Snap Decisions Are the Best Kind: Reflections on Matthew 4:18-22
Maybe snap decisions aren't as snap as we think. Every decision takes place in a context.
In all four gospels, people made what looks like a snap decision to become disciples of Jesus. But things look a little different when we look at their decisions in the flow of that particular gospel's story. Then it looks like the snap decision may have been one step in an ongoing process. It seems likely that the disciples had been thinking about Jesus for a while and about what the impact of following him might be.
Each gospel has a different definition of what it means to be a disciple, to follow Jesus. In John it means to believe. John the Baptist offers a couple of his disciples a character reference for Jesus ("Here is the Lamb of God!" Jn. 1:36). Immediately after they believe and follow Jesus, their belief is underscored by Jesus' miracle at the wedding in Cana. The disciples have made a "snap" decision to spend their lives sharing their belief with a world that lies in darkness.
In Luke, to be a disciple means to have compassion on the poor and the sick. The call of the first disciples in Luke comes between the account of mass healings by Jesus (Lk. 4:38ff) and Jesus' cleansing a leper and healing a paralytic (Lk. 5:17ff). So the disciples make a "snap" decision to participate in Jesus' ministry of compassion and healing.
In Mark, to be a disciple means to be willing to suffer, and so the call of the first disciples comes between the temptation of Jesus (Mk. 1:12, 13) and Jesus' exorcizing an unclean spirit from a man (Mk. 1:21f). So the disciples make a "snap" decision to spend their lives participating in Jesus' ministry of destruction of evil.
And in Matthew, to be a disciple of Jesus means to be willing to follow his teaching and to do God's will. The call of the first disciples in Matthew comes right after Jesus' brief teaching about the purpose of his ministry (Mt. 4:12-17) and right before the Sermon on the Mount. So the disciples make a "snap" decision to spend their lives as salt and light for the world by living by Jesus' teachings. These teachings fulfill, rather than overturn the heart of Torah: to love God with one's whole being and one's neighbor as oneself.
Later on, Peter makes another snap decision that is not so good: he betrays Jesus three times. It seems like an isolated and spontaneous mistake, but it is one step in a process of giving in to fear and cowardice. Our decision to follow Jesus needs to be continually renewed. One snap is not enough. We have to keep making one snap decision after another, in a lifelong process of following Jesus.
The word "snap" is from Middle English snappe, which means "a quick bite," which may derive from German or Dutch snappen, to seize. It has all sorts of uses in English, all of which share the connotation of suddenness and potential bite. It can refer to correction (to speak abruptly or sharply; "She snapped at the child"), cookies, (a thin, crisp, usually circular cookie, a ginger snap), and cold weather (a cold snap).
It can refer to the sound produced by rapid movement of a finger from the thumb tip to the base of the thumb. It can refer to football (hike) and photography (snap a picture).
It can refer to a variety of actions:
- To break suddenly with a sharp, cracking sound.
- To give way abruptly under pressure or tension.
- To bring the jaws briskly together with a clicking sound, to bite.
- To snatch or grasp suddenly ("I snapped at the chance to go to China").
- To move swiftly and smartly (snap to attention).
A person can
- snap back (recover quickly),
- snap to (to pay attention or begin complying abruptly),
- snap something up, and
- snap out of it (move quickly back to one's normal condition from depression grief or self- pity).
The life of the disciple, which begins with what may look like a sudden decision, becomes a series of recommitments to that decision, day in and day out, every day of our lives.
So, rather than judge the disciples in this passage for their irrational, impulsive, irresponsible behavior, I'm going to take a page out of their book and "keep those snap decisions coming!"
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.