January 29, 2017

Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the 8th chapter of Isaiah where God proclaims light out of darkness. While God humbled the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, he will confer glory. The rod of the oppressor will be broken. Mathew’s Gospel begins with the arrest of John the Baptist. Jesus then travelled to Capernaum (in the region of Zebulan and Naphtali) and continued John’s proclamation to repent. He then began to gather disciples around him with the call: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Peter and Peter’s brother Andrew, and then James and his brother John (Zebedee’s sons) took up the call and followed him. With his new followers he proclaimed the Good News and cured diseases and sickness.

Last week much of the energy of the readings centered on John the Baptist. But our story does not keep the focus on John, but on Jesus: as John proclaims in John 3:30 “He must increase; I must decrease.” As a matter of fact, today’s Gospel begins with the arrest of John and he essentially disappears until his execution at the hands of Herod.

The first thing we see is Jesus taking on John’s role and proclaiming the need to repent. But he soon pivots and begins the role we see for the rest of his life. He gathered disciples, proclaimed the Good News, and began to heal the sick.

And so with 21st Century eyes, we can ask this: how, exactly, does Jesus grow his brand? What was Jesus’ business plan?

We can see clearly what he was up against. He was a Jew in a land occupied and oppressed by Rome. He and his fellow Jews awaited the coming of the Messiah, though it was unclear exactly what this Messiah would look like or do. And Jesus was far from the only person who claimed to be the Messiah.

And so we ask: how does he set himself apart and get people of his age, and every age since, to follow him?

Well, to begin with, he doesn’t become simply the Messiah. It’s not clear in this reading, and won’t become clear for quite a while, but he is much more than anyone’s idea of a Messiah. He proclaims himself as Divine, as the Son of God. That is one ambitious business plan.

Today, if we look back, we can see how leaders of our time have leveraged their brand for success. A century and a half ago a man named John D. Rockefeller recognized something most people saw as waste (oil) could become valuable as heat when burned. If he cornered the market he could turn oil wells into cash machines as people would need to purchase oil to heat their homes or run their automobiles. He was right.

A generation later Henry Ford saw that the production of automobiles as too slow and expensive. He recognized that he could find success in creating what he called a “production line” that would make automobiles cheaper and available to a much larger population of people.

And finally, a few decades ago Steve Jobs and Bill Gates recognized that if computers could be made smaller and cheaper they would be available to the average consumer. The idea of a “personal computer” could catch on (and yes, I’m aware that this technology makes this web page possible).

But in the end, all these empires, like Rome itself, rose and fell. The Rockefeller family is still wealthy but the Supreme Court ordered the break up of Standard Oil in 1911 and there are many oil producers. Henry Ford may have invented the production line but other car manufacturers copied him and Ford is one of many manufacturers. And the computer industry began as a battle between Microsoft and Apple, that grows to this day.

So how does Jesus build a brand that would continue to grow, and not flame out? How is it that 2,000 years later we continue to read these readings and count ourselves as disciples in the same way as Peter, Andrew, James and John? What attracted those first followers?

Well, ultimately we don’t know. The dialogue in the Gospel gives us few clues outside of the line: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” We all have different reactions, but I have a hard time imagining anyone would completely upend his life on that invitation alone. Perhaps Peter and Andrew were just plain sick and tired of fishing or that the sons of Zebedee were done with Zebedee and were looking for new horizons.

I like to think that the attraction of the first disciples is the attraction we all see today. The first reading and the Gospel are normally paired and interestingly enough, both Isaiah and Matthew speak of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Most of us skipped over those names in the readings, but it bears our notice. These two tribes (or territories) occupied the most northern part of the Promised Land, but they were the first to be conquered by the Assyrians. By the time of Jesus those areas were nearly empty of Jews and nobody really gave them much thought.

But Jesus did give thought to Zebulun and Naphtali and it’s not a stretch to say that several people probably rushed to the equivalent of Google Maps to find these places. The fact that Jesus named them first told us something critically important about his proclamation of his Kingdom. The last shall be first.

I think the reason we still know the name of Jesus while 2000 years from now while our descendants will likely not know the names of Rockefeller, Ford, Jobs, or Gates turns on this. Jesus’ call to his first disciples wrapped him and them (and us) in the mantle of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

Throughout our history we have attracted disciples and grown in area and number exactly because we’ve made the last the first. Jesus reached out to outcast lepers. Paul reached out to Gentiles. Francis reached out to the poor as did Mother Theresa. Here in the United States legions of nuns taught math, reading, and religion to the children of immigrants.

The call of the first disciples gave us names we all recognize. But everyone reading these words has answered this same call, and in our lives also proclaimed that call. Let us all continue to be “fishers of men (and women).”