“Jesus left Nazareth,” it says, “and made his home in Capernaum by the sea” (Matthew 4:13). Jesus makes a home. He settles into a community for a while. Probably making and selling some furniture, since he’s a carpenter after all. Maybe he builds a few barns, boats, a house or two.
Soon the neighbors start to wonder if their village’s most eligible bachelor is going to start a family—to get married, have kids, and make a future together with all the others. As the months and years go by, his people begin to wonder about him—about his alternative lifestyle. His neighbors begin to wonder if he really cares about their village, about their country, about their peoplehood.
They wonder about his total allegiance to Capernaum, about whether he has opened his heart to patriotism, to their family values—whether he’s committed to making Capernaum strong again, wealthy again, proud again, safe again, great again. Capernaum hands, Capernaum labor. Capernaum first.
In the face of all their suspicions, after his long silence, when Jesus finally speaks, he doesn’t talk about his dreams for Capernaum. He doesn’t proclaim a tremendous destiny for Capernaum. Instead, he talks about another world breaking through their world, a radical change, the dismantling of the current order because heaven has come near—and all the injustice of this world can’t bear heaven’s righteousness. The injustice that cements the structures of this world will burn away like chaff. Because, as Isaiah says, God will break the rod of the oppressor (Isaiah 9:4).
“Repent,” Jesus says to his people, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). Repentance involves a turning away from the wrongs of this world in order to welcome the gospel, to embrace God’s reign, to march our way to heaven. Repentance, in this story, involves a betrayal, a refusal of the world’s allegiances, all for the sake of an affirmation of heaven—not heaven far away, beyond this life, but a heaven that has come near, as Jesus says, a heaven that is a force of life, weakening the grasp of the oppressors.
The betrayal, in this Gospel story, is there in the last verse we heard, verse 22: “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.” We can hear echoes of the first story about a man leaving his father, from the first chapters of the Bible: “Therefore,” it says in Genesis chapter 2, “a man leaves his father and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” But here, in this passage, men leave their father not for wives but to follow Jesus. There’s scandal in this story, a betrayal of social allegiances, of religious duties, of patriotic obligations, all of which coalesce into family values.
They leave their father—not as good sons who leave in order to father their own household, to establish themselves as a paterfamilias, as they called it, the head of their own patriarchic domain, their personal mandate as men. Instead they betray the patriarchy that pulses through their people, the lifeblood of the nationalism flowing in their bodies—they refuse all of that, they leave it all behind, there on the shore with their father’s boats and nets. They leave behind their responsibilities to society, to their community, to the established order of relationships—they leave it all behind, all for the sake of following. Not to lead household or a movement, but to follow. “Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”
For a while now I’ve wondered about the singleness of Jesus, and what that means for our lives, as followers of Jesus. And this isn’t only my wondering—but Christians through the ages have wondered about it too, trying to figure out why he didn’t marry, and what his refusal of marriage means for the rest of us. This was one of the first major ethical controversies during the first centuries of the church—the status of married people. Such a questionable way of life, it was assumed, given the example of Jesus. This ancient Christian controversy rivals our current disagreements about same-sex relationships.
I’m beginning to think that Jesus refused to marry and, in turn, called out a group of single people to be his followers because he rejected institutions that treated women as possessions. In his world, women belonged to men. That’s what the Ten Commandments taught them—the law, written to Moses and the men of Israel: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or slaves, or ox, or donkey” (Exodus 20:17). The “you” of these commands are the men in the community, men who possess things, like slaves and oxen and donkeys and a woman, a woman called wife, a category of ownership.
And, apparently, the men needed these commandments because they were going around, taking oxen and women that didn’t belong to them. The commandments were a protective document, protecting women from the most egregious offenses of men. If you were a woman, you just had to hope that a decent man would pick you—that it would be a decent life as his belonging, that he would be a good protector.
But, for Jesus, who lived without possessions, he wouldn’t treat a woman as his belonging. So he lived without a household, betraying the patriarchy of his people, unraveling the fabric of his oppressive society one thread at a time, calling together an alternative community, followers who would be sisters and brothers, all equally beloved by God, all empowered to march their way into the heaven that has come near—another world, breaking through this one, where God’s people would live without violence, without coercion, where they would live according to the justice of mutual love.
Yesterday, as I joined a few of you at the women’s march in Raleigh, I was thinking about this story about Jesus in Capernaum, the way he proclaimed repentance and called disciples to follow him. I thought about the difference between those early disciples and the marches yesterday throughout the world. The authors of the Gospels focus on the men—in our passage, Andrew and Simon, John and James, men marching with Jesus from town to town. But we do know that women followed Jesus too. We know that they were there all along the way, supporting him, walking with him, there with him at his death, there at the empty tomb. Most of them unnamed, on the margins of the story, but there nonetheless.
The march yesterday refuses to let us think that women are on the margins of stories, on the edges of movements, on the peripheries of revolutions. The march—in cities throughout the world—makes clear that women move history. And for those of us who are men, we are invited to follow their lead, as they guide us out of the old sexist patterns of this world, a march that’s happening every day, if we’re committed to redemption from the oppressor’s yoke, as Isaiah prophesies, salvation from the sins of our world.
We are with the disciples on the shore—there with Jesus, calling out to us, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Heaven has come near—not a place beyond this world, but heaven as our world transformed, as our lives transfigured. And, like the disciples, we have to ask ourselves what will we have to refuse about this world in order to welcome the gospel, to embrace God’s reign, to embrace the gospel, to march our way into heaven. Because when Jesus calls disciples, he asks them to repent from all of the old allegiances.
“Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed.”