Casting nets – let’s try our luck over there.
Sorting fish – too small; wrong kind; wow, nice big one.
Delivering fish – let’s get these out of the sun before they go off.
Repairing nets – agh, that hole we fixed has opened up again.
Simon and Andrew and James and John are fishermen. They work hard, and they work long hours, and they have strong calloused hands, and they know their way around on the water. They are fishermen, which is also to say that they have little power or prestige in their culture. One New Testament scholar describes the status of first century fishermen in these terms:
While the fishermen have some economic resources, their social ranking is very low. In Cicero’s ranking of occupations, owners of cultivated land appear first and fishermen last. Athenaeus indicates that fishermen and fishmongers are on a par with moneylenders and are socially despised as greedy thieves. Fishermen and fishmongers have a socially inferior and economically precarious existence under Roman control.
The work of fishermen is in some ways vital to their society, for without fish a significant part of the local diet and a source of nourishment is lost. But perhaps it will come as no surprise to us that those who did such vital work were not valued in themselves. In our own time and culture we outsource a great deal of basic and vital work overseas – and those workers or labourers receive levels of pay we would never consider acceptable for our own family members or friends.
The story we read in Matthew’s gospel is such a familiar one. Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee, and he sees these men – Simon and Andrew and James and John – they are going about their business. And Jesus says to them: “Come and follow me.” They follow him.
When we read this story, we focus very often on the fishermen, and we wonder to ourselves, how is it that they can just walk away from everything. In that moment, to give up so much – to walk away from their nets; to turn their backs on their families; to walk away from everything they have known – and just go after Jesus.
But maybe we should be wondering not only about the disciples, but also about Jesus – maybe we should be wondering about how he acts in this part of the narrative. At this point in the narrative of Matthew, Jesus has been baptized with the Spirit coming upon him with strength and purpose for life. At this point in the narrative Jesus has just spent time in the wilderness – tested and struggling like you and me, finding strength from his Heavenly Father. At this point he has also begun preaching his message of repentance – of change and renewal for life with God in the world. And at this moment he sees these fishermen. And he calls them.
But if we sometimes wonder how the disciples made their snap decision to follow Jesus – if we wonder how they could just pick up in that moment and leave it all behind – then maybe we ought to asking a similar question of Jesus. This question: How could he suddenly just call these particular individuals to follow him?
When we make personnel decisions nowadays, it is done with a great deal of care. You want to see a copy of the candidate’s CV. You want to check their references. You want to have a serious interview with them. You want to see some evidence that they can fulfill the position you have in mind. Depending on the position, you might do a criminal background check to make sure they aren’t going to rip you off or hurt someone in your organization. When it comes to these kinds of decisions, almost no one makes snap decisions – and yet that’s exactly what happens in the narrative that Matthew gives us. Jesus doesn’t check references.
And if we really wanted to push, we might even say that Jesus’ willingness to make decisions on the spot like this may just have come back to haunt him. After all, think about what happens with one of those disciples – who ultimately betrays him; hands him over to the authorities. Judas. Maybe it would have been better to dig into the identities of these twelve a bit more before he called them.
On the screen this morning is a painting that was originally part of a 14th century altarpiece at a church in Siena – it is by the Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna. In it we see Jesus and two disciples captured in the moment when Jesus calls. As one commentator points out, in this painting everything has come to a standstill. The fish are not flopping – the wind is not blowing – neither Jesus nor the disciples are moving – this is a moment of profound pause. This is a moment when everything comes to a standstill – it’s the instant of those spur-of-the-moment decisions.
But of course it’s one thing for the artist to portray this moment of stillness, when Jesus decides to call and the disciples are on the edge of their response. Duccio can portray this moment of stillness. But the problem is that we can never really slow things down to observe our decision-making. It is very nearly impossible for us to fully explain what happens when we make snap decisions, as much as we might try. Time doesn’t stop for us – time doesn’t slow down for us – so the decision is made and then very quickly left in the dust as life rushes on.
A few years ago Malcolm Gladwell published a book entitled Blink. It’s like many of Gladwell’s other books where he takes complicated psychological theories and ideas and tries to make them more accessible. And the book Blink is mostly about the fact that as humans we make snap decisions all the time. In fact, so much of what we do in our daily lives, from the moment we get up in the morning to the time we go to bed and night – so much of what we do just is a series of snap decisions based on habits and motivations and psychological predispositions that we can’t really put a finger on. These are decisions that we make without thinking much at all. We make decisions about where to walk, and decisions about what to buy, and decisions about where to go, and decisions about who to trust, and decisions about whether we like this music or not, and decisions about whether to add a Mars bar to our grocery pile at the checkout – all these decisions without thinking much at all about what we are doing.
And what’s really interesting is that in a certain sense we are very good at making snap decisions – quite good at making certain decisions without thinking much about it. In fact we have to be good at it. If we stopped to think carefully about every decision, we would get nowhere in life. If we had to stop and think carefully about every decision, we would always be like the deer in the headlights – frozen, not knowing what to do, unable to decide which way to go, what to choose, how to move. So as humans we have this capacity to make quick decisions, snap decisions. And the truth is that we can’t fully explain most of these snap decisions – we can’t slow things down, we can’t press pause to figure out exactly why we have done what we have done.
Of course some of our snap decisions are poor decisions. Sometimes these spur of the moment decisions are rooted in prejudices about race and gender, age and culture. Sometimes these snap decisions are based in evolutionary dispositions like the need for foods rich in sugar and fat. But as much as we might try to avoid them, and as much as we should try to develop new habits that promote fairness and health, making snap decisions will remain essential to our human identity.
So did Jesus make a snap decision in calling Simon and Andrew and James and John? Perhaps he did – perhaps he saw them and there was just something about the circumstance, or something about their posture, or something about their body language, or something about their voices, or something about their faces that made Jesus think – I am going to call these four. I am going to invite them on this adventure with me.
Is it also possible that the Spirit which came upon him at his baptism, also whispered in his ear in that moment of stillness – whether he heard that word directly or indirectly. “Yes, call them, lead them, teach them. These four; yes, these four.”
And what about the disciples – did they also make a snap decision – a spur of the moment decision to launch themselves onto this adventure with God? Was there something about Jesus, about his voice, about the way he spoke, about how he carried himself, about the look in his eyes, about how others looked at him, that moved them to act? And is it possible that the same Spirit that came upon Jesus at his baptism, spoke to their minds and hearts, also – blessed them in that snap decision in a way they could not have imagined.
It’s possible that these were snap decisions. But if these were snap decisions – if these were decisions made on the spur of the moment – there is more that we should perhaps say this morning. In fact there are two further things I’d like to add to what we’ve already said.
The first is this: That even if this was a spur of the moment decision by Jesus, Jesus has still chosen to go looking for his disciples, not among the powerful, not among the established, and not within institutions of influence. Jesus has gone looking for his disciples – he has gone looking for women and men to join him in the adventure of God’s kingdom – on the margins of society.
Not every decision we make in life is a snap decision. There are issues we think about, habits we develop and are responsible for, paths we follow with intentionality – and this is one path that Jesus has followed intentionally – bringing the kingdom of God, building the kingdom of God among those who are least in his culture. In this respect, Jesus’ actions here are consistent with his wider teaching – the first shall be last, and the last shall be first – blessed are the poor – blessed are the poor in spirit.
This is to say that Jesus is not merely driven by unexplained whims. Rather he is defined by the Kingdom of God that is present in him and embodied in him. And it is in the context of this embodiment of God’s kingdom that we can locate his spur-of-the-moment decision to call Simon and Andrew, James and John.
But there is a second, even more important point to take from all of this. For even if Jesus makes a snap decision to call these four, this is not the final moment – this is not the most important moment. It is not the most decisive moment.
In some traditions of Christianity, there is a profound focus on the moment of choosing to follow Christ – that moment of beginning to trust Jesus – that moment when we make a decision to follow. And certainly, our decisions are important – if only because they are our decisions, whether spur-of-the-moment or not. Yes, the gospel narratives call us to follow. But that initial decision to follow often isn’t transparent to us – often can’t be fully explained by us. That initial decision to follow is not moment of pure and perfect choosing, even if we’ve put a lot of emotional or mental energy into it.
That first moment of following Jesus isn’t the last moment or the most decisive – it is but the beginning of a relationship that may take us we know not where. It is only the beginning of a walking alongside Jesus that may challenge who we are in more profound ways that we could have imagined. It is just one step along the way with a Lord who will teach and who will encourage and who will correct and who will bless.
One who will say: “Take up your cross, and follow me.”
One who will say, “Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.”
One who will say, “Go, your faith has healed you.”
One who will say, “Go and sin no more.”
Yes, perhaps a snap-decision by Jesus to call – yes, perhaps a snap decision to follow. Decisions that cannot be fully explained – decisions rooted in thoughts and feelings and motivations that are not fully transparent to us – but just one decision at the beginning of a relationship. There is so much more to discover along the way with Jesus. There is so much more to learn on the way with him. There are ways of life and joy and goodness and beauty that we cannot yet imagine. Thanks be to God.