Sister Johanna has been giving her thought to Zebedee, a strong silent man of the Gospels, whose sons and later his wife, left all to follow Jesus.
Jesus saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John: they were in their boats mending the nets. At once he called them and, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the men he employed, they went after him (cf. Mark 1:19-20. Translation: New Jerusalem Bible).
It’s not often we find editorial comment or attitude in the Gospels. Usually the evangelists simply tell their story and leave us to do the commentary and feel the emotion. But these few lines from the Gospel of Mark seem full of Saint Mark’s feeling – indeed, his incredulity. I think it comes across in line 20 where he says, ‘leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the men he employed…’. In these words seem to hear Mark marvelling not only over the response of James and John to Jesus’ call, but also over Zebedee’s reaction to the sudden defection of his sons from everything that Zebedee had prepared them for.
I know something about fishermen. My own father was one, not by profession but by preference: he loved nothing more than to be on a boat with a line in the water, hauling in fish by the dozen. His fishermen friends all tended to be like him: no nonsense men, hard working, a bit earthy, rather outspoken in their opinions, tough-spirited tough-guys with soft hearts. I imagine Zebedee was like that – only perhaps more care-worn than my dad and his cronies, who all fished for recreation, and earned their livelihood elsewhere. For Zebedee, fishing was his way of supporting his family. It was important and it was work, with all the strains and stress work involves. Surely Zebedee expected his sons to do their share, and probably take over the business one day when he was no longer able. He must have been doing pretty well: he had a few employees. But, as we know, to do well in any business takes a lot of hard work, combined with a lot of shrewdness.
Zebedee. For the first time as I reread the passage today, I had a sense of the man. Now, I see him on a specific day, the day his sons leave. This had probably been an ordinary day. Now they were doing their routine net-mending and stowing things away; it was time to stop work; they were weary and ready for a good meal. And suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, Jesus turns up, calls to James and John, and without uttering a syllable, they go off after him. Zebedee, meanwhile, sits in the boat, torn net in his hands, staring after them open-mouthed. The employees all stop their banter, look up from their nets, exchange surprised glances with each other and quickly attend to their net-mending again with a degree of intensity not usually needed for this particular task. Zebedee says not a word about what has just happened. Not now. Not ever, it seems.
I’d like to leave us with that picture of Zebedee for a day and return to our reflection tomorrow.