Last week’s lectionary Gospel (John 1:29-42) included John’s version of the calling of the first disciples. This week we are back in Matthew (the main Gospel for Year A) for a very different telling of the same story. (You can find my children’s sermon on this text through this link.)
Like last week’s text, Matthew 4:12-23 includes more that just the calling of the first disciples. It leads up to those events by having Jesus move to a seaside town and afterward it continues with a summary what the disciples followed Jesus into.
Moving to Capernaum
Jesus moved his home from Nazareth to Capernaum — where, according to Matthew, he needed to live to fulfill a prophecy.
This is a big theme in Matthew: Jesus’ life was guided, moment by moment, to fulfill the details of the expected Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Up to this point in Matthew, a whole bunch of events have already been cited as intended to fulfill prophetic words:
- The virginal conception of Jesus (Matthew 1:22-23)
- The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:4-6)
- The flight of the holy family to Egypt (Matthew 2:14-15)
- The massacre of the innocents (Matthew 2:17-18)
- The holy family’s move to Nazareth (Matthew 2:23)
- The preaching of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:3)
So here, Jesus moves
… in Capernaum by the sea,
in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali…” (Matthew 4:12-13 NRSV)
Every bit of this is important. It is, Matthew tells us, to fulfill the words of Isaiah 9:1-2, which according to Matthew starts out,
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—” (Matthew 2:15 NRSV)
I suspect that it is also significant that it Galilee is described as “of the Gentiles.” Moving there is a hint of his mission to the larger world.
One thing is not clear in Matthew: Who intended to fulfill all these things? When he was a baby, it seemed like God’s providential hand in history. Here it could easily be Jesus’ own careful planning.
But really, that is exactly the same thing.
When Jesus was an infant, the hand of heaven guided things from offstage. Now, as an adult, and God incarnate, Jesus can actively choose a house in Capernaum — not only for its charming view of the Sea of Galilee but because it serves admirably as a fulfillment of prophecy.
Calling the First Disciples
Think back to last week, and how John portrayed the calling of the first disciples. Andrew was already a disciple of John the Baptist. John the Baptist pointed Andrew and another disciple toward Jesus and off they went to follow him.
Simon Peter, too, was a genuine seeker in John — Andrew just had to tell him that they’d found the Messiah, and off he went to follow Jesus too.
The theme in John was that the people went seeking Jesus. Jesus was going about his own business. He welcomed followers, but he didn’t go looking for them.
It’s all different in Matthew. This week, it’s Andrew and Simon Peter who are going about their business. They are hard at work casting their nets in the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus seems to have gone looking for them.
Matthew tells us Jesus had started preaching, calling people to turn around their thinking in light of the Kingdom coming near. And the first example of that message in action is when he calls across the waters to Simon Peter and Andrew.
It is worth pausing to notice that these two stories show the initiative coming from absolutely the opposite direction. And though that makes the stories seem to conflict, in terms of Christian experience I’d say it is absolutely the ordinary course of events.
On the one hand, we look back on how we came to follow Jesus and it looks like John’s gospel: it seems like we first spent a lifetime seeking and questioning, finally stumbling on Jesus and wrestling our hearts into order to become his followers.
On the other hand, we look back on that same journey toward following Jesus, and it seems like Matthew’s version: we were busy, we were lost, we were running the opposite direction, and Jesus sought us out. He persistently tapped us on the shoulder or knocked us on the head to get our attention.
I haven’t the slightest idea how to reconcile the two stories historically, but when it comes to discipleship both are true. It’s all about which side of the tapestry you look at.
God is always taking the initiative, weaving the circumstances to bring us home to faith.
And we always have questions, and are always searching, and always have to make a decision to follow.
Fishers of People
So as I said, Jesus is walking along, and he sees Simon Peter and Andrew. They are, as the Greek text says, “ἁλιεῖς” or “fishers.” Some translations put “men” on the back of “fishers” making the more idiomatic, if gender-specific, English term “fishermen.” The old KJV is more strictly precise with “fishers.”
Whatever: they catch fish for a living.
Andrew and Simon Peter are busy doing their job,
casting a net into the sea” (Matthew 4:18 NRSV).
Matthew doesn’t say or imply that Jesus had ever met these guys before. They aren’t associated with John the Baptist or seeking the Messiah. They are just fishers, out fishing.
Jesus seems to be in a jovial mood. He puts his call to these fishers in the form of a little pun.
and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19 NRSV)
If you’ve been around this text a while you probably expected this in more familiar, and perhaps more poetical, language:
I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19 KJV)
The Greek word translated “of men” is “ἀνθρώπων”, which often has a meaning more generic than “male humans.” It does get used in contexts where it can only mean males, but it is the word used when the broader English term “people” would be better.
The NRSV misses a bit of the poetic parallel in the “ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων” by changing “fishers” to “fish for” here, as well by nudging “of people” into “for people”. I’d prefer
I will make you fishers of people.
Though honestly, I think that’s a bit clunky too.
But let’s avoid getting our togas in a twist about the language, and think about the scene:
For some reason Jesus wants to call these fishers to be his disciples. Why? I suppose the real question is “Why not?”
Maybe it tells us that Jesus is always walking around, always looking for new disciples. Maybe he calls out to all of us to follow. That’s the meaning of his message, which Matthew summarizes as
for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17, NRSV)
Perhaps Jesus sees his own life’s work mirrored in the work of Andrew and Simon Peter. Fishing with a net is an imprecise business — or was, before sonar. You cast it out and you see what it drags in.
There is an odd little detail in the language of following here. Jesus asks the brothers to “come after me” (Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου). But when they leave their boats they “followed him” (ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ). English translations sometimes masks the difference, reading both as “follow”.
The difference may be trivial, but it is worth pondering. “Coming after” is a particular kind of following.
- It could be taken to mean that we rank lower than him. That’s an aid to humility.
- It could prompt us to remember that wherever we go, he got their first. That’s an aid to humility too, and a sense of participation in his mission.
- It also points to the physical positioning of our discipleship: we bow to him, and let him go first.
If we are to “come after,” We consciously don’t go through the doorway without holding the door for him. We don’t take a step down the road without looking to see that he is going first.
(I find myself reminded of what he will say in Matthew 25 about what we do to the least we do to him. Maybe we could remind ourselves that he goes first and we come after by taking conscious note that those we serve, feed, house, and welcome are Jesus, in his own estimation.)
It is also worth pondering the difference between Andrew and Simon Peter, who were casting their nets, and James and John who were, with their father, mending their nets. So…
- Jesus comes and calls us when we are casting our nets, actively working in the world.
- Jesus also comes and calls us when we are mending our nets, quietly repairing the damage done to us when we were out there working last time.
You can’t fish forever without stopping to mend your nets.
You can’t live forever without stopping to tend your life.
But whether you find yourself striving or recovering, it is still time to start following.
Before Jesus called these four followers, he was out on his preaching tour. His message:
for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17 NRSV)
When Peter, Andrew, James, and John followed along, Jesus just continued on the same trajectory:
Jesus went throughout Galilee,
teaching in their synagogues
and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom
and curing every disease
and every sickness among the people.” (Matthew 2:23 NRSV)
Matthew 2:23 is really the first verse of the section that follows, but it gives us a rich picture of what they learned when they followed him.
- He taught them a new way of thinking, renewing their minds — which is repentance.
- He told people of the God’s kingdom which with his arrival was now upon them — which is the substance of that repentant life.
- And he cared, generously, indiscriminately, and abundantly for all, healing “every disease” and “every sickness” — which is the picture of what we should be doing if we are citizens of that kingdom.
It’s poor old Zebedee I worry about. He was left behind on the seashore with two boats, half-mended nets, and a day’s catch.
How do you suppose it affected him to have his sons and business partners quite literally abandon ship?
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