Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. (NRSV)
Our gospel reading opens Matthew’s account of the public ministry of Jesus. Galilee is far from Jerusalem, Israel’s power. It is on the edge, the fringe of the nation. Jesus’ first movement is to ‘withdraw’. It is a movement from.
But it is from here that Isaiah’s expected ‘light’ will begin to shine over the ‘darkness’ of humanity.
Jesus’ mission built on the mission of John the Baptist. Matthew emphasises this, summarising the call they both embrace: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
This is a beautifully simple and disarming call: Turn and change because the reign of God is coming. It draws together the call of John, Jesus, and the early church. There is a coming reign – not of Caesar – but of God.
From this broad description of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew, takes us to what is a delightfully personal and intimate version of God’s call. We find ourselves on the beach at Galilee being introduced to working families as they go about their daily chores.
These are fishermen. Their work is anything but glamorous and, perhaps by most, overlooked. These nets were heavy and ‘casting’ them ‘into the sea’ was backbreaking work. The daily practice of cleaning and mending also have had elements of challenge. This is not the most stimulating career.
Jesus is withdrawing again. Jewish Rabbis would often pick the most promising young scholars from the local synagogue for further training with the words: ‘Follow Me’. Jesus’ willingness to offer the same invitation to these working class fishermen may imply something of the second chance. Have these local lads already been overlooked by the Galilean synagogue?
If so, Jesus is seeing these laborers in a way that others have not. More than this, he has come to their place of work and is using their language: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people’. I wonder what this might have looked like in another context: to the cafe waitress: ‘Follow me and I will teach you to serve God’; to the accountant: ‘Follow me and I will teach you the economy of heaven’. There is something dignifying about using the language of another.
What would Jesus invite you to?
Whether it was his use of clever language, the offer of a second chance, or some other characteristic of the wandering man from Galilee that compelled Simon and Andrew to consider Jesus, we may never know. But we do know that they chose that day to ditch their nets. And all too soon that are joined by James and John. Matthew emphasises their willingness to leave not only their boat, but their Father, Zebedee, as well.
But it would seem that neither of these encounters can be treated with justice as ‘leaving’ stories. They are, at least as much, ‘coming’ stories. Jesus is not simply inviting them to say goodby. He is, importantly, inviting them to embrace an alternative. His is an invitation to learn from him another way: ‘Follow me’.
Jesus asks more than simply our repentance. Jesus asks us to learn and live the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.