First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 3

William Loader

Epiphany 3: 24 January Mark 1:16-20

It would have been possible for Mark to have proceeded straight from 1:15 to 1:21, namely, straight from Jesus’ announcement of God’s reign to an illustration of that reign in action, the expulsion of the demonic power from the man in the synagogue. Instead Mark reports the call of two sets of disciples, Simon (Peter) and Andrew and James and John. This is surely no accident. Jesus was not a solo act, according to Mark. The ‘good news of the kingdom’ is about what happens to people and it is also about people, about community.

This does not stop Mark from exploiting the human frailty of the disciples to the limit as he uses them to expose value systems which conflict with those of Jesus (see, for instance, 9:33-34; 10:35-45). Nevertheless, the good news includes disciples. It is not just about Jesus. It includes in the broadest sense the Church. The Church performs about as well as the disciples in Mark, but it is still part of the breaking in of God’s reign or can be. That is why Mark tells his story the way he does.

When we look ahead through Mark’s gospel, we see how Mark makes special use of the disciples to add a framework to his narrative. It is as though he wants to keep reminding us that disciples are needed. We belong! First he recalls this episode beside the sea when he recounts the call of Levi in 2:13-14, but the next major focus on the disciples is really 3:13-19, when Jesus goes up a high mountain and appoints the twelve. One can scarcely miss the allusions to Israel and Sinai. After that the next major focus in 6:7-13 where he sends out the twelve. He sends them out to do what he, himself, had been doing. We can scarcely miss the point here, too. Jesus is not a solo act!

‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of people’ (1:17). The image of fishing often carries negative tones. Jeremiah uses it to speak of God catching people in order to bring them to judgement (16:16). Amos speaks of people being caught and taken off with fishhooks (4:20). What does Jesus mean? There have been many answers. After all, this is a favourite verse for describing Christian mission. At its crudest, such ‘fishing’ is akin to scalp hunting: getting as many people to join the movement as possible, with a focus on quantity. Where such thinking prevails, people too easily become the statistics of success and caring becomes movement centred rather than people centred. The context does not suggest that the disciples went out in search of numbers, any more than Jesus did.

The clue to Jesus’ meaning, at least in Mark, must be Mark’s Jesus. It will mean reaching out and touching people, bringing healing, liberation, renewal. It will mean joining Jesus’ ‘act’. The immediate context would lead one to suspect this anyway: the good news of the kingdom is going to include the disciples. They are to be involved. This is why their calling comes precisely here in Mark’s story. The word, ‘evangelism’, is unfortunate, because it too easily sounds like making people into objects, fish to be hooked, rather than persons to be loved. But loving will also include caring for people at the level where they make major changes in life direction and ‘evangelism’ in the best sense at least includes that.

One of the problems of this passage is that people can access it only by treating it symbolically. In that sense we are all called ‘to follow’ Jesus and to become fishworkers. But the story, itself, should not be shorn too quickly of its literalness. It doubtless reflects the historical situation in Jesus’ ministry in which only some were called in this way. By far the majority who believed in Jesus’ message stayed at home. He asked only a small number to join him on his meanderings. Theirs became a particular role and they were being given a particular formation. They were not better than the rest, but simply given a special calling. They are the beginnings of a particular order of ministry which later all too often saw itself as superior. But whether in ‘ordered’ ministry of this kind or belonging to the order of ministry living in local reality, the challenge to all is to be part of the kingdom.

We don’t need to put Zebedee down! Someone still needs to mend the nets and people will still need fish! It is interesting that Zebedee is even an employer with hired staff. Sometimes we idealise Jesus' world and imagine his entourage is made up of destitute people. That is subtly comfortable to contemplate and makes us spectators. Instead, the movement was diverse, and as in most movements for change, it is often those who identify with the poor, but who have enough to eat and enough education to take initiatives, who exercise leadership. This will have been the case with many in the first movement and it remains the challenge for all who have resources today.

The calling of James and John and Simon and Andrew and such other callings to leave all and follow function as a protest not against life at home, but more generally against societal structures which simply perpetuate the past and trap people into the service of the status quo and its gods. But Jesus’ socially disruptive call upset the system not only for those called but also for those left behind. It called for a new way of looking at life, wherever you are. There is a new set of priorities. This means changed values, but it is more than that. It means a new god, or better, a return to the God of compassion and justice. That will make a huge difference wherever we are.

Epistle: Epiphany 3: 24 January  1 Corinthians 7:29-31

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