We are studying two texts for Sunday, March 10: Mark 1:16-20 and Luke 14:25-33. Both are – at least on the surface – texts about leaving everything to follow Jesus. Maybe this is no coincidence, since Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent this year. The Mark text is Mark’s account of Jesus’ calling the first disciples, Simon and Andrew and James and John, to be “fishers of people.” The Luke text is Jesus’ lecture to the large crowds following him about the demands of discipleship and “counting the cost,” winding up with the warning that whoever doesn’t give up all their possessions cannot be Jesus’ disciple.
There are several possible complications involved in our study of these texts. Here are my notes on the texts:
MY FIRST QUESTION: Why are we looking at texts from TWO DIFFERENT SYNOPTIC GOSPELS? What gives?
This juxtaposition of texts confronts us with “the synoptic problem” – that is, the question of how exactly the three gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are related. This is something we may or may not want to get into. [A lengthy summary of the “problem” and the evidence for various solutions to it is at Bible.org.]
But it makes me ask myself “Why aren’t we using Luke’s version of this call story?” Because Luke has one, in Luke 5:1-11. But it’s significantly different from Mark’s. Different in a way that doesn’t give us a clean emphasis on “giving up everything to follow Jesus.” [Here’s an interesting article on what it might be doing in Luke’s narrative, by George Rice.] Maybe the curriculum planners are just trying to help out the world’s Sunday school classes, make things easy for us.
If it makes things easy to assign us the task of comparing the differing contexts and theological perspectives of two different gospels, and then two really different texts within those two different gospels, that have different functions and meanings within their respective narratives.
[I’m not so sure it does; it’s a lot of work. Here, for instance, is the Amateur Exegete’s comparison of Mark’s and John’s versions of the call. There are a couple of notes here on the difference between Mark’s and Luke’s versions, as well.]
MARK 1:16-20 – BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The text in Mark is almost at the beginning of Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story. All the reader knows about Jesus at this point is that this is the story of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God [that’s a lot, clearly]. John the Baptist has been at work, Jesus has come down from Nazareth and been baptized by John in the Jordan, has spent some time in the wilderness, and then the next thing we know John is under arrest and Jesus is up in Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God. Boom – just like that. That’s the context.
Everything else in the story comes after Jesus’ calling Simon and Andrew and James and John.
Here are some things we know about Mark: down-to-earth writing style, emphasis on “immediacy,” compactness. We’ll notice this in his version of Jesus’ calling these disciples.
– CLOSER READING: Should we or should we not assume that Simon and Andrew and James and John already know Jesus?
There’s no narrative that tells us they know each other. On the other hand, Jesus’ words to them are very informal: literally something like “Hey, guys, come on!” If we could hear Jesus’ words as they probably would have sounded in 30 CE, they might imply that these young men are pals, or at least acquaintances.
We immediately get two instances of Mark’s favorite word, immediately, in these few verses (18, 20). The way Mark tells it, Simon and Andrew don’t even bother to see if they caught anything in that net they were casting. [About which, here is Bill Mounce on whether it’s one net, or more.]
Jesus sees Simon and Andrew (v16), and sees James and John (v19), before he says something to them (v17) or calls them. Maybe we can imagine the call in v20 repeats the same speech Jesus makes in v17.
When Jesus says he will make Simon and Andrew fishers of people (anthrōpōn), it feels a little clearer in Greek that he will be doing something creative. We could hear that in English – we “make” cakes and poems and works of art, after all – but I’m not sure we do hear it. I think there is at least a whiff of Jesus offering to effect a creative transformation here.
Simon and Andrew left their nets (v18), James and John left their father (v20) – in the boat with the help, granted, but left, and then “went away, departed” – we might say “left” – “after” Jesus.
So in this very short story, there is a lot of seeing and calling and leaving and following behind or after Jesus.
LUKE 14:25-33 – BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The Luke text bounces us back to Luke: erudite, polished, we think addressed to a Gentile audience, carefully composed … etc. And the immediate context for the passage we’re looking at this week is the text we studied last week: the set of events and discourses during the meal at the Pharisee’s house on the Sabbath, including the parable of the Great Banquet.
The scene has shifted to the continuing journey to Jerusalem, and we learn that Jesus has attracted a great many – a big crowd, a big mass – of followers, who are the audience for his address in vv26-35.
There may be an implicit contrast in these verses with the discourses we looked at last week, which I assumed were addressed to people with high status. If we imagine that the big crowd of followers on this trip to Jerusalem are fairly low status people – people with so little to lose that they may as well leave their jobs, take a road trip, head to Jerusalem with Jesus for whatever reason (maybe hoping for some more of that miraculous feeding, which happened back in chapter 9) – then he is addressing this socially different group, though again with shocking demands.
Notice that this is not the first time Jesus has said people who follow him have to take up their cross and deny themselves to follow him. The first time in Luke is in 9:23-25.
– CLOSER READING: In v26, whoever comes “to” or “towards” Jesus is the object of his warning.
People comment a lot on the verb hate – which is the verb that gives us English words like misanthrope and misogynist. In the context, it seems that the “hatred” people need to have is the kind that allows you not to prefer or consider these people and things ahead of the demands of following Jesus.
It may or may not be worth noting that when Jesus lists a set of kinship relations (v26) that have to be subordinated to discipleship, Jesus does not say “you have to hate your husband.” Maybe he was not talking to the kind of people who had husbands. [Although Luke 8:1-3 might be evidence to the contrary.] I bring this up because whenever call narratives come up, I’m reminded of a long-ago reading that pointed out the rather different social implications that “hating/leaving all your relatives” will have for men and for women, in any society, but certainly in Jesus’ society – or ours.
Or maybe the implication is that Jesus is the bridegroom.
The word translated “life” in v26, which Jesus also says a potential follower has to hate, is literally psychēn, which in other contexts could be translated “soul.” Not saying this is a translation error, but it may be worth noticing how perplexed we might be if we DID translate this Greek word as “soul.” Christians are, I suspect, used to the idea that following Jesus might require us to lose our lives for the sake of our souls. What does it mean that there’s less of a distinction between “life” and “soul” than we are used to assuming? That might not be a bad thing for us to think about, at least a little.
What are these examples about? I am very curious about this “tower” that someone might want to build in v28. Why would someone want to build a tower? Who would do that? What would it be for? Why would people mock you if you couldn’t finish your building program, and why would you care?
In other words, why a tower? The best pictures I found of ancient world towers were at Jerusalem perspective. [Who also, btw, have an interesting and different perspective on the text. Yet a third idea about the tower is that it’s a prospective reference to something Herod Antipas will do in 37 CE.] Evidently, a tower might be for military purposes, or for agricultural purposes – like, storage, perhaps something like a silo, or even for raising pigeons(!). The military option might make most sense in light of the king going to war in vv31-32.
But maybe we should recall the Tower of Babel, a famous unfinished tower. In that story, the issue was that the builders didn’t have the resources to withstand divine intervention. Odds are, in a contest, God wins.
[Therefore, it is not clear to me that in this speech Jesus is offering people an easy choice of deciding whether they want to give up all their possessions to follow him, or keep their possessions and not follow him. He’s offering examples of impending doom. What should rational people do in the face of impending doom? Any port in a storm, right? So, following Dallas Willard, I’m inclined to read these examples as Jesus saying something along the lines of: look, following me is ultimately about life or death; and you know death won’t be cheap – you’re guaranteed to lose that fight, along with everything you have; so as high as the all-in cost of discipleship looks, it’s a relative bargain. A real bargain, in fact.]