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The Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 24, 2021

Click here to watch this homily (begins at 30:45).

     The calling of the first disciples is a story we know well, so well that we may have tuned it out when we heard it. But what if we try to hear the story as if for the first time?We might be surprised at what we hear. God’s Word has that kind of power.

     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, and 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 – the first one, really – 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 – his 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 know about you, but I find it reassuring that Jesus didn’t demand anything of his followers that he didn’t first demand of himself.  He still doesn’t.  And that can be a comforting thought when we are faced with a tough decision in life – a vocational decision, maybe, or a career move, or a decision to finally leave an unhealthy relationship - any time God is calling us to move beyond our comfort zone and risk taking a step into the unknown. Or on the larger scene, maybe the tough decision God is calling us to make has to do with taking the Gospel of Life really seriously to the point of getting involved in issues like care for the environment, or advocating for refugees and asylum-seekers, or for life in the womb, or opposing societal evils such as racism, nationalism, homophobia. God has many ways of calling us to move beyond our comfort zone and doing so is never easy – no easier than it was for Jesus or for the first disciples.

     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 disciples did.

     I sometimes wonder what it was about Jesus that prompted such a response. Was it his appearance, his physical bearing, the holiness that radiated from him? I’m sure it was, but it must have also been the power – the dynamic, persuasive power – of the Word that Jesus spoke with such authority. Jesus, after all, was God’s own Word in human flesh. Every word he spoke had power – much like the Genesis Word that God spoke at the very beginning, sparking life, bringing the created universe out of nothing. This seems a particularly fitting thought on this Sunday that Pope Francis has set aside to celebrate and highlight the power of the Word of God….

     It is that same powerful Word that spoke to saints down through the ages, causing them, when they heard it, to do like the first disciples and give their lives completely over to Christ. I think of St. Francis of Assisi who heard Christ speak to him while he was praying before a crucifix in a rundown church, and of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Therese of Lisieux, who heard and answered the call of Christ when they were very young girls; and of St. Ignatius Loyola who heard the call as a young man with many things besides Jesus on his mind.

     My friends, the Word of God, the call of God, is clothed in mystery, the mystery of grace, and so 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 there’s one more thing we know. It’s this: The Word is still being spoken.  God is still calling. God is still calling!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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