We live in a culture that longs for followers. Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, blogs, and all manner of social media. We count who has the most followers? On Twitter it's Katy Perry. On Instagram it's Taylor Swift. On YouTube it's PewDiePie (he basically plays video games and makes outlandish comments while he does). There are people who long to have millions follow them, to like their latest photo posting or retweet their latest Tweet, or repost or comment on their blog, or have their YouTube video go viral. They want more followers because it builds their credibility, makes them more marketable, creates a name and a brand for someone. It's like trying to be the most popular in high school all over again.
It's with this that I came to reading Matthew 4:18-22. Jesus is walking along the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Since it's Jesus, you know he was there for a purpose and not just a leisurely stroll. He spots two brothers, Simon called Peter and Andrew, casting their nets because they made their living as fishermen. So how does Jesus greet them? With a "Good afternoon?" or "How's the fishing?" No, Jesus cuts past small talk and tells them, "Come, follow me."
What? Who does that?
And how does Peter and Andrew react?
Keep fishing and ignore this man who's calling to them? Smile and nod like he's a crazy person before going back to their fishing?
No! They left their nets and followed him? Who does that?
From there he sees James and John with their father Zebedee in a boat preparing their nets. Jesus repeats his call. Do they ignore him and focus on their task at hand? Do they politely decline and remind this stranger that they clearly have a trade? Does their father tell Jesus to "move along" and leave his sons alone?
No, scripture tells us that they "immediately" left "the boat and their father behind."
Seriously, that's whacked, right? I mean, I'm not the only one who finds all of this utterly baffling am I?
Growing up in church, I have heard this part of Matthew told over and over again and always with the same slant of salvation: hear Jesus' call and follow him in the literal sense of giving your life over to him. But evenafter hearing that, as a child, I struggled with these verses. Particularly the part where James and John leave their father behind. The poor man relies on them for his living playing their family trade of fishing and they just up and walk off with a complete stranger. I mean, really, that's nuts, isn't it? How many of us would just up and leave our jobs and families if a stranger called with, "Follow me?" Nah, we prefer to "follow" them on social media where it costs us nothing.
But we miss so much of the Bible when we don't understand the context. By this, I mean the culture in which Jesus and his disciples lived. Both grew up in a Jewish culture where the Mishnah (which means to study and review) required all children (male and female) from the age of six up to learn under the local rabbi. They started in what was called the Beth Sefer (House of the Book). The rabbi taught primarily the Torah. These children not only had to learn to read and write the Torah, but also memorize large passages from it. I remember when I was a child and we had to learn a Bible verse each week in Sunday school. I rocked John 11:35, "Jesus wept." Longer verses, not so much. I still struggle to memorize scripture. Yet by the time these kids finished this portion of their education, they had memorized the Torah. For those of you who don't get this: these kids, who are all 10 years old, memorized Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Not passages, all of those books! Seriously. Can you imagine trying to implement that with our kids today? For Baptists, those would be some serious Awana bucks being payed out.
Once the kids turned 10, the girls education was finished and they returned home. For those who were the top students, they continued on in what is called Beth Midrash (House of Learning). Those boys who didn't make this cut, were sent home to learn their family trade. If you thought memorization was difficult, the boys who continued were now expected to not only know the Torah, but by the time they are fifteen, they must also know the Talmud (their civil and ceremonial law). As they grew in age, they weren't just expected to memorize but also to be able to interpret. This was done by the rabbi asking the student a question, which the student then had to respond with his own question that showed he not only knew and understood what the rabbi was asking but raised the level of understanding by the knowledge shown in his own question. For anyone who is interested in this I would recommend reading Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen. These boys are around the age of 15, the age of my oldest son. Once again, I cannot imagine him being able to do this. Nor could I at his age. If you have a teenage boy or girl, you probably can't picture your kid doing this either.
After Beth Midrash, only the top of the class could continue on. Most would be sent home to ply their family trade. Each step in this educational process weeds out more and more boys, sending them home to a disappointed family because it was a high honor to continue on and to go away to study under a famous rabbi.
Once a young man has reached the age of 20, he approaches a well-known rabbi and asks if he can become one of his disciples. The rabbi then tests him to see how much knowledge the young man has attained and how well he knows his scriptures and his law. If the young man is found lacking, the rabbi sends him home but if he accepts him, this brings honor on the family that he came from.
The young man becomes a talmidim or disciple of the rabbi. Now he would not only learn from him but he also listened, watched and imitated him. That's how people knew what rabbi you were a disciple of because they saw his disciples doing and saying everything that the rabbi taught them. They are studying under him not to become their own rabbi with their own ways of teaching, thinking, and acting but to be just like that rabbi they are studying under. This is what discipleship meant during the time of Christ. It was more than just following someone around. Your life became an imitation of the rabbi you studied under. Those disciples would carry on their rabbi's teaching and ways of life long after he was gone.
Now Jesus was a "rabbi" (that's why he's often addressed as such) and would be known in this area. Those in Galilee would know who Jesus was. He passed all the rabbinical tests (no surprise for the Son of God) and, like any Jewish man who moved up in the Mishnah, by the age of thirty, he could now teach. So when he's walking along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and he calls to these fishermen, they probably already knew who Jesus was. And when he says, "Follow me," they understand because they, too, studied, but at some point, were found lacking and were sent home to learn the family trade.
These men were responding to what they had longed to hear their whole lives, a rabbi saying, "Follow me" or "Be my disciple."
Isn't it interesting that Jesus choose men who the rabbis rejected. These were men who didn't make the cut in their world. They were now common fishermen. Yet here is Jesus telling them, "I want you. You have worth to me." Their hearts longed for this. Zebedee wouldn't have been upset that his sons just up and left him because he was probably pushing them out of the boat to go on and follow Jesus because this was a huge honor.
It also explains in John 6, why, after he's teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum, how they are to "eat his flesh" and "drink his blood" to have life, many find this too hard a teaching and tell him so. They ask him, "Who can accept it?" Many turned back and left. It's interesting that Jesus never sends a disciple away like the rabbis, but that his teaching and the life he expects them to live is enough to cause them to abandon him. That's why he asks his twelve, "Do you want to leave me too?"
I love Simon Peter's answer, "Lord, to whom shall we go?" What he's saying is, other rabbis have rejected us. Only you have called us to be disciples. Only you have chosen us. Only you have given us worth. "You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God." Peter sums it up, "You're more than our rabbi, your our Lord and Messiah."
But when Jesus calls us to, "Come, follow me," he's not interested in followers. Followers are only there for what's in it for themselves and when it gets hard, walk away. They want miracles and shows and prestige. Jesus doesn't. He's not after power nor, unlike rabbis of his day, does he burden them with his own extra laws as the rabbis used to do. That's why Jesus tells them in Matthew 11:30, "For my yoke is easy and my burden light."
Jesus doesn't want followers, he wants disciples. When he calls us, he wants us to become like him. That's why he tells them and us, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). Yet it's only when we do that that we, as his disciples, will truly experience the life and freedom that is in Christ and willingly abandon all to him and for him so that we can be like him, our rabbi and Savior.