Unlikely Disciples

fishing nets
January 23, 2011

Matthew 4:12-23

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls his first disciples: Peter and Andrew, and then James and John.  The stories are brief and unadorned.  Jesus says, “Follow me,” and they leave their boats, their nets, their families, and follow him. Because of our familiarity with these stories, we might overlook a very important characteristic within them—the people who Jesus calls are not the best candidates to be his apostles.  They were fishermen. Despite Jesus’ clever turn of the phrase that he will make them fishers of people, there is a big difference between catching fish and catching people.  They require two different skill sets.  To catch fish, you need to know how to manage boats and nets.  To catch people, you have to know how to use words and persuasion. There is no doubt that Jesus would have been on much surer footing had he chosen people accustomed to public speaking.  He could have chosen apostles who had some notoriety, whose name and star power could have attracted others into Jesus’ company.  It certainly would have been a plus if those chosen had some education, if they had studied the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention being able to read or write.  But Jesus did not choose people with these qualifications.  He chose a handful of fishermen.

Now, this choice of Jesus’ disciples contributes to a major theme which runs throughout the whole Bible. God seldom chooses the people that we expect.  God seems to prefer the younger and inexperienced to the elder and accomplished, the unlikely to the logical.  God chooses Jacob over his elder brother Esau.  God chooses Joseph and David over their elder brothers.  When God needs a prophet, he chooses Amos who is a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees or Jeremiah who is a boy. This theme carries over into the New Testament.  God chooses Mary though she is a lowly handmaiden and Paul though he is a persecutor of the Church.  It is difficult to predict who God is going to call.  This is the Bible’s way of telling us that God is in charge.  It is not we who choose God, but God who chooses us.  So this much is clear:  God will choose who God will choose.

But, how do we move this theme out of the Bible and into our lives?  What do these unlikely call narratives have to say when God calls us?  Here we need to be careful, because we could draw some conclusions that are false.  For example, we might say since God chooses those who are unlikely, qualifications do not matter.  God could choose anybody to do anything.  This is not true. God calls us in light of our talents and our abilities. If you want to perform for the Metropolitan Opera, you must be able to sing.  If you want to play halfback for a pro football team, you must be able to run.  I would imagine that there are many of you here today who would not want to change places with me and give this homily.  And I can assure you that you do not want me to be your surgeon if you needed heart bypass surgery.

The unlikely call narratives do not negate the need for abilities, but they do negate our excuses that other people are more qualified. There may be many people who have better parenting skills than you do, who are more insightful, more patient, more creative. But if God calls you to be a parent, you must say yes and do your best. You might be able to recognize many people at school or at work who are more popular and have more influence over others than you do.  But, if God calls you to stand up for someone who’s being demeaned or picked on or to speak out against something that is unjust or wrong, you cannot excuse yourself.  You cannot say, “God, go choose somebody else.” You might not be the most people-friendly person, not the best listener.  Your skills might be more about analyzing, quantifying, deciding.  But, if there is someone in your family or someone among your friends who is in need, who is hurting, and Jesus says to you, “Go to that person and be present,” you must stand up from your nets, from your book, from your computer and do His will.

God will call who God will call.  And when God calls us, it does us no good to point to others who have better qualifications.  Of course, the God who calls us will be with us and will make up for our inadequacies. That is why, with Jesus’  help, even unlikely disciples such as us can be successful. But, first, we must stand up and follow him.

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