The Lectionary This Week (Part 1): Why Not Zebedee?

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Epiphany 3, 25 January 2014 (Year B)

  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10
  • Psalm 62:5-12
  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
  • Mark 1:14-20

Today’s gospel passage is a fairly typical synoptic “call story” — Jesus calls someone to follow, and immediately (καὶ εὐθὺς) they drop everything and follow. Jesus is baptized, and now he begins his proclamation of “good news” (τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ) to the world:

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” 16 Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20 ESV)

Jesus is calling a bunch of rough, hardscrabble fishermen (ἁλιεῖς) to become “fishers of men” (ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων). Fishermen he meets along the way. There’s a couple of ways we can tell this story, bare of detail as it is in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus has been busy proclaiming the fulfillment of time, the on-handedness of the Kingdom of God (yeah, it’s awkward), and calling on those who hear to repent and believe in this good news. He’s been doing this long enough that everyone, or nearly everyone, has seen him doing this strange thing. They’ve heard him. So, when he gets past the preliminaries, and starts calling folks to follow him, this isn’t so strange. They know who he is, they’ve heard him preach, they are primed and ready for that command: “Follow me.” Maybe they’ve even been subconsciously waiting for it. Or … They don’t really know who Jesus is or what he’s said. And he just walked into their lives, unannounced, with the command to follow. The response is still the same — Jesus calls, and we follow. Throughout the synoptic gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — when Jesus calls, we follow. And Jesus does just walk into our lives. He chooses us. We do not choose him. And this is true regardless of which reading we follow. Even if they’d watched and listened to Jesus, and talked about him (“No good can come of him,” I suspect was one reaction, and may have even been Simon’s), and considered him from afar, they were still not ready for that moment when he walked up to them and said: “Follow me.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. That’s how you respond to the call of Jesus. Except, well, not everyone does. Jesus sees John and James, the two sons of Zebedee, and he calls them, and they leave their father and the hired men in the boats and followed. Zebedee and the hired men are left behind. Are they not called? Do they not respond to Jesus? And why not? Why not Zebedee? The name Zebedee makes four appearances in Mark’s gospel, two of them in this chapter. Aside from these two references, where he stands silently in the family boat and watched while his sons leave the family business for the utterly unrewarding career of preaching the Good News (think about it — it ends badly for just about everybody), the name Zebedee never appears except to note that John and James are brothers. It’s used to mark the identities of James and John, and really, nothing more. But why not Zebedee? Why is he left standing there holding a fishing net? Why doesn’t leave the boat as well? Why don’t the hired men follow? Partly, this is an acknowledgement of the very subjective nature of the experience of God, even when we meet Jesus. (Perhaps especially when we meet Jesus.) Not everyone hears the call the same way, and as stunning as it sounds, not everyone hears the call at all, and not everyone drops everything to follow. This isn’t some deep theological point (such theological conversations make my head hurt), but an appreciation of reality — God calls some and not others. We can speculate all we want about the nature of the call of God, about why God called me, and not you, or them, and not those others, or why we seemed to respond in this way to the call, but you did not, but all of that is attempting to reason our way out of something overwhelmingly subjective. God called us, and we followed. What others do, or do not, is not in our control and, in the end, not really our concern. We were called to follow. And so, we left everything. And followed. (One of the things I’m looking forward to as my book makes its way out into the world is — did anyone else at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, meet Jesus there?) So, in the end, we cannot know why Zebedee watched his sons abandon the family business. We could say, well, Jesus knew someone needed to stay and take care of the family business, but what about Andrew and Simon a couple of verses earlier? Did they have family dependent on their efforts? Was anyone left on their boats? So, we cannot really justify or even explain what happened here that way. We have no explanation. Just the encounter with the incarnate divine. Just a call, a command to follow. And the realization that we who are called cannot say “no.”