fishermen. He tells us, each pair, on hearing Jesus’ call, ‘Immediately left their nets and followed him.’ There was no prevarication, no reservation, no farewells. An instant recognition that this was a turning point in their lives and they wholeheartedly threw their lot in with Jesus.
When Jesus calls us, how do we respond?