Calling the disciples

Jesus’ initiative to recruit his disciples – recounted in the very first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, opens the discussion on discipleship. This call of the disciples must be seen and understood, however, in the context of the mission of the teacher.

We have here an apocalyptic setting. Jesus’ work begins with preaching the Gospel of God. The biblical sentence refers to the book of the prophet Isaiah (52:7), i.e. the good news from God announcing salvation through his sovereignty reigning over all. This salvation is promised to the people of Israel and to all nations (Is 60-61). The biblical author emphasizes that the time of salvation has arrived, that God’s reign and kingdom are becoming manifest in the world through the work of Christ. Jesus’ proclamation includes two very important elements. The first concerns the time, the right time (Gr., kairos) for action. The Saviour’s message announces a fulfilment of the times, namely that we have entered the decisive period of history in which God fulfils what he has promised. The good news is taking shape in the world, God is taking action and offering his salvation to all people. The Son of God’s entrance onto the stage of divine economy represents the fulfilment of the biblical prophecies that history is reaching its critical moment, its period of greatest importance. The beginning of Jesus’ mission coincides with this inauguration of the apocalyptic age, the age in which God’s authority over history is expressed in all its sovereignty. The second part of Jesus’ message concerns the human’s attitude and response to God’s initiative. Two specific verbs express the divine expectation for those who hear the good news: to convert and to believe. The promised salvation and the restoration of God’s kingdom presuppose the profound act of changing one’s way of thinking and living (Gr., metanoia) and then holding these coordinates in a deep relationship with God in the hope that this process of human restoration will be accomplished for everyone. Believing presupposes the commitment of the human being, in its totality, to the experience of the divine process of salvation, a concrete participation in God’s economy in the world, a willing acceptance of the coordinates in which this transformation of human life is effectively realized.

The calling of the first disciples takes place within this framework of the development of the ministry of salvation which has Jesus Christ at its centre. The good news of God is called by Mark „The Gospel of Jesus Christ”. He is the Son of God through whom all that is promised is fulfilled. He is therefore the reference point to which people are called to refer in the process of repentance and in expressing their faith. God’s expectation is that all will turn to Christ, will enter into a relationship with him, and will accept him as their teacher and saviour. The call of the first disciples is paradigmatic and responds to this demand to relate to Jesus. First, in order to benefit from God’s salvation, i.e. from participation in his life for eternity, people must become disciples of Jesus and follow him all their lives. That is why Jesus says to the two brothers, the first to be called, Andrew and Peter, „follow me”. To be a disciple of Jesus means to be with him, to assume a new identity and a new way of life, in line with what the teacher has shown us that we have to live in the world. Then, following Jesus means „being a fisher of men”, that is, being partners and effective participants in his mission. Authentic disciples are those who continue Christ’s work in the world, who put into practice the values and principles of his teaching. The most obvious element in this first chapter of the biblical text is the connection or continuity between the nature of the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus and the concrete invitation to people to follow him. God inaugurates the eschatological times and sends his Son into the world, but this reality takes shape and settles into the flesh of the world through a dialogue with human beings. After revealing his plans, God leaves room for human freedom and response. Mark’s way of presenting this invitation draws our attention to a few details on which we dwell below.

Firstly, we notice the visual, scenic, almost photographic dimension of the biblical text. The author frequently points out that Jesus saw things and then acted. In the case of the call of the first four disciples, Mark offers no details indicating that Jesus spoke to them or did anything special to persuade these fishermen to follow him. The biblical text insists on the idea that the teacher saw them at work (casting nets into the sea or repairing gear) and extended the invitation, and they left their work and went to him. The scene itself highlights the contrast between the lives of the disciples before and after the call. The fishermen’s gesture of leaving their gear and their work indicates a radical relocation, a mutation that engulfs their whole life. We are witnessing a decision and an action to leave everything behind. The response of those called upon is not a verbal reaction that comes from an overheard speech, it is not an intellectual adherence to a set of knowledge, but a decision that changes the fundamentals of their previous existence. According to Mark, the fishermen seem to respond immediately, without pause for thought, in accordance with the urgency suggested by the message with which Christ begins his mission: „the time is fulfilled”, history has entered a straight line towards its climax, and God offers humans the chance to participate in what is already happening through the presence of his Son in the world. We could say that discipleship presupposes this clear and profound human response, the prompt attitude and readiness to fundamentally change the coordinates of everyday life. The following of Christ is based on the understanding that at the heart of history essential things are happening because the world has received into it God himself who become man, and that this presence is a transforming and restorative one for all who enter into a relationship with him. The urgency of the human being’s response is not a hasty act, or a decision made in the heat of the moment under the pressure of a message or emotion but derives from the gravity and seriousness of the need to find solutions and answers to fundamental questions, which are meaningful to our existence.

Second, Mark severely limits Jesus’ speech and action in this scene. The disciples hear a simple message saying „come follow me”. It seems this is the essential element here – to be invited, to be addressed by the master, and, in this case, by God incarnate. Here we have a clear allusion to the ancient context where, among both Jews and Greco-Romans, the master-disciple relationship was of paramount importance. Christianity implies the constant reiteration of this invitation, this decisive gesture of God addressing humans and respecting their freedom of decision. This picture of the call of the first disciples reminds us of a similar scene in the Old Testament (1 Kings 19:19-20). The prophet Elijah chooses his disciple who is working in the field. He does this without speaking, without explanation, rather by a symbolic gesture: he places his mantle on the disciple’s shoulders. The response is immediate. Elisha leaves his work, his parents and his home and follows his master into the Lord’s service. Similarly, in the case of the fishermen, when the teacher makes the call, the disciples respond, ready for action. They seem to have sensed the importance of the gesture of being invited to be disciples of Jesus; they seem to be ready for this encounter. There is an old saying that „when the disciple is ready, the master appears”. The Gospel pericope does not give us any details about the possible preparation and what it would entail. It does not tell us how prepared the disciples were and whether they had any information about Jesus’ identity or God’s plan with the people of Israel. But it does record the effect of the call, the promptness of the response and the reversal that occurs. It is possible that the original recipients of this gospel needed such a density of biblical message, a picture that captures the decisive role of Jesus’ call and the reorientation of the being of the disciple who agrees to follow him. Perhaps today’s reader also needs such a perspective.

Finally, just as laconically, the biblical text stresses a new identity for the disciples. Suggestively, starting from the status and profession of the disciples, Jesus promises a becoming that makes them fit for a special mission. The phrase „fishers of men” is not accidental. On the one hand, it refers to the constitution and character of those chosen by Jesus, and on the other, to a symbolic charge that has a long spiritual tradition. The idea of fishing for people is not new. In the Platonic tradition it appears with the meaning of seeking disciples, of creating master-teacher relationships. The theme is also present in Jewish spirituality – we find the idea in the prophets, where God is presented as a fisher of men, but also in relationships between believers, as the prophet Jeremiah suggests in chapter 16 or as the phrase was used in the community of Qumran. In the New Testament, the first fisher of men is Jesus. He seeks out his disciples and invites them to follow him, to enter a process of becoming and building a new identity. The goal of discipleship is for disciples to become like their master. Jesus tells them from the outset what his expectations are, what they are called to become. The phrase used by Jesus suggests that discipleship is not an end in itself. It is a tool, a means by which people are transformed, and become mature continuators of their teacher’s work. For disciples, being fishers of people means that one day they will be in Jesus’ position and be able to call others to be disciples. On his departure from this world, Christ leaves the Twelve with this mandate, to go out into the world to disciple the Gentiles, that is, to do what they saw him do. The dynamics of God’s work in the world presupposes this close connection between generations, this ongoing process of investing in people, of making them fit to carry on the life and mission of Jesus. Fortunately, the teacher did not leave behind a formal religious institution or system to ensure this. He left the honest and transparent pattern of his own experience with his disciples; he left a value system, an understanding of the nature of reality and of God, a coherent message, and a way forward for his disciple to achieve their eternal destiny. All of this was lived and shaped into his concrete life and that of his disciples in the Jewish context of the ancient world. His desire was that this model, this strategy, should continue from one generation to the next, in new contexts, with different people, with specific problems, but with the same stake and the same purpose.

These specific elements of Jesus’ call remain valid for all times and places. People are called to become disciples of Christ and to respond to God’s invitation to assume a new identity and a new way of life in the world. The importance of the invitation derives from what God has already accomplished for us through the life of his Son in the world. History has been given new coordinates, and the divine economy contains this open invitation to salvation, healing and transformed life for all people and for the whole of created reality. The human response to this call is essential, and God awaits for it with great interest. Following Jesus and becoming his disciple means taking up the mission of the teacher and carrying it forward in all cultures and in all times. The choice and decision to become a disciple of Christ does not mean a renunciation of the world and of one’s responsibilities in society. The gesture of the first disciples called by Jesus to leave everything and follow the teacher must be understood in the complexity of the process, in the context of the age and in relation to the special role of the Twelve for the Christian community. Willingness to let go of everything represents the openness and decision of those called to be disciples to reconfigure their lives on completely different coordinates. The focus of the gospel is on the importance and timeliness of the disciples’ response and their changing identity. But as the gospel shows us, to follow Jesus is to become a person who lives in the world following his model and being ready to carry out his mission. This requires a way of life that is structured around the values of the teacher and requires an effort to participate as partners with God in the process of saving all things. The role of the disciples is to bring meaning and healing to all dimensions of existence and in all the places where they live. Jesus does not call us to leave the world and our responsibilities in society but invites us to assume them with a new vision and from a new position. Through the message of the Gospel, we have been invited to move from being mere fishermen or goal-oriented people, who have no horizon other than this world, to being fishers of people or disciples who find the meaning of their existence in God’s kingdom. The call of the disciples of Jesus draws our attention to the willingness to accept a radical change of life, even if this involves a long and difficult process that we are working on while living in the world. This is how discipleship begins.

Dănuț Jemna

Translated by DeepL

Edited by Dănuț Mănăstireanu