Galilee is a rather small and relatively unremarkable place. Israel and its enemies have been fighting each other for it for over 6 decades, of course, and before that others had fought over it for centuries. But, to outsiders, it must still seem a somewhat insignificant, little place. So it must have seemed in Jesus’ time too. Then, it had only recently been resettled by Jews after several centuries of having had a predominantly Gentile population. Hence, we have Isaiah’s reference to it as the District of the Gentiles [Isaiah 8:23]. In modern terms nothing is very far from anything else in that part of the world, but to the religious establishment in Jerusalem Galilee was no doubt far enough. It just wasn’t the sort of place where religiously significant things would normally be expected to happen.
Then, all of a sudden, along came Jesus, a Galilean from Nazareth, who went to live in Capernaum by the sea [Matthew 4:12-23]. God has a way of sometimes doing the most unexpected things in the most unexpected places and with the most unexpected of people – like the two brothers Jesus saw casting a net into the sea, to whom he said simply, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Nowadays you can go for a ride on the so-called “Jesus Boat” across the Sea of Galilee and get a demonstration of how the fishermen of Jesus’ time would fish, casting a net into the sea. Perhaps to us, de-natured city-folk, that may seem exotic, but it’s really quite ordinary stuff. But to say to two fishermen busy earning a living, “Stop what you’re doing, and come and join up with me,” that’s anything but ordinary. Perhaps the only thing more extraordinary about it was their response: At once they left their nets and followed him.
Simon and Andrew’s surprising response was then quickly imitated by two other brothers, James and John – and, after them, by many others in the 20 centuries since then. All of us, in fact, are here today because somebody somewhere took Jesus up on his offer – often because again God did unexpected things in unexpected places with unexpected people. It’s too bad that “National Vocation Awareness Week” was 2 weeks ago. Today’s Gospel could be a Vocation Director’s dream text!
When we in the Church use the word “vocation” or “calling,” we often use it in multiple, somewhat overlapping senses. Sometimes, we are speaking of the call of everyone to live a holy life as a disciple of Jesus in the Church – everyone’s vocation (as my High School Commencement speaker said some 46 years ago) to become a saint. At times we also use the word when speaking of different ways of life of living life in the world.
Finally, we also use the word in a particularly precisely sense to refer to the particular calling of some of the Church’s members to live lives publicly identified with the ministry of the Church – as bishops, priests, deacons, or as members of what we call Institutes of Consecrated Life or Societies of Apostolic Life. In the case of the first four apostles, whose story we just heard, these varied meanings all came together in one encounter. Called by Jesus himself to be his disciples, to follow him to holiness, Simon and Andrew and James and John were also called to their life-long, full-time work as apostles, official leaders in the Church.
Like them, we all need to listen and to respond. In this “Information Age,” we have all become accustomed to being deluged by all sorts of information we have no real need for and no useful way to process. So now we even have mechanisms on our computers to filter out at least some segments of it. We can even hide or ignore some of our hundreds of Facebook friends, when their news becomes too much to absorb.
With all the information coming at us from so many directions, it may be increasingly difficult to imagine hearing something that really matters, something that may actually be worth listening and responding to. But God doesn’t give us information. He doesn’t update his status. He calls us directly and personally to a relationship with him, and then invites us to share in his work in our world. We all need to listen to him and to respond. To do so, we rely on the Church to help us filter the noise and to listen to God’s call and so be better able to respond. And, as members of the Church, we all need to be ready and willing be there for one another, helping one another to listen – and to respond.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,
January 23, 2011.