How hard it is to follow Jesus

Discipleship means putting aside dreams of personal grandeur

Readings for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, January 24, 2021

Jonah 3.1-5 | Psalm 25 | 1 Corinthians 7.29-31 | Mark 1.14-20

In the Western world today, the family is built on a covenant of love between husband and wife, and is a community for nurturing the young. Only rarely is it a vital economic unit. The husband and wife may work outside the home; they bring money home to support the family’s endeavours.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, including biblical times, this was not so. The family was the basic economic unit of society. All worked together in the family business, such as farming or fishing, to eke out a subsistence living. For the parents to have two daughters and two sons grow to adulthood where they could contribute to the family, the wife might have to bear 12 children.

The death of an adult child or the father could threaten the family’s viability and throw it into penury. That a son would leave the family to build his future elsewhere was unthinkable. The Book of Sirach spells out the seriousness of breaking family solidarity: “Whoever forsakes a father is like a blasphemer, and whoever angers a mother is cursed by the Lord” (3.16).

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus says to four men, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of people.” Instantly, both groups of two brothers do exactly that. They leave their nets and follow Jesus.

But there is a difference. Peter and Andrew are standing on or near the shore and cast their nets into the sea. John and James, however, are part of a significant economic enterprise. Their father, Zebedee, has a boat and hired men. They can sail that boat into the middle of the sea, use more and larger nets and catch many more fish.

Perhaps the parents of Peter and Andrew have died or are infirm. If the family ever had a boat, it is now gone. The two men must make a living as best they can.

Zebedee’s clan is relatively well off. Still, James and John leave their father in the lurch to follow Jesus. In the words of Sirach, they have blasphemed, offending not only their father but also God.

Later in Mark’s Gospel, we see one aspect of how this plays out. In chapter 10, Jesus asks a rich young man to follow him. The man rejects the offer. Jesus declares, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God” (v 23). Peter then declares his allegiance to Jesus: “Look, we have left everything and followed you” (v 28). Jesus then declares that blessings will come to all who have done as Peter has, ending with the ominous statement, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (v 31).

This is not the end of it. A few verses later, the sons of Zebedee come forward and ask, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v 37). James and John have left their father’s business to follow Jesus, but they have not left behind their grasping for status.

Jesus has chosen wisely in picking the poor fisherman Peter to be first among the apostles. Peter lacks the dreams of personal grandeur which still afflict James and John. He will not use his position to pump his own tires. How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!

In our day, it is even more difficult to leave everything to follow Jesus. We have so much – not just wealth and possessions, but freedom from traditional family ties, career success, entertainment, opportunities for luxurious vacations and travelling the world. That’s a lot of baggage. Yet, for the sake of Jesus and the sake of the planet, we must leave at least some of it behind. It is so difficult for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.