Jesus Calls the First Apostles

SCRIPTURES & ART: Jesus begins his ministry from ‘Galilee of the Gentiles,’ calling Apostles on the way to perpetuate that ministry.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, “Calling of the First Apostles,” 1481
Domenico Ghirlandaio, “Calling of the First Apostles,” 1481 (photo: Public Domain)

Today’s Gospel comes in two sizes: the short version (Matthew 4:12-17) and the long version (Matthew 4:12-23). I strongly encourage priests to add the extra 45 seconds and use the long version. There are important theological points there that also give perspective to the shorter version, points that ought not to be lost. More below.

Ordinary Time, as is typical every year, usually starts with the call of the Apostles. Last week’s Gospel saw John the Baptist affirm who Jesus is and what his Mission is. This week’s Gospel continues that theme, leading to the calls of Peter and Andrew. 

Jesus’ mission picked up where John left off. That’s appropriate, seeing that the One heralded should go beyond where his herald ended. The Gospel tells us “John had been arrested.” John was arrested for defending the truth of marriage against the civil authority, in this case, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Antipas divorced his wife to marry the divorcee wife, Herodias, of his brother. An incestuous union by Jewish standards, it was explicitly forbidden by the Bible (Leviticus 20:21), a fact John the Baptist publicly pointed out. Antipas didn’t try to argue “love is love” but threw the Baptist in jail, although he didn’t have him beheaded until Herodias manipulated her lustful partner into doing so. 

Antipas’ rule extended to two regions of Israel, as this map shows. John had been active in the southern region (Perea), where he was arrested. In reaction, Matthew tells us Jesus “withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth [his boyhood home] and went to live in Capernaum by the sea [i.e., the Sea of Galilee, a large lake].” Capernaum is on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. 

One might be tempted to conclude Jesus’ relocation was an application of the Chinese proverb about the merits of the mountains being high and the emperor far away. But that’s not the whole of the story. Matthew — trying, as usual, to show that Jesus’ life fulfills God’s long-laid plans for the Messiah, quotes Isaiah (see 9:1-7) why these Galilean origins are important. 

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali” refers to the territory of two of Israel’s 12 tribes. They occupied lower and upper Galilee, abutting pagan territory. 

If you remember your grade-school history, you might recall the birth of civilizations in river valleys, specifically, the Nile (Egypt) and the Tigris and Euphrates (Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq). Each of those places were centers of power in the ancient world and, if you examine a map, the one way to get from one center of power to the other led right through Israel, beginning in the “land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali.” It was kind of like living in the middle of the left lane of an interstate while hoping to be left alone.

So, Zebulun and Naphtali were invaded in the course of history. The Jewishness of their populations was at best diluted, at worst deported over the centuries. That is, in part, the origin of the Samaritans and why they were hated as “fake Jews” by Israel. To the north and east of these regions lay pagan territory. 

That’s why Isaiah calls it “Galilee of the Gentiles.” It was also not Jerusalem: it was considered backward and provincial, the first century equivalent of “flyover country” by the elites. That’s why, when Philip tries to get Bartholomew to meet Jesus of Nazareth, the future apostle’s first response is: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). The region was deemed inhabited by yokels at best, religious illiterates and semi-pagans at worst. 

It’s part of God’s plan, part of Christ’s humility. After all, remember three weeks ago when the Magi showed up in Jerusalem? The “experts” there had all the facts. Asked by Herod where the Messiah would be born, they pulled out the right Rolodex card and quoted him Micah 5:2. They just didn’t follow through spiritually on their knowledge. 

Jesus comes to enlighten all of Israel by freeing it (and humanity) from sin. That the “Light of the World” (John 8:12) should come from deepest, darkest Galilee is part of the paradox of God’s Designs. 

So, the short form of today’s Gospel has an important message. But it should not be disconnected from the long form, because the rest of the passage corrects some contemporary distortions.

The long form speaks of Jesus calling his first four disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Jesus is beginning his mission. But it’s not just his mission. His thing. It’s not just going to be wise Jewish teacher imparting noble moral teachings and dying tragic death. And it’s not just “Jesus and me.” Jesus’ Mission, from its very inception, is connected with a larger community. A community built on 12 Apostles. A community that still exists today as the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

That’s why I urge priests to spend the extra minute reading the long form: because Jesus’ identity and ministry cannot be separated from his Mystical Body — the Church — and the “Church” cannot be separated from its foundation in the Apostles. It’s not a “democratic” Church. It’s an “apostolic Church.” And it is a “Church,” not just “me and Jesus and our personal thing going, with me deciding what that means.”

One further note: next Sunday’s Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount, in which Matthew observes “Jesus … went up the mountain and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.” Unless one reads the long form today, one can (a) wonder where these “disciples” came from and (b) perhaps get the idea that these mass “disciples” are self-selected, interested in what Jesus had to say, without knowing that Jesus already had called and selected a normative group of disciples — the Apostles — in his community.

Jesus has moved to Capernaum, a major port on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s likely that there he ran into local fisherman, including “Peter and Andrew, Fishing LLC” and “Zebedee and Sons.” And those four Apostles (actually, three — Peter, James and John — though Andrew will often be a close fourth for having introduced Peter to Jesus, per John 1:40-41) become an almost “inner core” within the apostolic college. So, today’s long-form Gospel tells us about the arguably four key figures among the Apostles with whom Jesus’ Church gets going.

The firmness of the response is indicated in today’s Gospel: “At once, they left their nets and followed him” and “they left their boat and their father and followed him.” No putting the hand to the plough and looking back. No going back to bury one’s dead or take leave of one’s beloved (Luke 9:57-62). When the moment of God’s grace comes, that kairos, that moment of opportunity demands a response here and now, a response that is not temporizing or provisional. 

Now, with the Church in miniature assembled, Jesus begins his ministry, a ministry of healing from man’s worst enemy — sin — and its consequences, including sickness and death. “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.” The peripheries might believe him; we’ll see how Jerusalem will not.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by Florentine Renaissance painter Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448-1494). “The Vocation of the Apostles” in a fresco from 1481-82 in the Sistine Chapel.

The painting is a complex and busy work, in which Jesus actually appears twice. Jesus is very prominent in the foreground, as Peter and Andrew kneel before him, ready to leave their nets and follow him. But look carefully: if you draw a line at a 45 degree angle from Jesus’ left shoulder, you’ll see him, smaller, in blue on the shore speaking to men in a boat. Peter and Andrew are behind him. The two in the boat are presumably James and John with their father, Zebedee. We see Peter and Andrew called to take Jesus’ road, “the way by the sea” (Matthew 4:15) not to an earthly but heavenly Kingdom in which citizenship starts with repentance. We see the continued call of Apostles.

Ghirlandaio’s painting breaks out of our usual progressive notion of time. We have at least two moments captured in the painting: the calls of Peter and Andrew and of James and John. But it’s not just two moments in Jesus’ Day. The call is set amidst a crowd of 15th-century Florentines, dressed in the clothing of their day, not Jesus’. Sure, it’s a commercial and political consideration: important benefactors want to be immortalized. But it’s not just that. There’s a theological point here, too: they’re witnesses to the conception of the Church. In God’s Kingdom, “all time belongs to him” (Blessing of the Paschal Candle). There is no past, present, or future: all is present to him.

The background environment is also a mix: water is water, and this is the Sea of Galilee and, yes, the terrain around Capernaum in Upper Galilee grows more elevated. But this is more a European than a Middle Eastern scene, connecting its viewers and their environment with Jesus’. It’s customary in the Renaissance, which paid more attention to the environment in painting than, say, Gothic art which put spiritual realities in heavenly realms. Jesus’ blue cloak becomes the dominant color of the painting. Peter is in his traditional yellow, Andrew in his green, usual identifiers as commentators have noted.

Last week, we examined Dieric Bouts’ “Ecce Agnus Dei” and commented that early Netherlandish painting remained closer to its Gothic antecedents than Italian Renaissance painting of that day had. Both of these works are from the second half of the 15th century. Compare them to see how the setting in which the painting is placed expresses those different degrees of development.

To recap: Jesus begins his ministry from “Galilee of the Gentiles,” calling Apostles on the way to perpetuate that ministry — as we will learn later (Matthew 28:19-20) until his Second Coming.