We are now 26 days into the New Year. How are our resolutions working out? The YMCA reports that there was the usual huge swell in membership around the first of the month, but that now the number of people coming each day has fallen back to almost the number before the Christmas holidays. What is annually made obvious is that starting something new is easy, but sustaining it is difficult. What becomes even more obvious is how difficult it is to make changes in lifestyle.
If keeping just a few simple New Year’s resolutions is hard for us, how much more, then, should we appreciate how amazing it was for the disciples to walk away from the only life they had known! The disciples left behind family, occupations and possessions.
Jesus made Capernaum in Galilee His home and a base for His journeys. The province of Galilee was small, about 50 miles long and 25 miles wide, but it had a huge population.
Many of the major ancient roads traveled through Galilee. Isaiah mentions the “seaward road.” Galilee was also the land of the Jewish tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali mentioned today. Given Galilee’s strategic location, it suffered many conquests, which made for an interesting mix of people, a people comfortable with new ideas. Josephus says of Galileans, “They were ever fond of innovations, and by nature disposed to changes. . . . They were ever ready to follow a leader and to begin an insurrection. . . . Yet withal they were the most chivalrous of men.”
When Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum following the death of John the Baptist, He did a rare and frightening thing. We must understand how unusual it was then for someone to leave their ancestral home and family. To leave your family was to leave everything! Precious few people had the courage or wherewithal to literally abandon their family, their lifeblood, and their source of identity and status. Furthermore, Jesus’ move to Capernaum offered no advantages, except perhaps for its location. While the population of Nazareth probably numbered slightly over 300, the population of the out-of-the-way village of Capernaum was only about 1,000, tiny compared to surrounding villages and towns. Its overall size only covered about 25 acres. Although on the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum was oppressively hot, its land rocky and difficult to farm. There were few if any permanent structures. Despite fishing being its main livelihood and men fished only to survive, there were no docks or wharfs.
In today’s Gospel, we meet four residents of Capernaum: Peter and Andrew, and James and John, Zebedee’s sons. In some kind of partnership together with Zebedee, the four must have done better than most, as Zebedee had hired servants and they owned the equipment necessary to make a living.
Jesus may have left everything when leaving Nazareth, and many would have thought Him foolish for doing so, but to think that others would do the same was ludicrous. However, Jesus walked right into the midst of these fishermen and said, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Without question they did. These four Galileans not only followed, they left behind secure and stable lives. Readers of Matthew in that day would have found in the move of Jesus and in the willingness of the four disciples to leave everything behind to follow a stranger nothing short of craziness or something of a divine event.
Matthew tells us that it was a divine event. He reaches back to Isaiah to make clear that an ancient prophecy was new again. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, two of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, had been conquered and destroyed. Isaiah had shared his dream of hope that one day a king would come and once again a light would shine, that Zebulun and Naphtali would be rescued and exist again. Capernaum was in the heart of the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, and Jesus chose to go to those lands. The first lands to disappear were now the first lands to which Jesus brought salvation.
The question given for us today is how are we to respond to Jesus? New Year’s always represents a chance to start over, so we make resolutions to improve our health or our lifestyle. We see Jesus completely start over as he begins His public ministry. We see four disciples completely start over in order to respond to His call. How can we start over? What are we willing to abandon this year to be better disciples? And, how long will we keep such a resolution?