The Forgotten One

I have often wondered why “Thou shalt not lie” is not one of the Ten Commandments. The closest we come to it, I guess, is the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” So there is a specific kind of lie which is forbidden, but there is no injunction against lying in general. And why not, one wonders.

After all these years the answer finally popped into my head once when reading the text for this day. The answer is really quite simple. “Thou shalt not lie” is not a commandment because God knew in advance that a lot of Jesus’ disciples were going to be fishermen.

In today’s text, Jesus first calls Peter and Andrew who, we are told, immediately leave their nets behind to follow Jesus. No mention as to what became of those nets. I can well imagine some lucky fishermen that day who went home with good news for his wife.

The story gets a little more complex, however, when Jesus next calls the brothers James and John. They don’t leave just nets behind. They leave their father, Zebedee, behind in the boat. He’s barely mentioned in the text. You may have missed him altogether. But he is there.
Presumably he was left with the chores of taking in the boat, cleaning up the fish and putting everything away. This perturbs me. It would be like my daughters jumping up from the table after supper and announcing, “See ya later; we’ve got to go now.” That would be terribly unfair. My wife shouldn’t have to do all the dishes by herself.

One might wonder why Ol’ Zeb doesn’t get much ink in the pages of the New Testament. His sons will certainly get plenty. You can certainly be forgiven for not remembering Ol’ Zeb. Blink once and he’s gone. But I guess I’m enough of a contrarian to be drawn to him precisely for that reason.

One might wonder why Ol’ Zeb didn’t jump out of the boat and race up the beach to follow this Jesus fellow also. If he was about my age I can give you one good reason: knees. But there are probably more likely explanations. Maybe he was one of those who liked to mull things over before making a decision. Maybe he was too tired. Perhaps this invitation came after a long day of fishing. Or maybe he wasn’t made to feel that the invitation included him. None of Jesus’ 12 disciples were old guys. I hope none of them were fathers. Maybe his boys were too busy responding to Jesus to give any thought to making their father feel included. Do we ever do that? Do we, in our haste to be properly religious, ever lead others to feel that they are not included?

Of course, everything might hinge on more practical matters. If everyone takes off, there is the little matter of… THE BOAT. Furthermore, there may be the responsibility of many mouths to feed at home.

When we come a few chapters later in Matthew to the story of the feeding of the five thousand with a little boy’s loaves and fish, where do you suppose those fish came from? Who’s to say it wasn’t from Ol’ Zeb’s fish market?

All of this is background material to the more pressing question. Can Ol’ Zeb follow Jesus from his boat? And, of course, I don’t mean puttering around the lake trying to keep Jesus in his sights. No, to follow Jesus from his boat is to allow his life to be changed by the words and deeds of Jesus. That is what it has always meant to follow Jesus. That is what it will always mean to follow Jesus. Being a disciple isn’t always about a career change. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, it is about doing the same old thing, but in a new way and with a new attitude.

Maybe Ol’ Zeb wasn’t moved to jump out of his boat, but maybe he was moved to put away for good his dishonest fish scales. Maybe he wasn’t moved to jump out of his boat, but maybe he was moved to keep his hired hands employed through lean times, even at the risk of his profit. Maybe he wasn’t moved to jump out of his boat, but he was moved to share some of his catch with the less fortunate. Can we on the shore possibly know what a man in his boat might be following?… what moral compass he might be taking his bearings by?

Ol’ Zeb paid a price for what happened that day on the lakeshore. He not only lost his help, to him it probably seemed like he lost his sons. How many long days were spent on that boat remembering how it had once been to share the business with his sons, with eyes tearing up over the loss of that relationship. And I don’t know how long Zebedee lived, but if he lived a long life he lived to see one of those sons executed for his faith. Jesus never promised that following him would not involve some cost, and Ol’ Zeb certainly paid it.

That Zebedee stayed out of the limelight doesn’t mean he wasn’t a faithful person. I think there is a lesson somewhere in there for us. What do we say to those who seem to have never taken the plunge, publicly, to follow Jesus? Their appearance in church may be rare. Perhaps you know someone whose responsibilities require that they stay in their own boat and find their own way to follow Jesus – away from the public eye.

Do we honor such people – or are we more inclined to judge them? Are we able to honor those who march to a different drummer… or, whom, from our perspective, don’t seem to be marching at all?
When Jesus comes to the lakeshore, our next hymn suggests, at his invitation we leave behind our boats. I hope you will not take boats as meaning literally your livelihood or your home and family, but rather as a metaphor for gifts wasted, for love not extravagantly spent, for ingratitude in the face of all we have been given, for lives devoted in pursuit of foolish and destructive goals, for ill-gained advantage taken of others. Let us leave all that on the shoreline behind us and follow Jesus in search of other seas. That search will not necessarily take you, any more than it took OL’ Zeb, far from home; it may, however, take you far from your former self. Amen.

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