…. they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:11)
Luke 5 marks this gospel’s first reference to Jesus’ disciples. Luke’s story of Simon Peter’s call is a more elaborate story than the parallel story in Mark 1:16-18. Here, Jesus calls Simon in connection with a miraculous catch of fish (compare John 21:4-8). This is not Simon’s first encounter with Jesus in Luke’s gospel, however. In 4:38-39, Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law at Simon’s home in Capernaum, a village by the Sea of Galilee.
A couple of features of this story are noteworthy. The first is Jesus’ entry into Simon’s world of expertise. Simon was a fisherman; Jesus was a religious leader. What did Jesus know about fishing? Yet here was Jesus giving instruction to Peter on how to catch fish. Whether out of faith or amusement or irritation (or a combination of the three), Simon obeyed and experienced unexpected results.
Second, then, is Simon’s reaction to Jesus. Compare Simon’s reaction (“go away – I’m not worthy to be in your presence”) with that of the people of Nazareth and Capernaum (“stay – so that you can do more miracles for us”). It was this experience, and not the healing of his mother-in-law, that drove Simon to fall in fear and reverence at Jesus’ feet. Simon’s experience of Jesus’ holiness reminds us of Isaiah’s reaction in the temple in today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 6:1-6).
Of course the most notable feature of this story is the one it shares in common with Mark’s much sparser version of this story:
Simon left everything and followed Jesus.
The remainder of this essay will focus on Jesus and his traveling band of disciples who abandoned everything to follow him.
Traveling Disciples and Non-Traveling Believers
In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus asks a person to follow him, he means it literally. It is not a metaphor. Jesus gathered around himself a traveling band that accompanied him on his journeys through the villages of Galilee and the surrounding areas. On his journeys, Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, taught about the kingdom, forgave sins and demonstrated the eschatological power of God in other ways. The members of the group that traveled with Jesus had two functions:
- They gathered around Jesus to observe his actions and listen to his teachings.
- They dispersed to visit still other towns in Jesus’ name, performing acts similar to Jesus’ own wherever they went.
This traveling community, then, had a specific function within Jesus’ ministry. Not everyone Jesus encountered was invited or expected to follow him on the road.
For example, Jesus told the Gerasene demoniac (once delivered from his demons) not to follow him but to return home (8:38-39) and praise God for his deliverance. The freed man obeyed Jesus by doing just that. The liberated man wanted to go with Jesus, but Jesus gave him other instructions, which he followed. Here, we have a model of responding to Jesus in faith that does not include joining Jesus’ traveling band of disciples.
Similarly, Zacchaeus (19:1-10) welcomed Jesus into him home in Jericho. Zacchaeus is the model of a hospitable response to the gospel, but there is no indication that he subsequently followed Jesus on the road. Instead, Zacchaeus proclaimed that he would give half of his possessions to the poor. Luke reports this extraordinarily generous act approvingly even though it falls short of the standard expected of Jesus’ traveling disciples. Presumably, Zacchaeus kept his home and his employment. His hospitality and generosity demonstrated his faith, and this was all Jesus expected of him. Salvation has come to his house. The lost son of Abraham has been found.
There are others who demonstrated hospitality toward Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Mary and Martha welcomed Jesus into their home (10:38-41). In contrast to the women of 8:1-3 who surrendered their resources to accompany Jesus on his journeys, these women kept their home and live in it. Mary demonstrated her faith by paying attention to Jesus, not by traveling with him.
There are still more people in Luke’s gospel who offer Jesus hospitality whom he does not call to follow him in the literal sense. To a Pharisee who hosted a dinner for him, Jesus said, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14). Jesus challenged the Pharisee to shape his life in accordance with God’s grace, but Jesus’ directions assume that the Pharisee would retain his house and his financial resources.
A reading of the Luke’s gospel will reveal many such people whom Jesus calls to respond to God’s grace in their lives without necessarily following Jesus on the road.
The Cost of Discipleship
Those who did follow Jesus on the road abandoned everything to do so. Luke tells us that Simon and his fellow fishermen “left everything and followed him” (5:11). Likewise, Levi also “left everything and followed him” (5:28). When the rich, commandment-obeying ruler approached Jesus, Jesus called him to “sell all that you own … then come, follow me” (18:22).
Being a part of the traveling community required absolute abandonment to God’s grace and will. Those following Jesus on the road had to give up all possessions (14:33) and be more loyal to Jesus than to their families (14:26). They must turn their backs on home and kin (9:57-62). They cannot hold back even life itself (14:26-27). Those who followed Jesus had to be willing to lose their lives and “take up their cross daily” (9:23-24).
There are two reasons why Jesus’ required his traveling disciples to abandon everything, even life itself.
1) The members of the traveling band would not only share Jesus’ authority and supernatural power, they would share in his persecution and sufferings. Like Gideon before the Midianites (Judges 7:1-9), Jesus winnowed his traveling band down to the most committed who could endure hardship.
2) The community’s way of life would be a sign of the radical grace of God and a demonstration of radical dependence on him. Jesus told his disciples, for example:
Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36 ESV)
Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:29-32 ESV)
The disciple’s abandonment of everything – property, relationships, personal rights, self-interest and life itself – reflected both God’s offer of saving grace in Jesus (who submitted himself to the abuse of the wicked to offer salvation to all) and the response of utter faith (which could trust God no matter what the circumstances might be).
A Mendicant Order
Jesus’ traveling community was similar to a mendicant order. Mendicants do not own property and depend solely on the giving of others to survive. (The Latin mendicans means “begging”). All of the mendicant’s time and energy is given to religious or philosophical tasks.
The mendicant nature of Jesus’ community can be seen in his instructions to the twelve (9:1-6) and the seventy (10:4-8). Take no purse, no beggars bag, no bread, no money, no sandals, no staff to defend yourself, not even an extra tunic. Eat and drink whatever the people of the town provide. Jesus’ disciples will be utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers and the grace of God.
In the ancient Mediterranean world, some itinerant preachers and philosophers traveled from town to town to entertain people with their rhetoric or displays of power. For those for whom this was a profession – and who were good at it – this could be a lucrative line of work. Jesus instructed his disciples that they were NOT in the “traveling salvation show” business. They were to remain with whatever host first welcomed them and not seek out better accommodations with wealthier hosts (10:7). Their mission did not include maximizing their income.
The word “beg,” however, is somewhat misleading. When thinking of Jesus’ community, we are not on track if we picture people standing on a corner with their hand out. The ancient custom of hospitality, rather than our current experience of begging, is the key to understanding this practice of the disciples. It was the ancient custom to extend hospitality (food and lodging) to people passing through one’s town. Travelers – including Jesus and his disciples – depended upon the hospitality of the people they encountered, not on the availability of a Holiday Inn and a McDonald’s.
As we will see, the offering or withholding of hospitality to Jesus and his disciples is central to Jesus’ understanding of his mission.
The Kingdom of God and the Traveling Band
In Luke, the existence of Jesus’ band of traveling disciples is intimately associated with his proclamation of the Kingdom of God. The primary responsibility of Jesus’ disciples was to cast out demons (9:1, 10:17), heal the sick and announce, “The kingdom of God has come near you” (9:2, 10:9) – and then, let the chips fall where they may.
For the most part, Luke has conventional apocalyptic expectations concerning the establishment of God’s kingdom and the judgment of the wicked at the end of the ages (for example 10:12-15, 11:31-32, 17:22-37, 20:34-36, 21:25-27, Acts 1:6-11).
Nevertheless, some passages in Luke point to the active presence of the kingdom in Jesus and his band of disciples.
- the kingdom of God is in the midst of you (17:21)
- if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)
- the kingdom of God has come near you (10:9)
(in the disciples’ ministry, in a positive way)
- the kingdom of God has come near (10:11)
(in the disciples’ ministry, as an accusation)
Luke’s apocalyptic framework makes it impossible to understand the presence of the kingdom in these sayings as references to an inward spiritual experience or a progressive social program. The sayings that point to the kingdom as present stand side-by-side in tension with those which point to it as an eschatological future. George Eldon Ladd captures this tension perfectly in the title of his volume on New Testament eschatology, The Presence of the Future.
The future kingdom was already present in Jesus and his traveling band of disciples. It was present in Jesus’ deeds of power (11:20), compassion and teaching. It was also present in the kind of life that the traveling disciples lived: clinging to Jesus, trusting solely in God, bearing the power of the Holy Spirit and extending the same grace to others that God extended them in Jesus. When Jesus sent out the twelve (9:1-6) and the seventy (10:1-12), they went bearing the presence and power of the kingdom. That power is a “sneak preview of heaven” (in the words of Joni Tada) or a “foretaste of the feast to come” (in the words of the liturgy I celebrate weekly). The kingdom present in Jesus and the disciples is the “real deal,” even if it is not yet the “full meal deal.”
Judgment Day: Hospitality Offered or Withheld
When Jesus or his disciples arrived in a town, proclaiming the kingdom of God, demonstrating its power and calling people to repentance, the people of the town were challenged to decide: were these people sent by God as they claimed or not?
Their decision mattered. Jesus said, “Whoever listens to you listens to me and who rejects you rejects me and who rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (10:16).
The future destiny of those who heard Jesus depended upon their response. If the townsfolk welcomed Jesus – or the disciples traveling in Jesus’ name – that presaged their inclusion in the people of God in the age to come. If they refused Jesus or his disciples hospitality, that signified their rejection of God’s offer of grace. In other words, those who heard the earthly Jesus or his traveling disciples prior to the resurrection demonstrated their acceptance of Jesus’ message and authority by offering his followers a warm bed and a filling meal, not by “walking the aisle” or being baptized. (This, in my opinion, is also the background of parable of the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:31-46).
If they don’t welcome you, Jesus says, shake the dust off your feet (9:5, 10:10-12). “I tell you on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town (10:12).
The Disciples’ Story and Ours
Luke tells us that Simon left everything and followed Jesus. The typical sermon on this verse goes something like this:
Simon left everything to follow Jesus … and so should you.
Apart from being works-focused instead of Christ-focused, there is another substantial problem with this outline. I have attempted to demonstrate that Jesus’ traveling band of disciples had a distinct purpose and function as part of Jesus’ own proclamation of the kingdom of God. In a way, the traveling community was a living parable. Jesus did not call every person he met to be a part of the traveling squad. Jesus made different demands of those who followed him on the road than on those who did not.
In Luke’s second volume, we find a church that has similarities to Jesus’ traveling band, but is also distinct from it in many ways. Luke certainly sees the church as being involved in the catching of people for God (as Jesus promised Simon in Luke 5:10), but both the means and ends had evolved since Jesus’ death and resurrection. The church of Acts is both itinerant and settled. The same is true for the picture of the church that emerges in other New Testament writings. The church is obviously the spiritual heir to Jesus’ band of traveling disciples, but there are differences as well. Paul, for example, abandons the mendicant approach to the itinerant ministry. He earns his own living. The most significant differences between the New Testament church and Jesus’ traveling disciples, however, are found in the church’s life-setting and purpose, which are beyond the limits of this discussion.
Luke tells us the story of Jesus’ traveling disciples because he thought it instructive to his own church. It is certainly as instructive for us as it was for the church of Luke’s day. It is not possible, however, to jump quickly and directly from the experience of the first disciples to our own.
The problem is not just that modern times are different from ancient times. The problem is that the story of the first disciples is part of the gospel narrative itself. The story of the traveling band of disciples is part of the Jesus-event around which we organize our lives as Christians. As a part of the gospel message, Jesus’ calling and sending of disciples requires that one think about it theologically before attempting to apply any lessons learned. That is, the story of Jesus and his traveling band is good news to be believed and contemplated before it is a good work to be imitated.
UPDATE: See also Jesus sends out the Seventy-Two