Posted January 23, 2021
3rd Sunday of the Year, Yr B
In today’s Gospel Reading (Mark 1: 14-20) the fishermen, at Jesus’ behest, make a leap of faith into an unknown future; they don’t hesitate and they don’t look back. We are invited to admire and imitate the simplicity of their faith, their unhesitating obedience.
We do admire them, of course. Some Christians manage even to imitate them, in varying degrees. But perhaps many of us feel that it is not realistic to take them as our role models. Our discipleship is full of ambiguities, imperfections, failures: it is often marred by infidelity brought on by cowardice, or ambition, or the lure of quick satisfaction; or even by a failure to understand what Christian faith is all about in the first place. How very different we are from those intrepid souls who left everything without hesitation and never looked back!
Actually, though, throughout nearly all of St Mark’s Gospel the disciples are not the paragons of faith that Christian tradition wants them to be. They are just like me and you: slow to understand what Jesus is about; lacking in real faith; preoccupied with status; self-seeking, cowardly, disloyal. Peter protests, after the Last Supper, ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you.’ And they all repeated those words, St Mark tells us. But barely half an hour later, when Jesus is arrested, ‘they all left him and ran away’ – all except Peter, who did stay around, but only to end up denying Jesus three times (‘I don’t know what you’re on about’, he says, when questioned. ‘I do not know that man.’)
And it’s not just the final crisis that the disciples can’t cope with. Much earlier in St Mark’s Gospel Jesus has some hard things to say to them: their ‘hearts are hardened’; they ‘have eyes but they do not see, ears and they do not hear’. (Those phrases are taken straight from the Old Testament prophets, who levelled them at people whose minds and hearts were closed to the word of God. It’s astonishing that Jesus can now apply that language to his disciples.) At Caesarea Philippi Jesus rebukes Peter with the words: ‘Get behind me Satan, for your way of thinking is not God’s way of thinking, but man’s.’ Later in St Mark’s Gospel, shortly after Jesus has repeated to his disciples that a brutal, degrading death awaits him, the disciples are arguing among themselves over which of them is the greatest. Later, when Jesus once more tries to get them to focus on the dire fate that awaits him, two of them, James and John (two of the four who are presented in today’s Gospel as models of self-abandonment) approach him privately and ask him to arrange for them to have places of honour in his Kingdom. So in spite of that initial leap of faith when they left all things and promptly followed Jesus, the disciples in St Mark’s Gospel, far from being role models, turn out to be depressingly like ourselves.
And yet it was a success story, wasn’t it? For these were the people who, after Jesus’ resurrection, set the world on fire with their preaching, and in the end suffered martyrdom for their faith. It was God‘s success story, and a very paradoxical one: for it was built on human failure.
And the lesson of all this? Well, we are surely not to infer from it that it doesn’t matter what kind of disciples we are, or how loyal or disloyal – that we can do what we like, and presume that God will put it right. It can’t be like that, for no personal relationship works like that. On the other hand, it surely means that we must never be discouraged by our failures, by a feeling of impotence or half-heartedness, or even by a life messed up. There must be room in our own lives, certainly, for moments when we break down in tears, as Peter did at the third denial. But after the tears, life must go on and we must cling to the way of faith, and never leave it. It is so painful to listen to people who are distressed about their relationship with God, who see no end to temptations and failures, no solution to their perplexities, no light at the end of the tunnel. We need to be more realistic and a bit more patient with God and with ourselves. Christian discipleship has always been full of ambiguities; and the way of discipleship necessarily leads through the wilderness. Expect discouragement, but hang in there, and trust in God’s ability to bring the story to a gloriously successful end.
In spite of the generally negative portrait of the disciples in St Mark’s Gospel, the fact remains that Jesus had chosen them in the beginning. That is the point of today’s Gospel Reading. Jesus chose them, and he never goes back on his choice. Between the initial choice and the final glory, there will be many failures; many causes for bitter regret. Certainly there is no room for triumphalism. But neither is there cause for despair. At the end of St Mark’s Gospel that mysterious young man at the tomb instructs the women to go and tell Peter and the other disciples: ‘He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him.’
They had let him down disastrously. But would he, who had singled them out in the beginning, ever let them down?
Fr Tom Deidun