Carlos Wilton, January 22, 2012; 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 1:14-20
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’”
– Mark 1:17
What do you think of when you hear the word, “provocative”? How would you define it?
Well, you might use it to describe a TV show you’d just watched, or a book you’d just read, as in: “That talk-show guest – or that author – makes a provocative argument.”
More often, you hear the word used in another sense. Teenage girl is heading down the stairs and tiptoes quietly through the living room, where dad is reading the newspaper. She tries her best to scoot out the front door unnoticed, but no luck. She gets caught in the parental radar.
“Hold on there, Missy,” says dad, putting down his paper. “Don’t think you’re going outside dressed like that!”
“But, Dad,” says daughter, knowing the jig is up.
“You march right upstairs, take off that sweet little nothing, and put on something more decent. What you’re wearing is just too provocative.”
Nowadays, that’s the sense of the word you’re most likely to hear. “Provocative” has come to mean “a little too sexy.” Which is why you may be surprised when I tell you Jesus, in today’s scripture passage, is being provocative.
He’s calling disciples to follow him. Peter and Andrew, James and John – all four of them fishermen. “Follow me, he says, and I will make you fish for people.” When they hear that invitation, all four get up and follow him. They do it because Jesus is being provocative.
No, of course I don’t mean he’s shown them a little too much ankle under his robe. What I mean to say is, Jesus has provoked them.
There’s another sense of that word – and it doesn’t seem to fit this scripture passage any better than “provocative.” “Provoked,” the way most people use it today, means something like “incited to anger.” As in, “I wouldn’t have let the air out of your tires if you hadn’t provoked me by blocking my driveway with that SUV of yours!” (When people feel provoked, they often do or say things they regret later.)
So, is Jesus provoking the disciples, in that sense? Of course not. There’s no anger here. What he is doing is calling them.
Which is the oldest and richest meaning of the words “provocative” and “provoked.” Follow them back to their origins, and you’ll see what I mean. Both of them come from a Latin word, provocare, which means “to call” or “to call out.”
Now, let’s do a little word dissection. Take away the first syllable, “pro,” and you’ve got vocare, which also means “to call.” Look hard enough, and you’ll see, hiding within that word, the roots of our English words “vocal” and “voice.” When Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” he’s using neither net, nor hook, nor trap to catch himself a few disciples. He’s using the most effective tool he has at his disposal: his voice.
This story from Mark, chapter one, is a call story in the classic sense. At its heart is a literal call: the voice of Jesus, saying to Peter and Andrew, “Follow me.” Mark doesn’t record what Jesus says to James and John, a little further down the lakeside path, but it was probably something similar.
Peter and Andrew waste no time in answering the call, according to Mark: “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” So, too, with James and John: “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” The Greek word for “immediately” literally means “straight” – or, as we’d say in English, “straightaway” (“They followed him straightaway.”) No diversions, no distractions: from that moment on, those four fishermen belong to Jesus, body and soul.
It’s an extraordinary thing, for men of that very traditional culture. The people of first-century Judah did not tend to be great travelers; nor were they great career-changers. It was a highly stable society, where most everyone knew their role, their place. A young man’s position in society had everything to do with the family he was born into. If his father raised sheep, he would grow up to raise sheep. If his father went fishing on the Sea of Galilee, he knew he would grow up one day to cast the same nets over the same patch of water.
Upward mobility, socially and financially speaking, was all but unknown. To the extent that common folk were aware of what we’d call the “economy,” they had no conception that it could grow, making room for people to rise up from the lower levels of society to a higher position. The pie was only so large, and if the people who wore elegant robes and lived in marble palaces enjoyed bigger pieces of it than they – well, that was just the way things were, and always would be.
Members of the laboring classes just didn’t up and leave their homes, in those days. And for James and John to do it as they did – leaving their father sitting, slack-jawed, in the boat, along with a couple of hired hands, while they went traipsing off after some religious leader – well, that was all but unheard-of.
Books and films have portrayed Jesus as exercising some kind of hypnotic attraction, as he calls his first disciples. He shows up by the lakeshore, does some sort of Jedi mind trick, and off the fishermen go, trailing after him like ducklings. Those who’ve retold the story that way have followed Mark’s narrative literally. He records no debate, no discussion, no questioning – just absolute, unquestioning obedience to a perfect stranger – so they portray it in just the same way.
In all likelihood, it probably wasn’t that way. Mark’s got a very sparse writing style. Just because he doesn’t record the details of the disciples’ decision-making process doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.
In fact, it’s very likely Peter, Andrew, James and John already know Jesus. Their lakeside village isn’t all that far from Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Judah’s a tiny country. The population, in the First Century, was far smaller than it is today. These men are all faithful, observant Jews. No doubt they’ve heard something of this remarkable rabbi from Nazareth and his wise teachings. Perhaps they’ve even walked the short distance to Nazareth and heard him teach the scriptures. Or, maybe he’s visited their own synagogue.
The point is, the day when Jesus shows up and says “Follow me” is probably not the first time these fishermen have talked with him. In fact, it’s very possible Jesus is there precisely because he’s looking for these four men. They’re the start of a carefully-chosen twelve-member group, who will symbolize hope for a newly-revived twelve tribes of Israel.
So, when Jesus shows up and says, “Follow me,” the choice of that particular day may be a surprise to them, but Jesus himself probably isn’t. When he invites them to lay aside their nets and journey with him, it may be a fulfillment of their fondest hopes. Jesus is choosing them, of all people, to become members of his inner circle. Their decision to accept his invitation may be completed on that day, but it probably didn’t begin then. It was very likely a process, spread over some considerable period of time. Mark gives us just the essentials, in his bare-bones narrative. It’s up to us to flesh out the details in our imaginations, as we read it.
In that sense, the literal way in which many authors and film-makers have retold the story does us a disservice. It gives the impression that receiving a call from God is a supernatural event, an extraordinary occurrence that’s not likely to happen again in our own day – least of all, with the likes of you and me.
Sure, Peter, Andrew, James and John got up and followed. But that’s because it was Jesus himself doing the asking. It was his audible voice that conveyed the message, his compelling eyes that backed it up, he reassuring hand that clasped their own as they signaled their decision to accept. It wasn’t supernatural power, but the very natural power of a deep human relationship.
So, where is it that people find such assurance of the rightness of a call, in our own day? How does Jesus do it, short of making a post-resurrection appearance in the living rooms of those he’s calling to himself?
The answer is: he uses other people as his messengers. Very often, his call comes to us, mediated through them. Maybe it’s the voice of a trusted friend, suggesting there’s another way we could be spending our time, a way that’s more true to our talents and abilities – more faithful to who we are. Maybe it’s the voice of a number of other people, little hints and suggestions that come from different places and different times and mean little in and of themselves, but together assemble a complete picture: the individual pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that, together, make up the whole.
It may not even come as a direct invitation, someone else’s fully-formed idea expressed to us in words. Sometimes it’s simply the example of another person’s life that we’re privileged to observe, that slowly, over time, exerts a sort of gravity, as a planet in outer space gradually pulls a moon into its orbit. That gradually-growing perception, too, can be a call from God.
I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book called The Present Future, by Reggie McNeal. It’s all about how the church can continue to be the church, in a world that often seems to be leaving the so-called institutional church behind. McNeal tells the story of how, in the days after 9/11, his wife, Cathy, traveled to New York City, as part of a team of mission workers who were volunteering to help clean up after that horrendous disaster.
The team was working not on “the Pile,” the ruins of the World Trade Center itself, but in the blocks immediately surrounding it. When the towers fell, the damage was not limited to those buildings themselves. The shock wave of those huge structures collapsing, the rain of debris that flew in every direction, and the thick layer of dust that settled on everything for blocks around rendered many apartments and offices uninhabitable.
The mission team of which Reggie’s wife was a part was working on cleaning up some of these spaces. Windows had been shattered, and, in some of the buildings closest to the towers, actual objects from the Trade Center offices – briefcases, folders, pieces of stationery, telephones – had ended up in the offices and apartments of others. Cleaning up these spaces, therefore, required not just hard work, but a certain personal determination. It was not a job for the fainthearted.
Were it not for volunteers like these, people whose homes and workplaces were thus affected would have had to pay commercial cleaning firms a small fortune to make their spaces habitable again. In the case of Cathy McNeal’s team, they did it for nothing, and even left small gifts behind for the residents as they moved back in again.
Listen to Reggie McNeal in his own words:
“At that time Ground Zero was still a police state. People could come and go only with appropriate identification. Cathy and her team had to wear their disaster relief uniforms so they could get into the area to do their work. These outfits were conspicuous and grabbed people’s attention wherever they went. All over Manhattan people stopped them and repeatedly asked three questions: Where are you from? What are you doing? Why? Cathy tells me that by the time they answered the first two questions, ‘We are from South Carolina, here to clean apartments for people displaced by the terrorist attacks,’ they could have said anything in response to the ‘why’ question and received a hearing. Even if people didn’t understand their answer or disagreed with some point of their convictions they were willing to hear them out. Do you know why? They listened because the New Yorkers were persuaded that Cathy and her fellow cleaners believed something so strongly that it had caused them to inconvenience themselves in service to people.
This is what it’s going to take to gain a hearing of the gospel in the streets of the twenty-first century – the smell of cleaning solution, dirty faces, obvious acts of servanthood.”
This, McNeal goes on, is in sharp contrast to the way we in the church have habitually presented ourselves to the world. We’ve often portrayed ourselves as the people who have our act together, who are living the way God wants us to live – and, as for other people, they’d better get their lives together and become like us. We’ve acted like the most important thing we could do is set up a church, open the doors, and invite people to come in and join us here – forgetting that the way Jesus himself operated was to go out and rub elbows with others where they live, making an impression on them as much through his loving actions as through his words.
Further reflecting on the World Trade Center clean-up, McNeal continues:
“We Christians in the church have been great about speaking the truth without love. The Scriptures say we are to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We do have the truth. The trouble is, people can’t hear it from us because we haven’t earned the privilege to share it.
At the point people ask us “why?” it’s important to be prepared to speak the truth. To reply, ‘Oh, we just want to help,’ doesn’t cut it in terms of helping people in Jesus’ name.”
[The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (Wiley & Sons, 2009), p. 38.]
McNeal goes on to tell of Pastor David Yonggi Cho of Korea, who has built one of the largest congregations in the world, in part through mission outreach of this very sort. Pastor Cho instructs his mission team members on what they are to say when people ask them why they do what they do. They are to reply, simply: “I am a disciple of Jesus. I am serving him by serving you, because that’s what he came to do.”
That’s it. No coercive, hard-sell evangelism techniques, no cornering people and asking them if – should they die this very day – do they know for certain they will go to heaven? Just service after the example of Jesus Christ, service in Jesus’ name. It’s his name that has the power. It’s his name that works transformation in the lives of men and women who may otherwise have made little room in their hearts for him. It’s a gentle invitation to come and find out more – much like the invitation spoken centuries ago, on the lakeshore: “Come, and I will show you…” Not tell you. Show you. That’s what makes all the difference.
Is there a way that Jesus Christ has been showing you – through the witness of some of his faithful servants – how the Christian life is to be lived more fully? You may never have imagined yourself to be called by God, because you haven’t had a spectacular, even supernatural, religious experience – but, believe me, you don’t need one. I don’t think there was anything spectacular about Jesus’ invitation to Peter, Andrew, James and John. In all likelihood, as I’ve said, they knew him already. When he spoke to them that day, it was in the tones of ordinary conversation. There wasn’t an unearthly glow in his eye, nor a hypnotic command in his voice. He neither coerced nor forced them in any way. He just invited them to come, come and see. And because of the hunger in their hearts, and the purity of purpose they had seen in his earlier actions, when he spoke the invitation, they knew there was nothing in the world they would rather do than go with him.
It’s the same invitation Jesus offers to you and me, this day. And it’s the invitation he calls us to extend to others in his name. So, let us get up and follow him. Let us be provocative in just that way. Let us go forth to serve.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.