Jesus says a few more words to these fishermen but that first part needs some mulling over. The response to “Follow me!” is not a long conversation between Jesus and the fishers. Indeed, they drop everything: “Immediately they left their nets and followed him”. Why would they do this? What is the power of Jesus’ words “Follow me”?
Well, first a little Grammar 101. Back in elementary school, we learned the basics of grammar, including how to diagram a sentence by nearly contorting your body as you worked out a sentence on the chalkboard with all the little parts of dissecting a long sentence. One fellow was working hard, and then told the teacher: “Mrs. Bennett, I ran out of chalkboard!”
During Grammar 101, we learned about imperative sentences. If you speak in the imperative, you do not make an offer. You give a command. “Pass the salt” drops the “you”, but it means you do it. I recollect the teacher saying, “Remember (ironically she uses an imperative sentence to communicate the lesson!) imperatives are like “emperors”, who give orders.”
In giving imperatives (“Repent!” and “Follow me!”), Jesus presumes authority. The gospels situate Jesus just prior to calling disciples in the midst of divine affirmation (the baptism with its celebration and spectacle) and then in the midst of great temptation (the wilderness with its fierce loneliness and austere denial). He emerges from these intense moments clearly ready to begin his ministry, and he moves with divine authority, the highest power known.
Then, Matthew records: “Now when Jesus heard John the Baptist had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” You might think at first that Jesus is on the run, but really, he is going to where he believes the message can take root. The “powers that be” of Jerusalem and Herod’s court take away John the Baptist and silence the prophetic voice. The voice of Jesus, the Christ, is heard not by the elite, but the disregarded few working on the margins. These plain folks hear what Jesus means in saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” and “Follow me!”
Even before we are told that these fishermen become part of the core group of Jesus’ followers, even before we learn that their discipleship is sometimes shaped more trial and error at best, and at worst, doubt, denial, and betrayal, we learn that these fisher men accept the challenge without question. They hear a command that they are willing to take. They accept the call—even to the point of leaving everything to do so. If we read this story with due respect and sobriety, you ought to tremble! Those who read this text and taken it with the same spirit as those in the story have been known to change in a manner that the other New Testament writers might call “dying to self!”
Clarence Jordan writes, “They translate that [in most modern English translations] ‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ But in the Greek it is much deeper than that. Much more vital than that. Change your whole way of thinking, for you are now confronted with the new order of God’s Spirit. A whole new way of thinking is upon you. Change your old ideas, and get in with this new movement that is coming upon you.”
Jordan translates it, “Change your whole way of thinking, for the new order of God’s Spirit is confronting you”. (Dallas Lee, editor, The Substance of Faith and other Cotton Path Sermons by Clarence Jordan, pp. 59-60)
I think it is a tough sell, all that imperative talk of “follow me!” Stand in the crossroads of life and just listen and look all around you. The world is full of competitors for your time, attention, and oh yes, money. I remember standing in New York City’s Times Square. It was the middle of the night, and yet it seemed like daytime with all of the lights, all of the noise, all of the vendors and stores. You had your choice of musicals and plays. You could buy a hotdog for a $1.50 or a $150 dinner for two, and it was 11 PM at night.
The world seemed shoved somehow into that tiny little square, literally and figuratively alike. The people trudged through the crowded streets (and sometimes even off the sidewalks and into the midst of street traffic), and the night muted by the intense glow of “Drink Coca-Cola” or “Watch ABC’s new show on Tuesday nights!” on the high-def screens towering above. Literally, that is Times Square on an average night. Figuratively, that is the world that Jesus stands in the midst of, saying, “Change your whole way of thinking. Follow me!”
It astonishes me further while reading Matthew that these disciples kept following. Family ties, livelihoods, and worldviews all got turned upside down. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). The call to follow is a tough one to accept, for we know in this world, with its competing attempts to claim our life—as customers, citizens, supporters, voters, donors, adherents—as theirs to claim, not everything offering or commanding you to follow is healthy, let alone worthwhile to follow.
You read Matthew’s gospel, and you see these four fishermen keep cropping up in the narrative. Called “disciples”, they follow a teacher and the teacher’s ways and instruction. An odd assortment of folks from various walks of life, some accustomed to an honest day’s work and others who are quite simply dishonest. A tax collector named Matthew, versed in the usual graft and greed, sits in his fine clothes alongside Simon Peter, the threadbare fisherman who worked from dawn to dusk if it was a good day and made very little take home pay at that. It still astonishes, they heard “Follow me” and did so.
We might look at the fishermen’s leave taking as just “walking off the job”. There is something deeper at work here. These fishermen are stepping out of the world that they know, taking leave of the myths that have driven them so hard. These fishermen are closer to the migrant workers, persons who are taken advantage of by the system. These fishermen are expendable parts of the system, and yet here are “the little guys” being subversive. They are on the lower rungs, not even blue collar workers, but they follow Jesus, whose teachings point to a world where Caesar, Herod, and “the way it is to be” are taken leave. These fishermen learn a different script that describes a world shaped by the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and the Cross.
Pondering how discipleship comes about, the “answer” to the question of “why would a person do this?” is quite simply “obedience”. At the same time, I am quite aware that this understanding can be bent around or malformed in the hands of the overzealous or those too rigid or dogmatic for their own good. Obedience can become myopic, uncritical, or off-track. I think that contemporary North American theologian Douglas John Hall offers a helpful word: “Obedience, far from being a blind adherence to prescribed commandments, entails imagination, ingenuity, and involvement”. (Confessing the Faith, 433)
Jesus called to these fishermen not to be “super apostles”. (Church tradition has sometimes taken the early disciples, especially the Twelve, and done just!) Rather, he calls them to follow using the skills they have: I will make you fishers of people. The life they have led still counts. There is no “one size fits all” type of disciple. Folks with rough edges are welcome! As Hall claims, following Christ is an opportunity for “imagination, ingenuity, and involvement”. In obedience, the disciple follows. In obedience, the disciple brings one’s life, skills, and story to the mix and enriches the journey through their own individuality and abilities. Simon Peter and the other fishermen sit alongside the other odd characters who are called Jesus’ disciples.
Even you can be in the midst of these disciples, you who hear Christ’s call to follow. Wherever you are in life, Christ invites you to follow him on a journey. In obedience, you bring yourself, because that is who Jesus called: you, the unique person who is still the same mixture of greatness and failing alike as any other who walks this earth. Whether you fish, sell, file, bake, dance, build, counsel, till, wait upon, tailor, instruct, parent, any of those things and more, you are called to follow and share that faith as obedient followers of Jesus. Will you hear Christ’s call and follow?