What's Your Net Worth?
February 10, 2019
What’s your net worth?
To Simon and Andrew, a net must have been worth a great deal—it was a living, a livelihood. To James and John, a net was how they survived—how their whole family survived. A net needed to be mended, kept in tip-top shape. Plus, they had a boat to consider, to maintain, to protect.
And yet, Matthew’s gospel tells us that when Jesus walked beside the silver sea of Galilee, and when he saw Simon and Andrew casting their nets, he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” “Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
When Jesus called out to James and John, another pair of brothers, again, “Immediately, they left the boat and their father and followed him.”
Does anybody else sense a fishy story here? There is no mention that they had ever seen Jesus before. He had not yet, according to Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, begun to heal or draw large crowds. And “immediately” they followed?
Perhaps, I am tempted to think, this is one of those fish tales—an apocryphal story that has gotten better and better with the telling over the years? Maybe it wasn’t quite so immediate at the time?
Maybe the chain of events when Jesus called the first disciples happened more like the way Luke describes it. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus had already been teaching and preaching at the synagogue in Simon and Andrew’s hometown of Capernaum. He had healed many, including Simon’s mother-in-law; and he had already produced a bumper crop of fish, all before he called the first disciples. “Then,” we learn, “they left everything and followed him.”
Or maybe it’s my all-too-skeptical modern ears that distrust a story of such a sudden change of heart.
Let’s go back and give Matthew’s gospel the benefit of a bit more time and attention. Is it really impossible? Could it have happened that way?
Let’s imagine just how or when or under what circumstances Simon could have immediately laid aside his valuable nets and followed Jesus.
His mother-in-law was ill with a high fever. Perhaps she had been ill for some time? Perhaps she was near death? He was devoted to her?
If Simon had a mother-in-law, he must have had a wife. Where was she?
What if Simon—later to be called Peter, the first among the twelve—what if Simon, at whatever age he might have been, had been waking up to the reality of death and his own mortality. What if he “got,” for the first time, just how precious and short life can be? How one day, a person you love is sitting beside you, smiling and eating a fig by the side of the sea; and the next day she is gone, just gone. In your sorrow, might you turn to God in prayer, because there is no one else to turn to? “How, God, can I live the rest of my life? What would you have me do?”
Maybe Simon’s brother Andrew had become ensnared in his own net. Maybe in addition to catching fish, the net and his work and the money and the worries have caught him, trapped him, and weighed him down. What if he woke before sunrise, again, and could barely force himself to get going? “I cannot do this another single day,” he says today, every day.
He is so weary. Every day is the same. Every week is the same. Every year is the same. The heavy net, the stinking fish, the haggling, the hassles, the tedium. But people are counting on him. His brother is counting on him. “That’s just life, right? We have to make a living…right?”
And so, what if a good, holy, charismatic and altogether compelling man walked up to Simon and Andrew, put out his hand and said, “Follow me,” what if they put down their nets and did just that?
James and John may have been in the same network as Simon and Andrew. Who can say why they left not only their nets but their boat and their father and followed Jesus that bright day?
Perhaps James wasn’t really so unhappy. The family’s fishing business was getting by, despite a dip in demand, falling prices for what they sold, and rising prices for what they bought. They were getting by.
Only sometimes, when he was alone, did he allow himself to admit that he was living out his father’s dream—not his own? His mother’s dream—not his own? Since he and John were tiny, his parents had groomed them for success, and it would be ungrateful to…of course, he loved his father…but sometimes…it actually made him a little angry…actually, very angry. “Well, what can you do?”
And what about John? John, who would, with James, be nicknamed Boanerges, or “sons of thunder”? Maybe John was always the rebel; the risk taker; the curious, adventurous one. Maybe John couldn’t bear to be left out, couldn’t turn down an invitation?
John might have seen Simon and Andrew following the stranger and decided to scope out the competition. Maybe a spur-of-the-moment, impulsive, and by all worldly criteria really quite foolish decision put John on a path that would eventually lead him to become a pillar of the early Christian church in Jerusalem.
There were women, too, who followed Jesus, who put down their daily work and obligations and preconceptions of themselves and followed. All the Mary’s—Mary, Jesus’ mother; Mary Magdalene; Mary the sister of Lazarus, and her sister Martha. And Mary the mother of James and Joses; and Salome (not the one with the seven veils); and the Samaritan woman at the well; and the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was possessed by demons; and the woman with the hemorrhage, and Simon’s mother-in-law, who was healed from her fever by Jesus, and who served him.
There were other women, too, later leaders of the new church: Phoebe and Chloe and Priscilla and Apphia and Junia, and hundreds and thousands and then millions of others. Each had her own story, her own reasons for following. For many, I suspect, Jesus’ message of love and service and peace and the holiness of children and the last being first spoke to their hearts. With Jesus, they were no longer first property or wives or mothers—they were souls, children of God, beloved by God.
When the first disciples put down their nets and followed, did they know they were making a momentous, revolutionary, life-transforming decision? Or did they think they were following a man as a lark one silver morning when anything seemed better than another day of fish? Maybe they were just curious as to exactly how one might “fish for people.” Hey, Jesus just said, “Follow me.” He didn’t say “for a lifetime.”
We, who know how this movie ends, we are accustomed to thinking that Simon and Andrew and James and John made a one-time, forever, once-in-a-lifetime decision that ordinary morning beside the sea.
But the scripture says none of that. The scripture says that Jesus said, “Follow me.” They followed that day. And, we presume, the next day, they decided to follow again.
Peter went home. Jesus healed his mother-in-law. They all fished again, and not just for people. But it all started with one day, one simple request, one “yes.” One decision followed by a lifetime of “yes.”
The decision made by the first disciples did not do a lot of things. It did not guarantee them comfort or ease. James, in fact, became one of the first to be martyred for Christ.
The decision to follow did not even get them, really, much understanding of the journey they were on or the person they were following. Throughout most of the gospel accounts, frankly, the disciples come across as a pretty clueless bunch. Jesus is forever rebuking and correcting and explaining and getting exasperated with them. They did not always get it right, but they did (all except one) keep saying, “Yes, Lord, I will follow.”
The decision to follow did not make them perfect people. James and John, our “sons of thunder” may have earned that nickname because they were “fiery” or “zealous”—actually, more like hotheads. When a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus, James and John want to “reign down fire on them.” They seem territorial, competitive and status-conscious. They rebuke a man who is driving out demons in Jesus’ name because “he was not one of us.” (Maybe they learned these traits from their mother. She was the one, you may recall, who asked Jesus for a “favor”: that her sons would sit at his right and left hands in the kingdom of God.)
Jesus clearly did not select his first disciples for their exceptional holiness or their wisdom or their prominent families or their pacific natures. Why he singled those four out, God knows.
We know one thing, and that is that Jesus’ invitation to them is good news for us. For us—caught up in our little days, lugging our heavy nets, dreaming of living lives so full of meaning and purpose. It’s good news because Jesus called those four and then the twelve, and then the seventy, and then millions just as they were; just as we are—with no warning, no preparation, no application, no screening, no ranking, nothing more than a extended hand on a lovely morning and a simple invitation: “Follow me.”
We don’t always know where God wants us to go. We’re afraid to set aside our nets. We stall and we rationalize and we wait to be better or wealthier or calmer or less busy or different people before we follow. But followership—discipleship—requires none of that. What is requires is much simpler and more radical. It requires putting aside the net of our fear and skepticism and letting our curiosity propel us first to one step and then another and another.
We don’t always follow God on an easy amble beside the silver sea. Some days—many days—it is much rockier and more demanding than that. But the beauty! A more rugged beauty surrounds us as we follow—and our walk is filled with joy and pain and purpose and rightness and sorrow and love. It’s worth so much more than a net. It so much lovelier than a net.
My grandmother would sing a little ditty when we would finally get our whole family out the door and piled into the car: “We don’t know where we’re going but we’re on our way.”
Following Jesus, putting God first, feels a lot like that sometimes. We don’t know exactly what God has in store for us as individuals, as families, as a church. But when we follow God, when we take another step, another day, and say another “yes,” we are already on our way to somewhere good. May we have the courage to put down our net, hold out our hands to one another, revive our nearly forgotten dreams, and follow.