Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. Mark 1:14-20 – NRSV)
Both Matthew and Luke use this text from Mark in their own Gospels – see Matthew 4:12-17 and Luke 4:14-15.
The text begins in v.14 with a transition statement. Such transition statements appear frequently in Mark – see for example 1:21 (“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught”), 1:28 (“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee”), 2:1-2 (“When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them”) and 4:1-2 (“Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables”).
The transition is from the ministry of John the Baptist to the ministry of Jesus. “After the prologue with its heavy christological thrust, this first public act of Jesus in summoning people to follow him is an indication that Jesus’ work as ‘the stronger one’ (1:7) who proclaims the good news of God will involve other people in a most radical sense. This pericope with its location in Galilee, its mention of Peter and other followers, and especially the picture of Jesus ‘going before’ the disciples (1:16–17) provides an arch to the concluding verses of the gospel, ‘Go, tell Peter and his disciples that he is going before you to Galilee’ (proagei, 16:7).
“All major sections of Mark begin with stories involving disciples. This first call becomes a paradigm for the subsequent call narratives (2:13–15; 3:13–19; 6:6b–13), consisting of the following elements: (1) the initiative is from Jesus; (2) those called are engaged in ordinary work; (3) the call is in the form of a clear summons to ‘follow me’; (4) the call is to share in the mission or activity of the one calling; (5) the response to the call is immediate and unreflective, with a ‘leaving’ of former occupations; and (6) responding to the call is not a private choice, but means joining others who have responded as well. After this initial call, the subsequent calls develop even more the mission aspect. According to 3:13–19 the disciples are to ‘be with Jesus’ and to be sent out to preach and ‘to have authority’ over demons. In 6:6b–13 they are explicitly itinerant missionaries and, like Jesus, are to preach repentance (see 1:4, 14), to exorcise, and to heal the sick. Two essential elements in the call to discipleship are ‘being with’ Jesus and doing the tasks of Jesus. Dramatic tension in the gospel will arise from whether disciples will ‘be with’ Jesus at all stages and whether they will take up their cross as Jesus did. See 8:31–38, which functions like a ‘call narrative’ inaugurating the second major part of the gospel.” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 76-77.)
the good news of God: Apart from 1 Pet 4:17, this expression is used only by Mark and Paul (see 1 Thess 2:2, 9; 3:2; Rom 1:1; 15:16; 2 Cor 11:7).
The time is fulfilled: The Greek word translated as “time” here is Kairos. There is no exact English equivalent. The word Kairos carries the connotation of “proper” or “opportune” time. It may also suggest crisis – as in 13:33 (“Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come”)
The kingdom of God: The Greek basileia – here translated as “kingdom” – presents the translator with a challenge. One scholar writes: “Translation is a problem here, and not simply because of the androcentric overtones of ‘king’. The word ‘kingdom’ is static and evokes a place where a king (or queen) rules. Greek basileia is more active and dynamic, with the nuance of the ‘reigning’ of God as well as a setting for that reign. ‘Kingdom’ is maintained here principally because of its important theological history. Though 1:15 may not provide the exact words of Jesus (some of the vocabulary suggests a post-Easter perspective, and Jesus taught in Aramaic in any case), the proclamation of the kingdom of God is generally admitted to be the heart of Jesus’ preaching in both word and deed. While the actual phrase ‘kingdom of God’ is infrequent in the OT and early Jewish literature, the image of God as king is strong, both in the course of history (e.g., Exod 15:11–13, 18; Num 23:21–23; Pss 2; 72; 89; 110; 145:11–12 [royal psalms]; Psalms 95–100 [possible enthronement psalms]), and at the consummation of history when God’s definitive reign will be established (Mic 2:12–13; 4:5–7; Isa 44:1–8; Zech 9:9–11; Zeph 3:14–20; Dan 2:44; 7:11–14; Ass. Mos. 10:1–25; Pss. Sol. 17:23–35).” (Donahue, J. R., & Harrington, D. J., op cit, 71.)
repent: The Greek word is metanoeite – from the verb metanoeō. Again, translation is a challenge. Metanoeō literally means “change one’s mind”. It gets closer to the original meaning if we say “change one’s heart”. Jesus is calling for radical, inner transformation.
the Sea of Galilee: “The shores of the lake were heavily populated. It also served as a boundary between the heavily Hellenized eastern side (the Decapolis: see Mark 5:20; 7:31) and the mainly Jewish western cities. In Mark Jesus will journey frequently from side to side, symbolizing perhaps the mission to both Jews and Gentiles (see 4:35; 5:1, 21; 6:1, 34, 45, 53; 7:24, 31; 8:14, 22).” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, 74.)
Simon: In the beginning of his Gospel, Mark uses “Simon” instead of “Peter” – see 1:16, 29, 30, 36; 3:16. Thereafter – apart from the scene in the garden of Gethsemane in 14:37 – he calls him “Peter”. Simon is the second son of Jacob and Leah (Genesis 29:33). It is a popular name in Jewish history. Peter comes from the Greek Petra meaning “rock”, translating the Aramaic Cephas – a name that seems to have been coined by Jesus himself.
follow: The Greek word is deute which literally means “Come!” or even “Come here!”
I will make you fish for people: The use of the future tense here is significant. The fact of discipleship is not instantaneous. Discipleship itself implies lifelong learning. It is an unending journey. We should not be distracted by the use of the word “immediately” here. Discipleship is not just a decision with instantaneous effect, though it involves a decision repeatedly confirmed. The primary decision – initiative – and energy and vision come from Jesus. A gradual coming into communion with Him is the work of a lifetime.
The promise, “I will be with you” – see Exodus 3:12 – runs like a golden thread throughout the Bible. And that “being with” is an active presence. God is there for us. The Bible makes it very clear that this is not a promise that everything will be as we might expect or assume to be “best” – whatever that might mean. Nor is it a promise to remove the tragic dimension from human existence. It is an open-ended promise: “I will be with you”. The promise finds its ultimate expression in the Incarnation – especially in the Cross. But it finds a constant expression in the stuff of our days. We can confidently expect the presence of God in any and all human experiences. The question then is not, “Is God with us?” but rather “How is God with us in this moment?”
What if we were to take this promise as also an invitation? What if we were to expect to encounter God – being there for us – everywhere, in all people and things, in our pain and sorrow as well as our joy and happiness, in our failures as well as our triumphs, in the people we do not like as well as those nearest and dearest to us, in the tedium of our days as well as the excitement, in living and dying. Each of these moments contains the invitation: “Come, follow me”. Have you ever heard that invitation in the midst of your life?
What does God look like? God comes disguised as those you meet on the train, the other people in the cars on the road, the weather, the duty you do not want to perform, the disappointment you do not want to face.
What language does God use? God uses the language of laughter and surprise, boredom and excitement, confusion and insight, fear and anxiety, pain and pleasure.
Today’s Gospel can distract us from the sheer ordinariness of God’s presence in our lives. Simon and his brother Andrew, James and his brother John, hear the call of Jesus and immediately drop everything and follow Jesus! It may or may not have happened exactly that way. In any case, very few of us are in a position to immediately drop everything we are currently committed to and take up a lifestyle so wholly and publicly dedicated to the Kingdom of God. Nonetheless, the same invitation that was given to those four early disciples, is given to each of us every day.
It is probably our faulty expectations and assumptions that make it difficult or even impossible for us to hear the invitation, repeatedly given in our experiences, “Come follow me”. The first step is metanoia – generally translated as “repent” but better translated as “change the way you think”. Change your expectations and assumptions. A good first step is to change your language. Instead of saying, for example, “This is good” or “This is bad” say “This is”. Affirm what is, before you judge it!
What you will have to drop will not be fishing nets but anything that stands in the way of you hearing the invitation. If you have been missing it up until now, do not worry. It will be given again . . . and again.