Historical Cultural Context
A Common Venture
Today’s reading from Mark presents a version of how Jesus recruited his first followers that differs from the version reported by John (see last Sunday’s reflection).
Jesus and the Baptist
Scholars believe that after his baptism, Jesus became a disciple of John, preaching his message of repentance and baptizing others (see Jn 3:22). Over the course of time, Jesus began to discover a new ministry for himself. According to Mark, Jesus embarked upon it after John was arrested (Mk 1:14).
The theme of Jesus’ preaching is quite similar to that of the Baptist’s: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15). Jesus invites his listeners to give undivided loyalty to God whose definitive reign is about to begin.
Jesus Recruits His Faction
Modern believers are amazed that the people Jesus invites to join him seem to drop everything and follow him immediately. It is all the more amazing if this is the first time they have met each other.
Cultural background and information shed light on the story. It is highly likely that Jesus and the four followers he summons here are not strangers. If they have not personally met each other before this time, they were aware of each other’s aspirations and objectives. News travelled quickly in the ancient world thanks to gossip networks.
Jesus the artisan moves from Nazareth, an insignificant village, to Capernaum, a hub of activity on the Sea of Galilee at the crossroads of major highways. His presence and activity stir curiosity and become the topic of gossip. He does not seem to have gone there to seek work. Instead, he appears to be seeking people to join him in a common venture.
Gathering a following is a common occurrence in the Mediterranean world. Technically, a group that gathers for a specific purpose for a limited time is called a “coalition.” The coalition that Jesus gathers is technically called a “faction” because it focuses on a central person who holds and controls the loyalty of the group. Invariably, the faction leader has a grievance and gathers around him others who share the grievance.
What were the grievance and the aspirations, objectives, and hopes of the fishermen who joined Jesus’ faction? These are never spelled out. The facts, however, that Jesus was known as the son of an artisan and that these first four members of his group were fishermen make it probable that they found common cause in the oppressive difficulties of their daily lives. Such experiences would be the underpinning for Jesus’ broader project of proclaiming the reign of God, the authentic patron or father of Israel.
In societies where central government is weak, people develop more reliable ways of meeting their needs. Patronage is such a system in the Mediterranean world. People with means (patrons) are expected to help those will less or no means (clients). Many refused to play the role of patron (Lk 12:15-21) prompting Jesus to point to God as the only reliable patron for Israel.
Jonah and Zebedee had to hire more day laborers to replace their sons who followed Jesus. They calculated that this short-term gamble might improve their lot if Jesus could deliver what he promised.
Western believers like to romanticize Jesus’ call of his first followers. Cultural insights demonstrate that issues of livelihood were at stake. What real-life issues in America prompt people to follow Jesus with undivided loyalty?
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University