The Calling of the First Disciples (Mark 1:16-20)
This section needs to be treated cautiously: while the disciples are paradigms of the Christian life, they also occupy a unique position in the story of salvation. Their summons to a distinctive kind of service, and to the forsaking of their current employment, does not establish a universal pattern for Christian life and vocation. Many, indeed most, of those who follow Jesus do not quit their jobs to do so (see Vocation Overview at www.theologyofwork.org). Nevertheless, the way in which the demands of the kingdom cut across and override the usual principles of society are transferable and enlightening to our work.
The opening clause of Mark 1:16 presents Jesus as itinerant (“as he passed along”), and he calls these fishermen to follow him on the road. This is more than just a challenge to leave behind income and stability or, as we might put it, to get out of our “comfort zone.” Mark’s account of this incident records a detail lacking in the other accounts, namely, that James and John leave their father Zebedee “with the hired men” (Mark 1:20). They themselves were not hired men or day labourers, but rather were a part of what was probably a relatively successful family business. As Suzanne Watts Henderson notes in relation to the response of the disciples, the “piling up of particulars underscores the full weight of the verb [to leave]: not just nets are left behind, but a named father, a boat and indeed an entire enterprise.” For these disciples to follow Jesus, they have to demonstrate a willingness to allow their identity, status, and worth to primarily be determined in relation to him.
Fishing was a major industry in Galilee, with a connected sub-industry of fish salting. At a time of social turbulence in Galilee, these two related industries supported each other and remained steady. The willingness of the disciples to forsake such stability is quite remarkable. Economic stability is no longer their chief purpose for working. Yet even here we must be cautious. Jesus does not reject the earthly vocation of these men but reorients it. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to be “fishers of people” (Mark 1:17), thereby affirming their former work as an image of the new role to which he is calling them. Although most Christians are not called to leave their jobs and become wandering preachers, we are called to ground our identity in Christ. Whether we leave our jobs or not, a disciple’s identity is no longer “fisherman,” “tax collector,” or anything else except “follower of Jesus.” This challenges us to resist the temptation to make our work the defining element of our sense of who we are.
Suzanne Watts Henderson, Christology and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 63.
Sean Freyne, Jesus: A Jewish Galilean (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 48-53. For the place of fishing in the taxation structures, see Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, A Social-Scientific Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 44-45.