Follow Me: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week 3
1) Like last week, this week’s readings focus on the experience of calling, and together open up an opportunity to explore what it means to be called, to discern a vocation or life purpose. And the diametrically opposed reactions to God’s call of a) Jonah and b) the fishermen Jesus summons (Simon, Andrew, James, and John) raise a challenging, fruitful question for reflection: are we more like Jonah, or John? Or both?
2) Jonah is a prophet, but a deeply reluctant one, more so than any other biblical prophetic figure. Moses and Jeremiah might put up some resistance at first, but Jonah takes opposition to the next level. The book opens with God calling Jonah to embark on a mission - and Jonah promptly runs the other way. He attempts to escape God’s call. And in fact, Jonah’s claim to fame (being swallowed by a huge fish and then delivered back to land) is a case of God rescuing him, a wayward, disobedient, half-hearted coward, and then calling him a second time, the subject of this week’s passage. It’s a surprising, counter-intuitive move, and it embodies one of the book’s overarching themes: to achieve divine purposes, God saves and sends not “the best” but some pretty questionable, unreliable characters (like us!).
1) Barbara Brown Taylor has famously called called this episode in Mark a “miracle on the beach”: these fishermen have never met Jesus, and yet after hearing just two words from him, they “immediately” leave everything behind - family, friends, livelihood - and follow him. Read this way, it’s a story about God’s power to move us, to turn us around, to miraculously make disciples in the blink of an eye, and at the same time a story about the sometimes sudden, life-changing power of faith.
2) But the other way to read this passage is to say, "Wait a minute: no-one 'drops their nets' and walks away from everything they know without being good and ready to do so, without some deep, pre-existing longing for a different life altogether." Read this way, the story prompts us to wonder about those fishermen, about what it was that prepared them, that made them so ready and willing to hear Jesus’ invitation and simply drop everything - and go.
3) In Ched Myers’ remarkable post on this passage in Mark, he makes the case that fishermen on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ day were caught up in an elaborate, exploitative caste system, and that’s why they’re good and ready to move on. Fishing was considered the lowest of the low professions, Myers argues, and so Jesus’ invitation was to join him in ushering in a whole new way of living, economically and otherwise. Myers points out that the verb translated “they left their nets” (aphiemi) is used elsewhere in Mark in the context of leaving behind debt, sin, and bondage. Accordingly, aphiemi is what Myers calls a “Jubilee verb” - and it’s into a new Jubilee world that Jesus invites these exploited, disenfranchised people to follow him.
4) After his disastrous attempt at fleeing from God’s presence and call, Jonah delivers his terse prophetic message to Nineveh, just five words in Hebrew - and the entire community (even the animals!) is immediately roused into action. The principal contrast in the story is between a) Jonah’s foot-dragging reluctance and b) Nineveh's exemplary repentance. The king of Nineveh outshines Jonah, the people change their ways, and God extends mercy to the once sinful city. This mercy is extraordinary not least because it’s given to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, Israel’s arch enemy!
1) How do we discern and follow God’s call? One fruitful way of receiving these stories is to think of them as opening up spaces for us to think and reflect: are there nets God is calling us to drop today, ways of life we are ready to “immediately” leave behind? Has the decisive, consequential moment arrived? Do we hear an invitation from Jesus to set out in a new direction, a path towards God’s Jubilee? Are we behaving like Jonah, either fleeing God’s call outright or reluctantly, half-heartedly straggling behind? Perhaps the best thing we can do in order to discern our vocation or life purpose is to keep these questions warm and open, returning to them again and again. And perhaps the best way to do that is to intentionally form a small group (even as small as two or three) devoted to that task, providing both ongoing support and accountability.
2) It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t say, “Believe in this way of thinking, and follow me” or “Sign on to this cause, and follow me.” He simply says, “Follow me.” The sheer minimalism of the invitation is startling - and worth thinking about. It may signal that, while intellectual and practical life do come into play in discipleship, they’re not really the heart of the matter; Jesus is the heart of the matter. At the end of the day, being a Christian is about following Jesus, a living, breathing person - not a set of ideas, or rules, or ways of behaving. Thinking and acting are important, of course, but these evolve over time as we learn and grow; the constant in discipleship is the relationship with Jesus, the togetherness, the give-and-take, the struggle, and the openness to learning anew every day. “Follow me.” The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasizes this aspect of Jesus’ call; for Bonhoeffer, the most striking thing about it is that it’s “void of all content.” There’s no program here, no plan, no persuasive set of promises. Only a call to companionship, to closeness, to living together along the Way.
3) God’s call manifests in a thousand different ways, and we respond in a thousand more, from courage to reluctance to hopping on the next ship out of town. But there’s at least one golden thread running through it all: God’s calling is frequently surprising and unpredictable, spilling over the edges of conventional wisdom in ways that are more than a little bit wild. Who is called? Not the supposedly brightest and best, but a half-hearted coward (Jonah), or the lowest ones on the ladder of social status (Simon, Andrew, James, and John). And to what end? So God might save our enemies (Nineveh). So the world might turn upside down in a magnificent Jubilee. Or for no apparent reason at all (“Follow me”) apart from companionship itself, that mode of love that lives and walks together hand-in-hand, calling and supporting each other as we go.