I don’t know exactly what it’s like to be a little kid nowadays, since it’s been a long time since I was one myself. However, back when I was little, the highlight of the week was Saturdays, which for me meant watching Saturday morning cartoons, a pastime which I enjoyed. However, my dad had a different idea of Saturdays: for him, Saturday was a work day: working around the house, on the yard, etc. So there was a big discrepancy in what I and my dad wanted our Saturdays to look like. It wasn’t so much that I refused to do what he wanted me to do; it was more that I just tried to avoid it by making myself scarce, but this was hard to do, given that we lived in the same house. So eventually my dad’s idea of what Saturday should be would prevail over mine.
So when my dad would call, I (usually) responded eventually, but without much enthusiasm. Actually, with a lot of reluctance. This is in contrast to how Peter, Andrew, James, and John responded to Jesus when he called them, as we heard in our Gospel reading. It says that they immediately stopped what they were doing and left everything to follow Jesus. Did things really happen exactly like this? We can’t say for sure; my guess is that there must have been some amount of wrapping things up at some point on the part of these first apostles rather than just leaving their families hanging when they left to follow Jesus. But the spiritual message of this Gospel is clear: when Jesus called them, they did not hesitate to respond and left everything to follow Him.
This Gospel reading begins with a quote from the prophet Isaiah, the same one that we heard in our first reading today, referencing the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, a region by the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus went after hearing about the imprisonment of his cousin John the Baptist. By including this quote from Isaiah, Matthew the evangelist makes it clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies. And, as with pretty much everything in Scripture, there is significance in the fact that it was to this particular region that Jesus went – it’s not just mentioned at random or as a nice extra detail. Zebulun and Naphtali were the names of two of the twelve tribes of Israel. These two tribes resided on the north and west sides of the Sea of Galilee, in the northernmost part of the kingdom of Israel. Zebulun and Naphtali had the misfortune of being the first two of the tribes living in Israel to be attacked by the Assyrians. Their elites – the wealthiest, the most influential, the most educated – were taken into exile and slavery by the Assyrians, never to be heard from again. The people who were left behind ended up inter-marrying with other non-Jewish tribes, including the Assyrians, and over time essentially lost their Jewish identity. This is why this region is referred as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” The significance of Jesus beginning his public ministry in that particular place is that he came to proclaim the good news of salvation for the first time in that very region that had been the first among the Jews to suffer exile. God came to undo the damage that had been done to Israel in the place where it first began.
And what did Jesus proclaim when he got there? Matthew tells us: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” So, God came to undo the damage caused by sin by calling the world to repentance for sin. And as we heard, when he called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him, they responded immediately, leaving behind their nets, their fishing boats, even their father. They weren’t of course fishing for fun or leisure; this was their livelihood. They left their livelihood, their possessions, even their families, to follow Christ.
Jesus is likewise calling each one of us to repent and to follow Him. Following Jesus means letting go of anything that keeps us from him. To repent is to turn away from sin and to turn back towards God. As such it means “a change in the direction of [our] lives, adopting a new way of thinking and acting…the effort one makes to turn away from all that is sinful and selfish and to accept the responsibility of living by the standards of the kingdom of God.” (The Gospel of Matthew, Curtis Mitch & Edward Sri)
The response of Jesus’ first four disciples to his call – immediately leaving everything to follow him – is a very radical one. Is that what God expects of all of us – to drop everything, give up all our possessions, even leave our families? Surely that would create a lot of chaos, strife, etc. Rest assured: God calls each one of us to follow him, but he calls us to respond to Him in different ways. It does not mean that we all have to shave our heads and enter monasteries and convents. I recently preached about how we are all called to proclaim the Gospel to others, but that how we do that differs from person to person: how the clergy do that is different from how laypeople do that, and so on. It is the same with how we are to respond to the Lord. Yes, each one of us is called by God to respond to Him, but our response looks differently, depending on our own particular state in life.
A couple days ago – January 24 – was the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, a great saint. He wrote a wonderful book called Introduction to the Devout Life. The whole premise of this book and of his preaching is that everyone is called to follow Christ – what he refers to as “the devout life” – but that we are all called to do so in different ways, depending on our state in life. And he also says that holiness – what he calls “devotion” – is attainable by everyone, regardless of his or her state in life. So, following Christ and striving for holiness is something that everyone is called to do, whether they are priests, religious brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, single people, children, and so on. Holiness is for everyone: old, young, middle-aged, students, workers, retired, wealthy, and poor. But how we respond to Jesus and follow him is going to look differently depending on our vocation and our state in life: the most radical is that of those men or women called to give up literally everything and enter a contemplative religious order, renouncing all possessions, leaving their families, and spending the rest of their lives in a monastery or convent. They share everything in common and spend multiple hours each day in prayer. A parish priest obviously cannot spend as much time in prayer, as he has to be out in the world, tending to his parish, and so on. People with children have to provide for their own livelihood as well as that of their children, and so they have to work, save money, and so on. Regardless of one’s state in life, however, Jesus calls each one of us to holiness, and holiness is possible everywhere.
The point of leaving everything behind to follow Jesus is this: we ought to abandon anything that keeps us from following the life that the Lord calls us to. And this means especially leaving behind any bad habits or sinful behaviors. It’s a good practice to examine our lives and ask ourselves: what keeps me from following the Lord whole-heartedly? What prevents me from living the life God is calling me to? What prevents me from becoming the best version of myself? For example: procrastination is very common, and it prevents us from becoming the best versions of ourselves and often from doing what God asks of us. While we may end up getting things done anyway, it is with lots of additional, unnecessary stress, and we might do less than we could or a poorer job if we didn’t procrastinate. If that’s the case for you, think about the things you do to procrastinate. Maybe it’s time to limit those things or create clear rules for yourself about how you are going to use those things. What are the things that get in the way of prayer and in the way of your relationship with the Lord? Maybe it’s time to identify those things and start to remove them from your life. Sometimes it can be our job, or it can be our possessions or the pursuit of them. And sadly, sometimes it is family or friends who hold us back from following the Lord. Whatever it may be, we should not let it prevent us following the Lord with our whole hearts.
And when is the right time to make the changes necessary to follow the Lord? The answer from our Gospel is clear: now is the time. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year, not when you graduate, not when you get a job, not when you get a different job, or when your debt is paid off. Sometimes we put off what we ought to do now, waiting for all the conditions to be just right, waiting for this mythical time when everything in our life is perfect. “I’ll pray more when my schedule is less crazy; I’ll volunteer when I have nothing else going on in my life; I’ll give to the church when I feel financially secure”, etc. The conditions will never be perfect; there’s always going to be something else going on in our lives; there will always be an excuse not to act. Jesus calls each one of us today, and he calls us again and again. Everyday we must respond to his call. Do not delay answering him; the time to respond is now.