26 January 2020; Third Sunday after Epiphany; Epiphany 3A (RCL); Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 5-13; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23.
I know it is an accident of the lectionary, but I am always struck by the juxtaposition of the passage from 1 Corinthians and the passage from Matthew’s Gospel. In Corinthians, Paul says, “I appeal to you . . . that there be no tears (schisms) among you, but that you be mended into the same mind and same purpose.” In Matthew, when Jesus encounters James and John, they are in their father’s boat, mending their nets. The verb for ‘to mend’ (katartizein) is the same in both instances. According to Liddell and Scott, it only means ‘to mend’ in the New Testament. It usually means ‘to restore, to adjust, to put in order.’
That makes me wonder if Mark (copied by Matthew) had read 1 Corinthians, and chose the verb katartizein because Paul had connected it to schism (a rip or tear). We are often startled that Simon and Andrew, and James and John follow Jesus so abruptly. Interestingly, with Simon and Andrew, Jesus calls the to a vocation that they already know — to be fishers.
Jesus shows up on the scene announcing the Empire of God. He wasn’t the only one speaking about Empire. Of course, Rome was exalting its empire in every way imaginable, but not everyone benefited from Rome’s vision of Empire. Many were crushed under its wheels. And even the educated and propertied classes that had had such important roles in the Republic were being moved out of prominence. The Cynic philosophers were inviting people to leave the institutions of the political empire, and join the real empire out on the road, untrammeled by entanglements in the political scene. The Stoics were saying that the only true Emperor was the person (man) in charge of his passions.
So, an itinerant philosopher talking about the Empire wouldn’t have been as surprising as we might think. And Simon and Andrew were poor. Their net (an amphiblestron, a two-handed casting net) was likely their only possession. And Jesus offers them a place in this new Empire-movement doing what they’re already good at — fishing. James and John are a little more complicated. They are not as poor — they are part of a family business, and dad owns a boat. But there they are, mending nets.
I cannot imagine that mending nets was anything but tedious. Here is a guy offering the opportunity to be part of a new Empire, in opposition, or at least as an alternative to, the Empire of Rome. In any event, they follow. Subsequent tradition will tell us that Peter, James, and John became something like the pillars of the Jerusalem Church. In Acts, Luke will portray them as mediating the dispute between Paul and his Gentile mission and the Jewish-Christians — mending nets.
Paul imagined the Church(es) he founded as an ekklesia — in Greek, the word means city council (those called out to govern) spread across the Empire. Christians could live in a social imaginary in which they were in fact the council of power in a Empire-wide body, bringing about God’s plan, set from before the foundation of the world. That’s heady stuff.
We live in a world that desperately needs some net-menders. Can we imagine what we do as Church in nearly as provocative way as did Paul and the writers of the Gospels? We need to try.