Read the Text here: Matthew 4:12-23
Filling Out the Application
The Greek word that is usually translated as “disciple” is more commonly translated as “student.” And becoming a student to a Rabbi in the 1st century was not an easy task. To become a student your father would first have to go to the Rabbi and make a formal request, then if the Rabbi was willing to consider it you would need to then go and meet with him and be subject to an extensive interview. The point was that, of course, the Rabbi needed to know that you were serious, that you would be responsible and that you had an aptitude for the work. And if you satisfied the Rabbi then you were in and you would become one of the Rabbi’s students. This meant you left your home and went to live in the home of the Rabbi with all of the other students. The course of study would be pretty rigorous. You would be studying pretty much all day; you would listen to the Rabbi talk by the hour and follow him wherever he went. (And our confirmation students think they have it rough!)
After a period of time you would conclude your studies on the first level. Most students left the Rabbi at this point and they returned to their homes and to apprenticeships with their fathers or relatives. A small group of particularly gifted students would be invited to continue their studies into the 2nd level. And this was even more intensive than the 1st level. After you finished the 2nd level then the Rabbi would choose one, two or no students from this group to continue on to the 3rd level. This was the most intensive of all. And being in the 3rd level also meant that now you assisted in teaching the younger 1st level students. When you concluded this period of study then you were ready to go out on your own and become a Rabbi yourself. Three levels, a rigorous and intensive course of study, lots of evaluation! And not only that but the whole thing could take many years.
Our Gospel text from Matthew for this week tells the story of Jesus’ calling of his principal disciples/students. Now, in the 1st century everyone knew the process of choosing students; they knew what it took and what was required. And so when we read this account of Jesus’ selecting his disciples it is remarkable for how different it is. In fact, Jesus – in typical form – doesn’t follow the standard procedure at all! Last week we heard the story from John of Jesus’ calling of Philip and Nathaniel (or Bartholomew). “Come and See!” Jesus says. In our Gospel today Jesus calls out to a couple fishermen – Andrew and Peter – who are simply doing their jobs. And then Jesus calls out to a couple other fishermen brothers – John and James Zebedee - who are working in a boat fixing their nets – “Follow Me!” And there you have it! Where is the rigorous evaluation? How does Jesus know these guys are up to the task? Where is the traditional vetting process? It does not exist.
Now if you follow the story of these disciples/students you may get the impression that Jesus really was not selective enough in his choice of students. These students never seem to grasp the point. They are always confused. They are always messing up! So how did Jesus find these guys and why doesn’t Jesus fire them and get new students? And not only that, but they don’t even get along with each other very well. The Gospels are full of incidents and hints about how they don’t like each other very much. James and John (and their mother even) trying to push their way to the top of the heap; Judas criticizing the spending of money for perfume; Jesus’ group of 12 includes a whole spectrum of different men of differing backgrounds, tribes and political views including zealots and tax collectors. And that is just the inner 12 – the 3rd level students (as it were). And in the 1st level (and 2nd?) we even have women – who in some ways are better students than the men!
The point is that there seems to be no criteria for the selecting of students by Jesus – except the willingness to follow! Jesus calls, and these men (and women) drop everything and follow. They leave possessions, home, family and friends all behind and they begin to follow Jesus and they listen to him and try to learn from him. There is a scene from “Jesus of Nazareth” (the wonderful film by director Franco Zeffirelli) where one evening all the disciples and Jesus have turned in for the night and Peter is on his cot next to Matthew and he wonders aloud how his family is and when he will be able to return to them. After a pause Matthew responds by telling Peter that he will not be returning, he will never be able to go back. The scene ends with a close up of Peter’s face where by the expression we can tell that as painful as that news is, he knows it is true.
It is true for us too. We cannot go back, either. We were bound to Christ in our Baptisms and Jesus has beckoned to us to follow him as well. We don’t even need to fill out an application form. We are baptized! It is not that Jesus is not selective, just the opposite in fact, Jesus is selective? And he has selected you! God’s love through Jesus is all encompassing and takes us all into his embrace – “come, follow me!” And now, will you follow will you leave behind everything? Will to commit to Christ as your first priority?
Most of us, I suspect cannot fathom leaving everything behind like the disciples did when Jesus called to them. And of course we live in different times. But even so, it seems to me that there is at the foundation an issue of commitment and priority – maybe even idolatry. Is Christ in the center of your lives? Is Christ your first priority? Or are there other things, people, relationships, entertainment, other activities, that are more important? These are among the issues that are raised in this text for today. Jesus said, “follow me” and these men left everything and followed. What about you? Will you make Christ your first priority or only follow when it is convenient?The text ends with Jesus commencing his ministry of love – his very physical ministry of reaching out to teach and heal and care for others. And these disciples were right there with him, learning and also reaching out in God’s love to others. What about you?