What a Start!

Can you imagine what it was like to be a new disciple of Jesus? To help you understand how radical this young teacher was, I need to tell you a little bit about the context of Jesus’ ministry.

In the region where Jesus lived as a young man, the area around Nazareth located near the Sea of Galilee, the Jewish community in this part of Palestine was generally very conservative. It was a region where many Jews, who were committed to reclaiming this land for the arrival of the Messiah, chose to live.

In the first century, it is a cultural given that young Jewish males who are religious will seek out a teacher (rabbi) to whom they commit themselves. If accepted by the teacher, this relationship will become very close because this rabbi is the person shapes the disciple’s understanding of the wisdom of God.

Jesus is an unusual rabbi. Rather than wait for young men to approach him and request to become his disciples, Jesus takes the initiative and invites young Jewish men to “follow” him! His first four followers are Simon (later called Peter), Andrew, James and John – four men who make a living fishing in the Sea of Galilee.

Shortly after they become disciples of Jesus, they are witnesses to some amazing events: Jesus casts out evil spirits, heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and cleanses a leper of his disease. These are exciting events and the Gospel of Mark points out that people began to flock to Jesus – in fact, Mark records his disciples saying to Jesus, “Everyone is looking for you.”

But then comes a real shocker. When walking by a tax booth near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus invites the tax collector, Levi the son of Alphaeus, to follow him and he does!

It is hard for us to understand what a radical decision this was and how it must have shocked his four disciples. Jewish tax collectors were hated because they were viewed as collaborators with the occupying Roman forces. They were infamous because many charged much more than required in order to enrich themselves.

I’ve witnessed similar illegal and unethical “additional charges” during my work in Russia, especially during the nine-year-long construction of our new campus facility in Moscow. It is hard for me to imagine hiring one of these officials to be a part of our leadership team!

Not only does Jesus take this radical step by inviting Levi, whose surname is Matthew, to become one of his followers, he subsequently invites Simon, who is identified as a zealot — someone committed to a violent overthrow of Roman domination – the extreme other end of the political spectrum.

What a start! It is instructive to see how Jesus taught his disciples that religious beliefs and practices of their time needed to be radically changed. How does he teach them new ways of living? He takes dramatic actions first, and then teaches them why he did what he did.

As the Prince of Peace, Jesus introduced his disciples to the “Kingdom of God,” where old religious prejudices needed to be replaced. Doug Greenwold, the Executive Director of “Preserving Bible Times,” helped me to see that Jesus’ method was “Do, then teach.” The calling of Levi is one of the first examples of this approach and we will look at other examples in the weeks ahead.

Jesus subsequently taught his disciples that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-18). Political ideologies or ethnic bloodlines were not obstacles for membership in the Kingdom of God.

As I reflect on this familiar story, it strikes me that most educators teach students in the hope that they will later “do” what they have learned, that they will put into practice the truths that their faculty have taught them, if they attended a Christian college or university.

I cannot say that I fully understood this insight when we founded the American Studies Program in Washington, D.C., back in 1976, but my intuition told me that we needed to get students out into the marketplace while they were studying so they could connect theory with practice.

The challenge for all of us is the distance between our brain and our heart. We can know the truth about living as peacemakers, but deciding to actually live the truth that we have learned from Jesus can be hard. I think that’s why Jesus did what he did first and later explained his actions to his disciples. That’s why Jesus often said to them — and to us — “Go and do likewise.”

So What?
  • If you are like me, you find friends who are like you — who share the same values, who think along the same lines, who have similar views on politics and life in general. But Jesus, the Prince of Peace, shows us a different way to live. Peacemakers need to embrace people with all of their diversity, people who naturally come across our path. If Jesus could include a tax collector and a zealot in his tight circle of twelve, what are we afraid of?
  • Did you notice what little concern Jesus had for popular opinion? When he began his ministry and people flocked to him, he did what he believed needed to be done, knowing that it would upset a lot of people, especially the conservative religious.
  • I think it is an accurate generalization that historically people who have been peacemakers are not necessarily popular during their lives, but are sometimes recognized after their deaths as outstanding individuals. Do you agree? Who comes to mind?