Mark 1:14-20, Third Sunday, Ordinary Time, Year B.
James and John leave everything. For a moment let’s picture their father Zebedee left in the boat with the men he employed. No doubt the father had built up the business with a view to his sons future. Now they’re gone. They’ll never really return.
It’s said that the departure of his sons caused Zebedee to go ‘ballistic’. He lost the head so to speak. That’s understandable. It’s said that in turn Jesus gave the name ‘sons of thunder’ to James and John, Mark 3:17.
At any rate, this following Jesus is portrayed as decisive, radical, life changing. The priesthood is modeled on these guys, downing tools, taking off after Jesus, staying with him, not returning. Whatever the historical roots of priestly celibacy even if several of the apostles were married, it’s not without considerable foundation in the teaching of Christ. It’s there, if we can hear it.
So when we start thinking about abolishing celibacy or making it optional – or countless other issues in the Church – we need to think about it from Christ’s perspective and those closest to him, rather than our own, because our understanding of these matters, indeed life itself, is very often a little out of sync – and that’s being generous – with the understanding that flows from the teaching of Christ.
Colm Toibin captures this ‘out of sync-ness’ perfectly in his book “The Sign of the Cross”. Writing about his experience as a child growing to adulthood here in the Cathedral in Enniscorthy he says – and this is both harsh judgement and profound observation – “I had never believed. I had always known that the interest all around me in security, money, power and status was greater than any love of God or belief in his mercy.” I’m afraid too often that’s us.
This is the reason we need to really listen to God’s Word, to the Gospels in particular, because only when we really listen can we begin to ‘sync’ with the message and the teaching of Christ. Often our treatment of the Word is like meeting a person and asking ‘how are you?’ when we really haven’t time for the answer, or worse, we really don’t care! Instead, take the time to look into the other persons eyes asking ‘how are you?’ and wait for the answer. We need to listen to the Word like that. Only then can we begin to move from Toibin’s “security, money, power and status” and into the “love of God” and “belief in his mercy”. This is particularly true of the priesthood.
When we think of the priesthood we need to remember Zebedee left behind in his boat, the family business and his life’s effort for his sons welfare discarded, thrown aside, abandoned. We need to wonder – and wonder is all we can do because the sources are so scant and often contradictory – about the wives of these men, if any. What happened to them?
My sense in all this is that through the apostles, married and unmarried, Christ was calling those around him and future generations to a radical discipleship, to leave everything, even marriage, Mark 19:12, 19:29 and so many other passages throughout the Gospels. It’s my sense but it’s not without foundation in the teaching of Christ. In fact, I suspect the more we ‘sync’ with the teaching of Jesus found in the Gospels the more we’ll see this possibility.
Let me put it this way: Why can’t James and John keep the family business and follow Jesus, as well? That’s what we’d do. It’s a bit like asking: Why can’t a man be a priest and marry, as well? That’s what we’d do. My sense is that Christ is calling some to a much more radical discipleship, to leave absolutely everything, to rely on him alone, and if this radical discipleship is not found in the priesthood today, then where will it be found?