The day after tomorrow, the Oscar nominations will be announced. I was imagining what it would be like if our Scripture passage for today had been made into a movie. I’ll bet it might have had some nominations—Jesus, of course, as best actor in a starring role, but maybe also some nominations for best supporting actor: Simon (whom we come to know later as Peter), Andrew, James and John. Their stories of dropping everything and responding to Jesus’ call to become fishers of people is dramatic and exciting.
But if I were doing the nominating, I would also nominate an easy-to-overlook character in this story. That nomination would go to Zebedee, the father of James and John. Because to me, Zebedee is perhaps the character who makes this story a challenging one. It’s great to read the saga of the men whom Jesus called and left everything to follow him. But what about Zebedee, the one who is left behind?
It’s easy to see why Simon, Andrew, James and John take center stage when we talk about this passage. Here we have two sets of brothers. They are working men. James and John are probably enjoying a secure, middle-class lifestyle since they and their father appear to own their own boat and have hired staff to help out. The men seem to be minding their own business when Jesus happens to walk by, sees them, and calls them to follow him.
And when Jesus calls, all four men listen. They do more than listen; they respond. Simon, Andrew, James, and John all accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him, unquestioningly and without hesitation. It appears that they drop everything—their equipment, their livelihood, and even their families—to follow Jesus when he calls. It’s a great story of discipleship: Jesus calls and they respond with a complete and immediate “yes.”
But here’s the thing about this story that bugs me. It’s that these young men, James and John, just get up and leave their father Zebedee in the boat. It seems wrong to me that they just abandon their father. When my mom was in nursing care for so many years, there were many people in her unit—women, mostly, but some men, too—whose families had clearly left them behind. Their families were just “too busy” to come. Or it was “too hard on them” to see their parents in such a debilitated state. Or the grandchildren didn’t like going. They had all kinds of excuses for why they couldn’t make time to visit or take an active part in their elderly parents’ care. It was heart-breaking to me and, quite honestly, it made me angry. And so, this story just bugs me when I think of Zebedee, sitting in the boat that he had provided for his sons so that they could live a middle-class life-style, left behind when a new opportunity opened up for them.
I can’t square this image with the Jesus who scolded the scribes and Pharisees for not honoring their fathers and mothers—for using religious commitment as an excuse to lead others to ignore the fourth commandment. It just doesn’t make sense to me that Jesus, who accused the Pharisees of being hypocrites for that very reason, would call James and John to follow him and leave their father behind.
What makes more sense to me is this: the possibility that Zebedee was also called. Think about it. Think about the circumstances of the story. The way Mark tells it, Jesus was just walking along the shore when he saw first Peter and Andrew, and a bit further along the way, James and John with their father and their hired hands. Mark doesn’t suggest that there had been any prior contact between all these men and Jesus. As far as we know, they know nothing about Jesus or his mission. There’s nothing to suggest that there’s something special about the sons.
But we do know that James, John, and their dad were all in the boat together. Isn’t it possible—maybe even likely—that Zebedee was invited, too? I think it makes a lot more sense, and is more consistent with Jesus’ desire that all people follow him, that Zebedee was included in Jesus’ call to follow. If this is the case—if Jesus’ invitation included Zebedee—then Zebedee was not really left behind; he chose to remain behind.
What was it that kept him in the boat? Why did he remain behind when his sons dropped everything and followed Jesus? Maybe the spur-of-the-moment call from a stranger on the shore wasn’t enough to convince him. Jesus’ preaching and miracle-working hadn’t begun yet, according to Mark, so maybe he was suspicious of the new guy. John the Baptist had been arrested; maybe Zebedee thought it would be dangerous to affiliate himself with someone who could turn out to be some kind of radical.
Of course, there were the practical concerns. If the boys left, who would keep the family business going? There were employees counting on their paychecks. There were families needing food on their tables and sandals on their feet. And then, perhaps Zebedee just felt too old to be going off on some grand adventure. The poet Leslie Savage Clark speaks for Zebedee in her poem, “Zebedee Muses”:
“No man could have two finer sons
Than James and John; and yet
Today they left me here alone
To mind the boat and net.
How eagerly they went with one
Whose words went ringing through
The heart like trumpets . . . were I young
I would have followed, too!”
It may well be that Zebedee had the same chance his sons did, but he made a different choice.
We know that Jesus calls each of us. I think we’d all like to think that we have more in common with Zebedee’s sons than with Zebedee himself. We heard Jesus calling, and we said yes to him. After all, we’re here, aren’t we? Don’t we serve in many ways and give generously—maybe even sacrificially—of our time and resources? Don’t we study our Bibles, alone and with others, so that we can grow in our understanding? Haven’t we decided to turn our backs on the values of the secular world and live according to kingdom values? Surely, we can claim some kinship with James and John.
And yet, I wonder if our hearts follow Jesus as freely as James and John did. Maybe, in some ways, we are more like Zebedee, tied to our boats and nets. We hear Jesus call, and we do get out of our boats, but we go, dragging our boats behind us. The weight and pull of our lives keeps us from completely surrendering ourselves to Jesus.
I’m not talking so much about the very real responsibilities we have. We are accountable to our families and friends and community. We have to earn a living and plan for our futures. We have property and businesses and belongings to be good stewards of. It is hard to imagine following the example of James and John, turning our backs on our loved ones and the lives we’ve built for ourselves.
But I don’t think that is what Jesus is really expecting of us. After all, later on, Jesus went to Peter’s home and healed Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus went to a wedding with his own mother, and Mary was with him when he died. Jesus chastised the Pharisees for encouraging people to neglect their parents in order to give to the Temple. So, Jesus must not be expecting his followers to completely abandon their families and livelihoods to follow him. Instead, I think he wants our hearts to be free enough to freely follow him. Far from abandoning the ones we love, giving our hearts to Jesus frees us to love others more fully.
The Jesuits have a term for the this. The Jesuits are an order of priests who follow the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola. One of the four main characteristics of the Jesuit way of life is “freedom and detachment.” This doesn’t mean not caring about the things that are really important in life. It means not being attached to things that are not life-giving. It means not having an excessive hold on things that prevent us from freely following Jesus—holds that St. Ignatius called “disordered affections.”
What are the disordered affections in your life that keep you from fully and freely following Jesus? Jobs can become a disordered affection—not when they energize us and give us a way to use our God-given gifts, but when we are overly concerned about making the top of the ladder a goal in itself. That kind of disordered affection can drive us to make decisions that aren’t in keeping with following Jesus. Worry about what others think of us can do that, too, when it dictates how we choose our friends or how we spend our money or time.
Some disordered affections may be harder to see. Sometimes we harbor anger in our hearts toward someone who has hurt us, and we aren’t really ready to let it go. Or we have a disordered affection for control over our own lives, and we fear giving that control over to Jesus. Or maybe our hearts are simply too weighed down by the weariness that comes with the concerns of advancing age, illness, financial insecurity, family problems, or feelings of doubt or unworthiness.
It’s when we are able to leave these things in our boats on the shore that we are truly free to follow Jesus. We need to surrender all the things that tie our hearts down. The good news is that Jesus is prepared to help us do that. He offers to share our heavy burdens and give us rest. The Jesuits have a prayer they use in response to this gracious offer. It goes like this: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.”
It is very much like John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer that we prayed together on New Year’s Eve Day: “Let me be your servant, under your command. I will no longer be my own. I will give up myself to your will in all things. Lord, make me what you will. I put myself fully into your hands: put me to doing, put me to suffering, let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and with a willing heart give it all to your pleasure and disposal.” As Methodists we trust that God will lovingly care for the hearts that we put in his hands, so that we can live freely, fully, and eternally as followers of Jesus.
So, what about Zebedee, still sitting in his boat, while his sons follow Jesus? What about others we know today who have heard Jesus call but choose not to follow? And what about those of us who are on the shore but dragging our boat behind us? I believe that our God is a God second chances. I believe that Zebedee would have had other opportunities to make a different choice. I believe Jesus will continue to call those we know who have not yet chosen to follow, until one day they, too, will be able to leave their boats and nets behind. And I believe that to those of us who have chosen to follow but whose hearts are still weighed down, Jesus gives us the grace and power we need to shed a little of that weight, day by day, until we too are free to love him without constraint. I believe in the process we Methodist call “being perfected in love.”
Jesus calls each of us, every day, no matter where we are in our faith journeys. He knows who among us is ready to freely follow and who is still struggling with the weight of a boat and the tangle of nets. The good news is that through his love and grace, Jesus ready to help us be free to follow him. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young