I’m still hung up on the Matthew 4 story of the calling of the disciples. I can’t seem to stop thinking about them and how the people in the story reacted. Yesterday, I found myself trying to imagine their workplace conversations before Jesus showed up on the horizon and called them–and I heard them complaining about the same things that people of faith complain about today.
But today, I can’t stop thinking about Zebedee. Zebedee–father of James and John. Zebedee–who is in business with his sons, one prosperous enough that they even have hired workers (according to Mark). I can just imagine the dreams he has conjured up since his sons were little boys: Zebedee & Sons Fresh Fish Stand, where everyone went to buy the best fish around. One day he would hand it down to his boys who have learned the art of fishing and the finer details of business at his side. He would not have to worry about his sons’ futures because he had provided for them. And he would not have to worry about his old age, because he was essentially providing for his own retirement by leaving such a thriving business in the capable hands of his own flesh and blood.
Everything was going just fine. Everything. Even on that day–the day that fishing had not been so hot (see Luke). James and John were good young men who had been raised well. They knew their duties and responsibilities in life. They were faithful and honest. So everything was going fine.
That is, until a certain man showed up on the shore. He didn’t have the leathery skin of a man who worked at sea, but his hands were callused, so he was no stranger to hard work. He was another laborer–not the typical teacher with the pale skin and soft hands who spent their days sitting in the temple or synagogue, hunched over scrolls and debating with each other. No, this man was a little rougher than most teachers. His sandals were dust from travel and the hem of his tunic was a little worn. If you looked closely, you’d see thin places in his clothes where he had spent so much time on his knees–a man of prayer who didn’t wait until Sabbath to speak to God.
Jesus. His name was Jesus. Zebedee had heard a little about this guy. He had been out in the wilderness with that eccentric John… the Baptist… the one who wasn’t smart enough to keep his mouth shut and would get himself killed one day for the things he said. Not that he said anything different from what everyone else was thinking, but Zebedee had enough sense to be quiet. Something had happened out there. Something that had the whole countryside abuzz.
Some said it was miracle. Some said he was a prophet. Some went so far as to say that he was Elijah–that Elijah who had been taken up into heaven without having died–had finally returned. And some were even beginning to wonder if he might be THE Messiah.
Jesus showed up–and we don’t know exactly what happened because the gospels differ a bit in the calling of the first disciples–but according to Luke’s gospel, the disciples had the chance to hear Jesus preach before Jesus called them. And when they were called, they just got up and went.
They left everything behind–their livelihoods, their families… and they just went.
But Zebedee just sat there. Zebedee, who had just met Jesus, who had just witnessed whatever his sons had witnessed, who had heard the same words uttered and was in the same boat to which Jesus turned his gaze and said, “Follow me”–that Zebedee just sat there and watched his boys walk away.
They walked away from him. They walked away from the business. They walked away from the future he had built and prepared for them. They walked away from Zebedee & Sons and away from the dream.
So why didn’t Zebedee go with them?
To be honest, I think a lot of us might find ourselves sitting on our rumps right alongside Zebedee. Although I like to humor myself into thinking I’d hop up and leave the moment I heard Jesus’ voice, I know from past experience that I just couldn’t let go of what I had acquired for myself in order to follow Jesus in the direction he was taking me.
Zebedee makes a lot of sense to me–and I think we overlook a little too often.
Zebedee can’t get up and leave–because who would keep the business going when this new teacher turned out to be a fraud and his boys came crawling back? And even if they were right about Jesus, following an itinerant preacher from place to place isn’t exactly lucrative. At some point they are going to want to put down roots. When youth gives way to reason, they will be glad that their father has stayed behind to care for the business.
Zebedee reasons away the calling and declares it unreasonable. Zebedee came face to face with Jesus Christ and had the chance to walk through the Kingdom of Heaven, and stayed right where he was.
As a result, Zebedee missed out on a great deal of pain and grief and sorrow. He would not have a wanted sign slapped on his back like his sons would. There would be no great schemes to have him turned over like would happen to his boys. Zebedee would not have to watch a friend (more than a friend, actually) murdered before their very eyes. Zebedee would not have to cower in a locked room out of fear or take the chance of being martyred. Zebedee was safe and sound, sitting in his boat, mending his nets and looking forward to tomorrow’s catch.
But even though Zebedee might miss out on the pain and the grief of following Jesus, he would also miss out on the glory and wonder and joy. He wouldn’t see Jesus heal the sick and give life to the lifeless. He wouldn’t see tears of mourners turn to shrieks of laughter. And he wouldn’t know what it was like to see his friend (more than a friend, really) conquer sin and death and give them–and the world–a new life, free of that burden. He would never know what kind of love would drive a man to the cross to pay for a crime he didn’t commit. Zebedee would never know the wonderful mystery that exists in something as mundane as breaking a loaf of bread together. He would never realize that there was something past his old age, something better than Zebedee & Sons, something that would outlive the world itself.
He would never know.
And it’s all because Zebedee didn’t have enough sense to get out of the boat.