Lectionary Reflections on Matthew 4:18-22
January 23, 2011
We usually hear these disciples praised as models to imitate in their spontaneous faith. But did you ever wonder if they weren't being impulsive and irresponsible? They put down their work and left their families to follow Jesus. It seems like a snap decision. And snap decisions aren't always good.
I've been taking an informal poll this week of friends, family, and students, asking them the question: "Have you ever made a snap decision that turned out to be a mistake?" Everyone quickly answered "Yes," but didn't want to elaborate.
It has been up to me to engage in my own cultural research. I picked up a copy of Star magazine at the grocery store checkout rack and perused an article entitled "Plastic Surgery Regrets" in which actresses and actors told about going overboard with plastic surgery procedures to make them feel better about themselves and about how their choices backfired. Jennifer Gray, Heidi Montag, Jessica Simpson, Carmen Electra, Courteney Cox, Kenny Rogers, Jamie Lee Curtis, Joan Rivers, Mickey Rourke, Denise Richards, Dana Delany, and Jane Fonda all shared their regrets. They opted for surgery from what they now believe are the wrong motives and cannot reverse the damage done.
Our negative snap decisions don't only affect ourselves. The events in the Safeway parking lot in Tucson last week are testimony to the effects of one troubled individual's sudden violent actions on the lives of so many around him.
I make trivial snap decisions all the time. I know I should have the grilled salmon salad but when the waiter comes to take the order, I hear myself ordering spaghetti and meatballs. Or I'm at the checkout at Staples and I buy a bag of jelly beans with my printer paper. There's a reason they call that an "impulse buy." Sometimes I may say something I regret because it's hurtful to someone else. Sometimes I agree to do something I don't really have time or skills to do because I'm flattered to be asked.
For these men to leave everything and follow someone they didn't know had to have tremendous impact on their families and communities. All four gospels present it as a sudden move. We are used to Mark's frequent use of the adverb "immediately," to indicate the urgency of people's actions in his gospel. But in this chapter Matthew borrows Mark's favorite word and uses it twice. "Immediately they (Simon Peter and Andrew) left their nets and followed him. . . . Immediately they (James and John, sons of Zebedee) left the boat and their father, and followed him" (Mt. 4:20, 22).
What else can we call this but a snap decision? And snap decisions are not always good. But sometimes they are. When I've asked people the question, "Have you ever made a snap decision that turned out really well?" so far everyone has been willing to answer it. They have all said "Yes."
Then, when I looked at them expectantly, many of them elaborated using similar language that went something like this: "When you listen to your deepest intuition, it doesn't usually lead you astray. When you've been praying and seeking guidance, when it's time for a decision, it almost seems spontaneous."
People are as reticent about the details of their positive snap decisions as they are about their bad ones. I have been left to wonder what their positive snap decisions were. Did someone make a snap decision to trust someone (or not to)? To put on their seatbelt right before they rounded the corner and the car hit them? To enter or exit a relationship? To take someone's advice? To go to a certain school? To take a certain job or choose a certain vocation?
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.