open book on a table

“What’s Our Motivation?”

A sermon drawn from Matthew 4:12-23

What are we supposed to learn from the disciples’ immediate, enthusiastic response to Jesus’ call? At least, Matthew doesn’t use the word “enthusiastic” … but don’t we usually picture it that way?

The answer to that question may depend on how we answer a different question: why do we think these men did what they did? What was their motivation?

Because probably everyone here has heard that line, in a movie, or a television show, said by an actor, “What’s my motivation?” In a drama or a serious film, when someone says that we know they’re supposed to be a serious actor. If it’s a comedy, we’re probably meant to think they’re giving themselves airs …

But the serious idea behind that question is … that characters’ lines and actions don’t come from nowhere. In real life, we think, because we know this from our own experience, people do what they do, and say what they say, in the specific the way they say it, for reasons.

Reasons that grow out of their characters, out of who they are; and also reasons that have to do with their habits, what they always do and say – if we think that’s actually different from our characters; and reasons that relate to the situations they’re in, what they want and think and know, what rules they think they have to follow, or are willing to break, what matters to them, what matters more, what matters most. … All that, and more.

And all of those reasons will subtly affect the way a person in real life will act, the tone of voice they’ll have, the way they will stand or move – their body language; all the things that, in real life, would tell us whether they’re … resigned or excited or curious or conflicted or … we get the idea. So an actor who wants to portray a character in a lifelike way, will want to know all that. “What’s my motivation?”

What we don’t always think about, especially when it comes to familiar Bible stories that we have read and have heard over and over and over, is that all those same considerations are at work for the characters in these stories. We think – I don’t think we’re wrong about this – that the people in these stories are real people. So all the things we know about real people would have been true of them. They would have had birthdays and family histories and thoughts and feelings and skills and likes and dislikes … and everything they would have said and done, they would have said and done for … reasons, human reasons. We could well ask the same kind of question the actors ask: what’s their motivation?

And because of the way we sometimes talk about Bible stories in church – because of the way sometimes we want very much to make a particular point out of a story – we often give in to the temptation to think we already know the answer to that question …

Like with this story about the disciples. When I was a little girl, in Sunday school, we were taught – well, I felt like we were taught – that the way these disciples responded, “immediately,” to Jesus was something like a miracle – because, of course, Jesus himself was a miracle, and could do miracles, and the way he called those disciples was a little like one of those miracles. He just looked at them and said “follow me” and it was like a tractor beam on Star Trek or a sudden revelation of what they just had to do … they saw the light … they made that decision for Christ, and there was no turning back.

That was what made those disciples ideal models of faith and commitment for us. Because we knew we were supposed to do exactly what the disciples had done. We were supposed to put ourselves in their shoes, and hear Jesus calling us, and drop our nets – or whatever in our lives got in the way of us following Jesus. We were kids, so that was usually something like playing outside or watching TV. We were supposed to drop that, and go, immediately, wherever Jesus was calling us. Again, we were kids, so the examples of what that would look like were things like setting the table when Mom asked, or taking out the trash, or whatever our parents and teachers needed us to do, whatever would be the right thing to do.

Because the disciples didn’t ask Jesus “do I have to do it now?” The disciples didn’t ask Jesus “can I wait till the commercial comes on?” The disciples trusted and obeyed, right away. And that was what we were supposed to do, too.

I don’t want to criticize our Sunday school teachers, either. But I have noticed, these days, judging from the coloring pages and the children’s Bibles that I’ve seen, these days, it looks like we’re teaching our children something a little different: that the disciples were Jesus’ friends, who answered his call right away because they loved him and wanted to be where he was. Wanted to share in whatever cool, lively thing Jesus was about to do next. Whatever that was, wherever that took them. Because Jesus was their friend, and because they loved him, they did whatever he asked them to do. That feels a little different from the way we were taught – although it’s still consistent with their immediate response. And it’s probably still very consistent with setting the table and taking out the trash whenever Mom or Dad ask, assuming those are still things kids get asked to do.

Although we might also have visions of disciples as the kind of kids who run out the door the minute their best friend calls, yelling “See ya later, dad, don’t wait up!” Which actually would fit that gospel image of James and John leaving their father in the boat, too, and heading off to spend time with Jesus. So much better than fishing …

The point is – it’s hard for us to notice how open to interpretation, especially from a human point of view, these familiar stories of ours really are. We sometimes get into the habit of reading them one particular way, maybe the way we were taught, or the way we heard in a sermon once that stuck with us, or the way we hit on that one time we were reading it in quiet time, and we stop seeing the many, many, different, real-life human possibilities that could be behind the text …

We stop remembering that we don’t know the real-life disciples very well. In real life, we have more questions than we have answers, and no doubt will continue to have those, until such time as we are able to have those questions answered in person.

And that might be OK … if it weren’t for that idea we have that we are supposed to learn something from these characters – these disciples, in particular. They are supposed to be our models. At least, I think that is how we often think about them. And because of that, we have a tendency, probably a natural one, to want to know what that is – what they’re showing us, what they’re teaching us, what we’re supposed to be learning from them. We want the lesson to be clear. So we’d like to be able to say “this is how it must have been.”

So then, we can work on measuring up to that standard.

On being more single-minded and prompt and obedient. Or, on being more loyal and loving. Or, on being more whatever we think we are supposed to have learned from Peter and Andrew and James and John in this story.

Who, by the way, we sometimes also have a tendency to see all alone in the world, the way we see them on those coloring pages, without any life before this, or any other relationships outside the frame of that scene, those fishing boats on the shore of that lake.

Even though we know, if we have read the gospel of Matthew, we know that Peter has a mother-in-law, because Jesus is going to heal her in chapter 8. When they all go to Peter’s house. After Jesus has been giving a long sermon in chapters 5 and 6 and 7. Which means Peter must have a wife, too. So that, if we cared to think about it, we might at least wonder whether Peter ever has some conversation with his wife, offstage, about this long walking retreat he’s about to go on with Jesus, and what she might need to do about taking care of the family fishing business while he’s away. That wouldn’t be completely unrealistic, in real life. And it would contribute to Peter’s motivation …

It would also remind us that there were some people in this larger real-life gospel story who may also have considered Jesus a friend, and who may also have loved him, and who were not called to go on that walking retreat. People we do suspect, nevertheless, were part of the early Jesus movement. Like Peter’s mother-in-law. Or like the various people who heard about Jesus and brought people to the house to be healed on that particular occasion …

It would remind us that, in real life, following Jesus was not the same for everyone.

Not everyone had the opportunity to be one of the twelve.

And the followers who did have that opportunity – like Peter, and Andrew, and James and John – what was their motivation? What were the reasons that, when they heard Jesus say “Come on – follow me – I’ll make you fishers of people!” they immediately left off fishing, and went with him? What were they thinking – feeling – hoping – expecting –

I would love to know.

And then … if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge, we’re not really in a position to know … what those real-life disciples’ motivations were …

And then, if we resist the temptation to say “they must have thought this …” “they must have felt that …” … if we resist the temptation to settle for whatever we think the “right answer” is supposed to be …

Then, we may start to realize that the story is asking us a question … is getting us to wonder … what’s our motivation, what’s my motivation?

Because as I think about Peter and Andrew and James and John, and as I think about Jesus’ call, Jesus’ invitation here … we can’t help thinking about all the things we do know about real life … our real lives; we can’t help thinking about the promise we hear in that invitation … but also possibly the uncertainty and the hardship and the risk … and also the competing commitments and the prior commitments and the priorities …

And we may begin thinking about, and wondering about, and asking ourselves, what would make us do what Peter and Andrew and James and John did … what makes us act the way we do … what are our reasons for following Jesus?

Because we were taught that it was the right thing to do? And because we believe that doing the right thing really IS important?

Or because we’ve realized this is the only thing to do, we’ve tried following other ways, and this the only one that makes sense? Because we just have to … ?

Or because we sense something about the personality of Jesus, whether it’s warmth, or acceptance, or kindness, or forgiveness … something that we really want, or need, and are willing to go to great lengths, even take risks, to have in our lives … ?

Or, because we have the nagging fear that if we don’t go with Jesus we will be in some kind of trouble?

Because it’s an adventure waiting to happen, and we love adventure …? Because something is about to happen, and we want to be part of it, we don’t want to be left out?

We are not that different from the disciples in the story. There are many, many, different, real-life human possibilities that could be our motivation.

We ourselves are real-life disciples of Jesus Christ … disciples enough that we’ll get up on a Sunday morning and get in our cars and come here and worship God together. And being real-life disciples, we know, just like Peter and Andrew and James and John, we do what we do and say what we say the way we say it for reasons. And our text will remind us of that, if we’ll let it; and will encourage us to look at those reasons, and to look at what they tell us about the condition of our relationship with the one who is calling us away from our nets and our boats, or our playing outside and our television shows, or from whatever it is that from time to time holds us back from following Jesus, whatever that means for us, these days, in real life … or that doesn’t hold us back, as the case may be … 

We may not have an opportunity to be “one of the twelve.” But we are members of the company of Christ, the body of Christ, and so we do have an opportunity to be part of whatever Jesus Christ is doing in the world, to be part of whatever cool, lively thing Jesus is about to do … and still calling people to join him in.

So – How do we act? What do we say? What does hearing that call and responding to it look like and sound like for us? What’s our motivation?

A white-robed figure on the shore and two fishermen ankle deep in water and carrying fishing nets ...
Right in the middle of everyday life …

Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew,” James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum, No restrictions or Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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