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The 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 22, 2017

Click here to listen to this homily (.mp4 file)

    The calling of the first disciples is a story we know very well -- so well that we may tend to tune it out when we hear it. But what if we try to hear the story as if for the first time?  We might just be surprised at what we hear.

     But I admit that there doesn’t seem to be much room for surprise here.  The story is quite straightforward. It’s a story about four fishermen who answer a call, and who, in doing so, leave everything behind.  But a closer look reveals that, in those few verses from Matthew’s gospel, it is five people, not four, who leave everything behind.  Peter and Andrew leave their nets to follow Jesus; James and John leave their boats and their father to follow Jesus. But did you catch the fifth person to leave everything behind?  You had to be listening carefully. So, just in case you missed it, listen again. The passage began with these words: “Jesus left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea.”

     “Jesus left Nazareth.”  Jesus is the other one – actually the first one – in that brief gospel passage to leave everything behind.  Jesus left Nazareth, and for him, leaving Nazareth was not just a physical move -- a move of a few miles from Nazareth which is up in the hills to Capernaum which is down on the lake shore.  No, for Jesus, leaving Nazareth meant leaving home and family.  It meant leaving behind all that was safe and comfortable. It meant breaking out of the cocoon, if you will: flying free, moving into the great unknown, setting out on the mission for which he had come.

     And what prompted him to do this?  Matthew simply says that “when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested…he left Nazareth.”  It seems that John’s arrest – John’s silencing – told Jesus that he could be silent no longer, that it was now time for him to take up where John had left off.  And so he left home and began his ministry, and when he did, he sounded a lot like John the Baptist. In fact, his message was almost identical to John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

     So, that’s the first thing. Jesus left Nazareth.  If we understand the meaning of that, we will better understand why Jesus was able to call others to leave their homes.  Jesus first left behind all that was comfortable, safe and secure for him before he ever presumed to ask Peter and Andrew, James and John to leave behind all that was comfortable, safe and secure for them.  They did what he did. Jesus left Nazareth behind; they left behind their boats, their nets, their homes, their families, their way of life.

     I don’t want to belabor the point, but I do find it reassuring that Jesus never demanded anything of his followers that he didn’t first demand of himself.  He still doesn’t.  And that can be a comforting thought whenever we are faced with a tough decision – maybe a decision about our calling in life, or about an unhealthy relationship we’re in, or about a career move. Or on the larger scene, maybe the tough decision has to do with taking a difficult stand. For example, if you were one of the tens of thousands who participated in the Women’s March yesterday, you might consider participating in the Mass and March for Life in Olympia on Monday, or Catholic Advocacy Day on March 16. Your voice is needed there, too. God has many ways of calling us to move beyond our comfort zone.  Answering the call won’t be easy, but we can take comfort in knowing that we are making it in the best of company!

     I spoke earlier of hearing this passage as if for the first time.  Something else caught my attention as I did that: it was the words “at once” and “immediately.”  “At once they left their nets and followed him….  Immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.”  That’s a very surprising response, if you think about it.  It’s one thing to leave behind everything you know and love, but to do so at once?  Immediately?  Would you make a life decision that quickly?   Would I?  To be honest, no!  But those men did.

     I sometimes wonder what it was about Jesus that prompted such a response.  Was it something in his demeanor -- his appearance, his physical bearing?  His penetrating eyes, perhaps, or his commanding voice?  Or was it something deeper: something more difficult to describe but no less real?  Maybe an inner peace he exuded, a holiness that he radiated simply by his presence?  Artists have long offered their own answer to this.  Caravaggio’s brilliant “The Calling of Matthew” comes to mind.  Film directors have tried their best, too, and so have poets and preachers.

     In the end, though, there’s probably no clear and definitive answer -- any more than there is when it comes to saints down through the ages who, when they heard the call of Jesus, did an abrupt ‘180’ and followed him.  I think, for instance, of St. Francis of Assisi who heard the call of Christ while he was praying before an ancient crucifix in a rundown church; of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Therese of Lisieux who heard the call when they were very young girls; of St. Ignatius Loyola who heard it as a young man with many things besides Jesus on his mind.

     My friends, the call of Christ is a mystery, a mystery of grace, and so, of course, is the response.  All we know is that when Jesus called his disciples, they left everything -- at once -- and followed him.  And the same is true for those saints I mentioned, and for countless saints down through the ages.

     Oh, and we do know one more thing. It’s this: Jesus is still calling.  He is still calling!

Father Michael G. Ryan 



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