A Reflection on Matthew 4:12-23

by Alister Pate

Once upon a time there two fishermen brothers, who plied their trade on Lake Galilee. It was a tough life, involving a lot of early mornings and being out on the lake in all weathers, but it fostered a sort of sturdy independence. Then, one day, as they sat mending their nets…

It’s such a familiar story. Jesus comes walking along the seashore and then, immediately, they abandon their nets, their family and their obligations and follow Jesus, with hardly a word being said. Just “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Imagine yourself going about your everyday tasks. Appointments, work, catching up with friends for coffee, or something a bit stronger. And then up comes this complete stranger and says “follow me,” and you do it. Not in the metaphorical sense of changing our way of thinking, taking on a new perspective, maybe joining a committee or doing a bit of voluntary work. Following this stranger in the sense of getting up and walking out of the meeting, leaving our coffee cooling on the table, our friends in mid joke. The house will have to look after itself. Let the dead bury their own dead, let the gas bill remain unpaid, and the lawn grow wild. Something of fundamental importance has happened, and everything else in the world is just going to have to wait.

Here’s a slightly scary question: Would you do it?

This is a complex passage with a lot in it. Prophecy, call, a very short version of Jesus’ gospel, and the beginnings of the Jesus movement. But following Jesus is not really about having opinions about historical events the best part of two thousand years ago on the other side of the world. So I’m going to use my Preacher’s Discretion and focus on the bit that interests me most right now. The call of the Disciples.

What is the Good News here and now? Our situation is so different. Do we live in darkness and the shadow of death? As a general rule, not really.

In fact, our problem is almost the opposite. We suffer not from physical hunger, but from spiritual hunger. We have so much more leisure, so much more money, so much greater opportunity to pursue the good life as we understand it. So much freedom, that it is, in fact, bewildering.

About a decade ago, Anne and I spent six weeks walking the Camino de Santiago. One of the central facts about the pilgrim life is how simple it is. Get up, do whatever it is you need to get on the road. Walk. Eat. Walk. Eat. Shower. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. And every day you get closer and closer to Santiago. You’re part of a whole community, all dedicated to this one goal.

I have a strong memory of the first time I went to a supermarket after finishing. I was standing in front of the breakfast cereal, trying to choose one. It felt like I was there for ten minutes, trying to work out how to make a sensible choice. I think I eventually gave up, and, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve eaten breakfast cereal since then.

In the West, our whole life is like that moment in front of the cereal. We have so many opportunities, so much choice! How on earth do we choose? When you could choose to work with the Mother Teresa sisters, or you could devote your life to collecting Star-Wars figurines, and no-one would think one was significantly more worthwhile than the other, how do you go about choosing? When all that is important is that you “tell your truth”, when so much cultural energy supports the “you do you” feeling, what do we do?

How do self-actualization and discipleship relate to one another?

I’m exaggerating for rhetorical effect of course. Our culture doesn’t really make absolutely no distinction between, dedicating your life to helping the poor on the one hand, and collecting figurines on the other. But we do live in what contemporary Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls the Age of Authenticity. He defines it as the:

“understanding . . . that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from the outside”[1]

We all live with a powerful narrative about realizing our potential, finding and expressing your real self. Requirements which come from outside of ourselves feel oppressive, stifling our true self. The truly modern person chooses a course of life not because some outside authority instructs her, but because it is a revelation of herself.

Of course, there is a positive side to this. A fundamental part of Christianity is that God has no grandchildren. People have to have their own faith, and a culture in which being a good middle class citizen involves going to church doesn’t seem true to the tradition. After all, Jesus didn’t call his disciples to a life of comfort and status. As he said: “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” And almost all of the apostles ended up being executed.

What does Jesus call us to? A life of radical love for others. We see that in how Jesus himself lived. The powerful symbolic act of washing the feet of the disciples. His humiliating death, placing all his faith in God. All of this feels a long way from “living my best life.”

Living my best life seems like it should include things like self-care, self-expression, self-awareness. Yoga, sensible eating, nice holidays, a creative and fulfilling career, good family relationships – all the self-improving paraphernalia of Wellness. Not a life of self-sacrifice and inconvenience.

So it would seem that we have two worldviews staring at each other across a gulf of incomprehension. Each, complete in itself, each incompatible with the other.

However, I think there is a way out of the impasse.

Jesus said:

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39

This is a mysterious, paradoxical saying. The wellness industry says: to find your real life means pouring more and more into yourself. Just like a tree needs fertilizing and watering and care, so do we. But here we see Jesus say: the true self-fulfilment is from giving our lives away. True self-realization comes from a sort of self-forgetfulness. Perhaps even from less, not more.

It’s a statement which makes sense only from the inside. It’s a description of the process, rather than an ad for it. Why would any such thing be true

It’s true because it rests on a very basic Christian contention. When a lawyer wanted to trap Jesus, he asked ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus asked him what the law said, and the lawyer replied:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’

Jesus told him: You’re right. If you do this, you will live.

This gives us a way forward. What sort of life is the one which leads to greater love of God and neighbour – and oneself?

It speaks to the question of what freedom really is. In the age of authenticity we tend to think of freedom as being the freedom to do whatever we want, so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. At its core is a sort of nihilism. I choose because I choose, and any external constraint is oppressive.

In Christian tradition, freedom can be understood as the freedom to love. Given that the very purpose of our existence is to love God and one another, our freedom is our ability to do that. And un-freedom is the things that prevent us from loving.

There is a technical word for this: indifference. It means being able to give up things which stop us from loving God and my neighbour, while still being engaged with what helps us. It’s not about not caring, it is about keeping things in their correct order. Loving things the way we should love things, but not putting weight on them which they cannot bear. The least important things least, the more important things more, and so on.

The paradoxical consequence of this way of living is that it will in fact lead to the fullest flowering of our potential.  It makes me think of how difficult it can feel to be truly original if we’re doing something creative.

C.S. Lewis, novelist and apologist, said this about originality:

No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought. C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.

In the same way, as we learn to love God and neighbour in our particular context, with our particular personalities and giftings and upbringings and all the many things which go into making us who we are, we will do so in the way that only we can do. It will be truly original. Our desire to achieve self-actualisation will be met.

This feels like a long journey from where we began, with Jesus walking by the seaside and encountering a few fishermen. But it is all of a piece. Jesus spoke into a particular context, and called the fishermen to come and fish for people. The call on our lives is similarly unique, similarly specific.

Jesus calls you to follow him – to live a life of love for God and neighbour – right where you are, in the context in which you find yourself right now. Jesus calls you: what will you do?

[1] Quoted in Smith, James K. A.. How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor (p. 85). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

Alister Pate is a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am