Zebedee Gets a Bad Rap
I am a responsible person.
No, really, I am.
I pay my bills on time. I respect and care for my neighbor. This community knows me as a sober, law-abiding citizen.
I have my own business, small but respectable, with which I provide for my family.
I have two boys, and they are the pride of my life.
I have a quick temper when provoked, but I have always walked upright before God and man.
I don’t put up with anything untested, untried, or fly-by-night.
My name is Zebedee, and I am a responsible person.
I am a fisherman, like my father before me, on the Sea of Galilee.
Fishing is a good trade. A fisherman has to be astute, able to read the weather, the play of sun and wind and current.
Sometimes conditions look great and we go all day and all night without a single fish.
Sometimes others say there will be no catch but we go out and our nets break with the heavy haul we harvest.
And just as a fisherman must read the waters, he must read people.
I must judge who will give me a fair price and who will try to rob me blind.
Perhaps that is where I made my mistake.
Maybe I spent so much time watching other people that I quit watching my boys.
James and John are good boys—men, really, now, though I suppose it’s hard for me to admit it. I first took them out on the boat when they were younger than ten years old.
They’re smart, always have been. Quick minds and strong backs, that’s my boys.
Quick tongues, too, and strong words when they’re riled up.
There’s a hunger about them that even the sea on its wildest days doesn’t seem to satisfy.
But I thought I knew them.
I was wrong.
When He came—I don’t know his name, this man who turned our lives upside down—I didn’t pay him any attention at first.
We were moored up, still on the boat mending our nets after the night fishing, when he came.
Again, I didn’t see him at first.
After all my years on the water, I’ve learned to quickly spot who may be a buyer and dismiss the rest.
But I noticed that James had not passed me the next length of mended net.
He was staring at someone on shore.
I was ready to scold him, but then noticed John had stopped and was staring too.
I looked up and saw a man, not a very large man and clearly not a fisherman or anyone wealthy enough to be a buyer or a vendor.
Two others were standing with him, and them I recognized—Simon and Andrew, a pair of brothers we often saw on the water.
Like I said, the man in the middle was nothing to look at, but then he spoke.
For what? And where?
What an odd comment. I hoped the man was all right. We got some strange types down on the waterfront sometimes.
I started to turn back to mending the nets but I noticed John had stood up in the boat, and both he and James were still staring at this man. The man’s gaze was fixed right back on them.
And he spoke again.
“Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”
I have to admit, his voice had a strange and special quality to it.
It did make me want to listen to him, to want to know more, but it was easy enough to shake off.
Fishers of people? What on earth did that mean?
But interesting or not, nothing in the world could have prepared me for what happened next.
The boat jostled, there was a splash, and suddenly my boys were wading onto the shore!
The man smiled, turned to go, and James and John went with him!
I shouted after them, asking what they thought they were doing, running after some stranger when there was work to be done.
James looked back for a second and I can’t describe what I saw in his eyes, somehow passion and excitement mixed with regret, but then he turned his back and followed the stranger.
Twenty plus years I have been a good father to them, providing for their every need and teaching them a good trade, and they’re just gone.
I thought it was just a youthful prank.
They would run off to town for a day off, using the stranger’s odd remark as an excuse, and show up shamefaced the next morning reeking of drink and apologies.
I made a joke to that effect to the hired men on the boat and went back to the nets.
I went home to my wife for breakfast and thought no more about it, knowing I’d see them when it was time to push off onto the water.
But that night, they didn’t come.
Nor the next morning, nor the next day after that.
My wife and I went from annoyed to concerned to panicked as the days stretched into weeks.
It’s been six months now, and we got word that the man they followed is some kind of rabbi and he is captivating people all over the area.
I’m actually not surprised.
I mean, yes, I’m surprised that my boys would get mixed up in some religious movement, but I’m not surprised that this man is full of spiritual power.
I remember his strange magnetism that day.
And in fact sometimes late at night alone on the water, or lying in bed next to my wife and hearing the quiet of the house, absent the familiar sounds of young men scuffling and laughing, a little tiny voice inside me admits that I wanted to follow too.
Why didn’t he follow?
That’s the question we usually ask about Zebedee.
Jesus made his invitation to everyone, not just James and John.
But James and John got up and followed Jesus, and Zebedee stayed in the boat with the hired men.
Perhaps the hired men are why he stayed—they depended on him for their wages and he couldn’t just run off and leave them. He had a business and a family and he didn’t feel like he could abandon them. I understand.
But James and John did go, and were a part of the days that changed the world.
In one of the other lectionary years, we also read the story of Jonah on this Sunday. We are meant to contrast Zebedee with the people of Nineveh in terms of responsiveness to God’s call, and Zebedee comes up short.
Zebedee got a personal appearance by Jesus Christ himself with an individual invitation to follow him, and he said no.
The entire city of Nineveh got one scruffy prophet from an enemy nation and they all said yes.
Many, many of the Ninevites would never have actually seen or heard Jonah in person, but they answered the call to repentance with great faith. So great was their contrition for their sins, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes, that God changed God’s mind and did not rain down destruction on the city.
It all makes Zebedee look kind of stubborn and stupid, doesn’t it?
He missed his chance. He should have followed Jesus.
Or should he?
I’d like to look at this from a slightly different angle. Sure it would have been great if Zebedee had literally gotten out of the boat and followed Jesus, although I often wonder what became of the wives and children of the apostles as they went haring off across the countryside with an itinerant preacher for three years.
Maybe Zebedee’s ministry was different.
Maybe he wasn’t meant to go with his sons to be an apostle.
Maybe his contribution to the Kingdom of God was the gift of his sons, the years of care and labor along with his wife that it took to raise them.
In church tradition, James and John went on to do extraordinary things, outstanding even among a group as special as the apostles.
James is the only apostle whose martyrdom is recorded in the New Testament, in the Book of Acts. He was the first of the twelve to die for his faith.
John, on the other hand, was credited for centuries with writing five books of the Bible—the Gospel of John, the three Epistles of John, and the Book of Revelation. We now know that these books were written by multiple people, but John must have been an impressive person for so many people to want to write in his name.
We hear no more of Zebedee after this incident, although it appears that his wife may have become a follower of Jesus also, asking him to let her boys sit on his right and left in paradise. She may have even been present at his crucifixion.
And where was Zebedee?
Still at home mending his nets, but having made a great contribution to the movement nonetheless.
James and John are also known as the “Sons of Thunder,” presumably for having short tempers and erupting in anger from time to time. If they’re the Sons of Thunder, I guess that makes Zebedee Thunder himself.
The point I’m making is that there are a thousand ways to be called by God and there is always a way to serve.
Some people get the big dramatic call and the ministry that is splashed across the front pages of the newspapers, like James and John.
But equally valuable is the one who puts in the years and years of work to prepare the ones like James and John for the future.
James and John were able to say yes to Jesus in part because of Zebedee and the way he raised them.
Remember this in your parenting and grandparenting.
It could be that one of your most important tasks in life will be preparing a child or grandchild for his or her ministry.
And those of us who don’t have children still have the opportunity to influence people around us, and we should take that task seriously.
It may matter far more than we realize now.
We all will have multiple ministries in our lifetimes. Sometimes we will be the star of the show and sometimes we will be the ones backstage, helping others get ready to go out and minister.
Both are needed for the Kingdom to prosper and grow.
Listen for the call of Jesus and be ready to get out of the boat and follow him.
But in the meantime, nurture and love the people around you every day with thoughtfulness and purpose.
You may be the reason someone else is able to get up and follow him.