The Summons: A Reflection on Matthew 4.12-23

One of the most important moments in anyone’s life is the moment when we realize that we’re the grown up in the room; we’re the one who has to solve the problem, or step up into leadership. If done right, it’s a moment where we step into our identity and strength and truly become adults. Today’s Gospel reading presents one such moment in the life of Jesus. And his response to it is a telling one and worth reflecting on today.

The reading starts with Jesus hearing that his cousin, the prophet John the Baptist, has been arrested:

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea ….From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4.12-13, 17)

Until this point, while John has pointed to Jesus as being ‘the one to watch’, so to speak, Jesus has been comfortable staying in John’s shadows, letting his cousin take the lead in the renewal of faith of their people. But with John now out of the picture, Jesus realizes circumstances have forced his hand: It’s his time to step up and take on the full mantle of his identity and mission. It’s that part of the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’ known as the summons or call to adventure.

It’s interesting that the first thing Jesus does is to withdraw from the area where John was ministering and return to his home region in the north. It doesn’t tell us his motivation for this — whether it was a tactical withdrawal in the aftermath of John’s arrest, a move for a fresh start to differentiate himself from John’s ministry, an initial refusal to take leadership, or simply an apparent retreat to regroup and ready himself for what comes next. There’s no real reason to pick one of these interpretations over the others, but I like this last one. So often it seems we have to go home before we can undertake a journey, or look within before we can step out.

At any rate, when he settles in Capernaum, he begins to teach. Jesus has received his summons and he is stepping up to meet it. I think it’s beautiful that his first words of teaching echo the core of John’s teaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I like this because it demonstrates the continuity of the two; Jesus is not setting himself up as an alternative to John, but is fulfilling John’s life’s work. And that work is itself a summons to God’s people: It’s a radical call to wake up, to open one’s eyes and see the world — and one’s life — as God sees it, and change course. It’s a call to renewed faithfulness in its biggest sense, to show up in all of our relationships and live the way we are called to live. And so, it’s a good beginning for Jesus’ ministry.

As Matthew picks up the story again, he continues this theme of vocation. Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee and invites some fishermen he sees there to become his disciples:

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea – for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (4.18-22)

Just as John’s imprisonment was Jesus’ summons, so is Jesus’ call the summons for Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Jesus’ pitch to them makes the stakes clear: They can continue leading their good-enough lives mending and casting their nets, or they can set all that aside and fulfill their vocation by following him in his mission to bring their people into a renewed relationship with God. And they too accept their call to adventure and follow Jesus.

And Jesus makes this invitation to us too, even two thousand years later. He invites us to wake up and open our eyes and to change our hearts and lives accordingly. He invites us to follow him. Jesus is still calling. The only question is how we will answer.

I’ll end today’s reflection with the beautiful words from John Bell’s song entitled, appropriately enough, “The Summons.”

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

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