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Embarking on the ‘way’

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Gospel Commentary Jan. 24, Mk 1:14-20

"Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men." Hearing those few words, the two brothers Simon and Andrew immediately leave their nets and follow Jesus. Then Jesus calls another set of brothers, and James and John also follow him. Just like that, these four men begin on the "way."

What is this "way" that they have embarked on? At this early stage, these four men certainly do not know everything that it will entail. But they have begun to know Jesus who called them. This is the reason they choose to walk it. The Gospel of Mark will take a sharp turn about halfway through, revealing that this "way" is actually the way of the cross. This will be perplexing to the disciples then, and it is certainly unknown to them here in the first chapter. But there are a few hints, even at this early stage.

The first hint is in the opening lines of the Gospel today: "After John had been arrested … " We know John the Baptist. He was the one preparing this "way of the Lord," preaching repentance. Now we find out suddenly that he was arrested. There is not much explanation here; it seems rather abrupt. Perhaps Mark’s Gospel is suggesting a pattern: if you preach repentance like this, then you get arrested or "handed over." And now we find Our Lord doing the same thing, preaching repentance. If we’re attentive, we can make an educated guess about where this will eventually lead. Already here, there is a hint that this way of the Lord will lead to Jesus’ arrest as well, and ultimately the way of the cross.

Another little trace of the cross is seen in the fact that these four men have to leave something behind in order to follow Jesus. Simon and Andrew, it says, leave behind their nets. In order to follow Jesus in the way he wanted them to follow him, they had to leave behind their fishing business. If they had not been willing to do this, they would not have become followers of Jesus. James and John, it says, leave behind their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men. They would no longer be able to enjoy their father’s company as they worked alongside him. They probably enjoyed some friendship and camaraderie with the other men they worked with, and they had to leave that behind as well. If they had not been willing to leave all that behind, quite simply, they would not have become followers of Jesus. Detachment is required for discipleship.

Jesus is not asking everyone to leave behind a career or family members and friends in order to follow him. But in some way or another, following Jesus means that one’s life cannot remain the same as it was before. First and foremost, there are those sinful things that have to go. This is the call to repentance. But then there are also certain good things that might need to be sacrificed if necessary. In the case of Simon, Andrew, James and John, there is nothing sinful about having a good, honest job as a fisherman. Nor is there anything wrong with friendships and family bonds. Yet they had to leave these behind in order to follow Jesus. Their lives could not simply remain the same as before.

This week we can ask ourselves: What would my life look like if I didn’t believe in Jesus? Does my life now look very different? Maybe I do my best to follow the Commandments, which does require sacrifice in and of itself, but aside from avoiding those big sins, do I basically go about my life as usual?

It is one thing to go through life pursuing my own goals and my own agenda from moment to moment, with consideration given to God’s will. It is another to go through life primarily concerned with God’s agenda. As St. John Henry Newman puts it, one treats God as an "accidental guest," while the other treats him as the master of the household. Is my life primarily my own, with some thought given to God, or does it primarily belong to God? Simon, Andrew, James, John, along with countless saints through the ages, have walked that way of giving themselves entirely over to him — that way of the Lord, the way of the cross, the way of discipleship.

Fr. Oetjen is parochial vicar of St. James Church in Falls Church. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021