Wednesday, February 6, 2019
People who have given up everything for the sake of a particular cause fascinate us. How could that Roman Catholic priest give up children, family, sex! for the church? How could that activist abandon all hope of a stable income by filling her resume with arrests instead of jobs? What compels a person to give up fame and fortune to spend more time with his family? The counter-intuitive, counter-human-instinct decision to let go of obvious self-interest for the sake of a more subtle self-interest confuses us and delights us. Some of what we feel is admiration. Some is bewilderment. Some is a fundamental recognition that we don't have what it takes to follow their example.
In Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 5:1-11), after a compelling sermon, a miraculous catch of fish, and a dramatic confession, we run the risk of missing the most amazing detail of all: "When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him." Luke didn't have to include the detail about what they left behind. Luke could have written, "They decided to follow him," or "Having made arrangements for their extended absence, they followed him," or "Certain that their families and jobs would be waiting for them if the disciple business proved to be unsustainable, they agreed to giving following him a chance." I joke, of course, but the significance of leaving everything is real.
Most Greek manuscripts record the act of leaving everything as "ἀφέντες πάντα." The verb ἀφίημι comes from the words "apo," which is a prefix or preposition that means "away" and "heimi," which is a verb that means "to send." Of course, the disciples didn't pack up their stuff and send it away. They left it behind. In this context, a better sense might be "release" or "discharge" or even "remit" or "forgive" as in a financial obligation. In a real way, therefore, the disciples decision to leave everything behind wasn't just a drop-the-nets-and-go mentality but a relinquishing of their obligations and relationships. They were letting go of everything, showing their families and friends and colleagues that they were out of the fishing business.
That might be an overstatement. We see in John's account of the gospel that, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, Peter takes the disciples fishing again, suggesting, perhaps, that, before Jesus had commissioned him to carry on the work of an apostle, he went back to his old way of life. Maybe the life of a fisherman was never that far from Peter the disciple. Maybe, when they needed some money to fund the work of Jesus the itinerant preacher, they all spent a few days fishing. Who knows? But, what we do know, is that Luke wants us to realize how much they gave up. They didn't just put their nets in storage. They released everything. They walked away in the fullest sense. And they invite us to do the same.
Following Jesus will cost you everything--your career, your family, your income, your hopes, your plans. In order to follow Jesus, you have to let go of all of that. You may still get to be a teacher, doctor, banker, or gardener. You may still go home every night to your spouse and children. You may continue to save money for retirement. But, for a follower of Jesus, those things are no longer hers or his or ours. They are the Lord's. It isn't our career anymore. It belongs to Jesus. It isn't even our family. Even that becomes God's. When we follow Jesus, We let go, relinquish, send away everything.
The truly compelling part, the part of the gospel lesson we are likely to miss, is that they did it willingly and joyfully. Jesus didn't tell them, "If you want to follow me, you have to abandon everything first." Instead, Jesus said, "Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people!" And the disciples got out of their boats, left everything behind, and followed him. The true fruitfulness of their lives was found not on the sea but by following him. It is that true fruitfulness that sets us free from our grip even on our own lives.