Jesus calls the first disciples

Anthony Zimmerman
April 19, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

John the Baptist had created a new interest in things religious and Jesus now followed through by announcing that the reign or kingdom of God is at hand. From John's gospel together with the synoptics we learn that Jesus had left His home in Nazareth in Galilee, was baptized by John at the Jordan in Judea, had fasted in the desert, and had made a first contact with some of His disciples after the Baptist had said to them "it is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit" (John 1:33). Jesus had gone with them to the wedding feast at Cana, and from there had moved to Capharnaum.

Matthew then records that Jesus had announced His theme message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 4:12-17). A new era was now beginning. God would reign directly over His people. The people must adjust their lives to this new situation. Jesus did not say that He was the King, but He did speak and act in a manner that people can make that conclusion for themselves.

Having made the proclamation, He called the first disciples to give Him assistance, and to train them to become His future apostles. Matthew relates that the call was abrupt, was like the snapping of a finger, like the orders of a sergeant training new recruits. The lesson we should draw from this is that when God calls, nothing else matters. He is the total meaning of our lives.

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 sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him (Mt 4:18-22).

Matthew wants to tell us something here, namely that Jesus expected an absolute and complete response to His call. His call to what? To be fishers of men. They had learned from their father and from their own experience how to cast nets and haul in the catch. He would now train them to cast nets to haul in converts. The many miracles that Jesus worked would bring on the crowds to whom Jesus would then speak about the kingdom. The apostles would help to manage the crowds and to bring to Jesus those who needed healing. From Jesus the apostles would learn during their years of apprenticeship, then follow through after Pentecost, by also healing and preaching, as is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

If Peter was married, did Jesus give him time to say good-bye to wife and children? Not according to what Matthew writes. Peter must have felt a tug at his heart though. He would remind Jesus later that it was not easy for him to do what he did:

And Peter said, "Lo, we have left our homes and followed you." And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life" (Luke 18:28-30).

When Jesus calls, the call is sweet, is packed with spiritual power, and is a certificate of life insurance. Every priest knows that. He experiences in his own life how noble and blessed is the deal made with Christ: "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men." No privilege so great as to be called by name to follow Jesus. What holds for priests holds as well for all who make vows, and for all who find their vocation whether in married life or a service of God in the single life. Jesus is generous to all who follow Him without reserve. But Jesus awaits generosity on our part in turn. There is no indication that the first disciples ever went back home after Jesus had called them. It is a sign that when Jesus calls, He also takes responsibility for those whom He calls and will see to their needs, material, emotional, and spiritual. A vocation from Jesus is therefore a lifetime calling, with no need to turn back again for life support.

Jesus called Simon and Andrew just as they had made their cast with the net. Apparently they left the net dangling limp in the water, jumped off the boat, and waded to shore to get into step behind Jesus. The boat, and net, and fish? Let someone else take care of all that. They had a new vision of life - a life to be spent with Jesus. Matthew draws a dramatic picture for the early Church to remember: when Christ calls, nothing else counts. This is it. This is fulfilment.

Jesus walked on and next called James and John who were in a boat helping their father mend the nets. Apparently they were not married as Peter appears to have been. They too, perhaps without so much as saying "Goodbye" or "Excuse me" left their father Zebedee alone to finish the job, not to return again. Feel sorry for the man. Not only did his two boys leave him with nets only half mended, his wife too apparently said goodbye to him to follow Jesus. You will find her - Salome must have been her name - among the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee to Judea. Was she a sister of Mary the mother of Jesus, and were her sons first cousins of Jesus? The Bible is not clear about this, but leaves that as a possibility. She was a strong woman, and ambitious. Too ambitious. She caused a problem:

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him, with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father" (Mt 20:20-24).

The other ten disciples decided they had seen and heard enough. Tempers soured. The two boys had tempers too. Jesus had nick-named them "Sons of Thunder" (Mark 3:17). Would there be a show-down? Jesus deftly deflated tempers by proposing a new challenge: "Will you suffer with me?" Without blinking an eye they said yes. Then He neatly negated their request, reasserted His authority to the relief of the other apostles, and confirmed their mother in continuing her ministry to Him, together with the other holy women:

There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Mt 27:25-26).

Where was James, and where were the other apostles during this time of the crucifixion? It might have been dangerous to show sympathy for Jesus. Apparently they were not in sight. Credit the mother of the Zebedee boys and the other women for courage. But they all found themselves together again in the upper room when praying the Pentecostal Novena: "All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers" (Acts 2:14).

We observe that when the mother of the Zebedee boys joined the company of Jesus, the husband and father must have been left behind, perhaps to work the nets alone and to keep house as well. We trust that Jesus remembered this and rewarded him also, in this life and in the next.

The mission of Christ catches on

And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan (Mt 4:23-25).

Before Matthew records the Sermon on the Mount he summarizes the manner in which Christ conducted His apostolate. The area of His activities is about 160 miles from north to south, and less than 100 miles from east to west. We read no where that He and his band of apostles traveled by horse or camel or donkey; their travel was by foot. The working of miracles, of course, brought on the crowds, and that provided opportunities to teach about the reign of God. Note all the diseases mentioned - the sick, those with pains and illnesses, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics. The apostles likely gained experience on how to manage crowds, and how to line up the people that needed curing. No matter what the illness, Jesus cured all of them. It seems that He touched and cured, touched and cured, each patient in turn rising healed, with a new start in life. We see divine power at work here through the touch of Jesus, who called Himself the I AM. Jesus gazed at the patient and loved infinitely. He diagnosed with a deft touch of hand. As God, He knew what the illnes was, and what the cure must be. Then with a primeval will of creative power the I AM sparked the healing remedies from His hand into their bodies and spirits to make them whole again.

A busy time it was where ever the apostolic band traveled. When the sick of one area were healed, and crowds had heard a message, they would move on to the next town and begin all over again.

Where did they spend the nights, what did they do when it rained? Who cooked and did the laundry? Surely it was not a soft life for Jesus who until now had Mary to care for Him, nor was it easy for the apostles to be always on the road without homelife and a place of their own to relax. The apostles were all too human, sometimes getting into each other's hair, especially striving to take over leadership positions. Taking care of all those sick people to have Jesus heal them was probably an entirely new task for them, but when they experienced the love that Jesus showed for each and every sick person, they gradually grew into their new vocation as apostles. The preaching of Jesus, too, was theirs every day and night, and they learned gradually how to be "fishers of men."

We assume that no wives accompanied the apostles - if they had wives - during these three years of life with Jesus. Normally, married men should inform their wives about their whereabouts, should be breadwinners for the home, should educate their children; and wives should cook for them, do their laundry, keep the house in order. We see that the lifestyle Jesus led with the apostles practically prevented them from leading a normal family life. Family life was not compatible with their itinerant apostolic lifestyle as described in the Gospel. Thus began the tradition of priestly celibacy, with the approval of Jesus. His apostles were not part-time workers in the vineyard, but adopted this as their profession and vocation. For 2000 years now the Church has stood by the tradition thus inaugurated by Christ. We confidently believe that the tradition of celibate priests will be part of the Church until the Last Day; that Jesus will call them to stand near to Him when He comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Gentle Pope John XXIII asked that priests continue to struggle to keep the obligations of celibacy, especially when the Church needs heroic people to be the salt of the earth:

It deeply hurts us that ... anyone can dream that the Church will deliberately or even suitably renounce what from time immemorial has been, and still remains, one of the purest and noblest glories of her priesthood. The law of ecclesiastical celibacy and the efforts necessary to preserve it always recall to mind the struggles of heroic times when the Church of Christ had to fight for and succeeded in obtaining her threefold glory, always an emblem of victory, that is, the Church of Christ, free, chaste, and catholic (John XXIII, to Roman Synod, January 26, 1960).