When I entered basic training, I was warned never to volunteer for anything or respond to a request for volunteers. It was common for a drill sergeant to “ask” unwitting recruits for “volunteers” for duties that appeared to be easier than what was originally planned. Invariably, these jobs never turned out to easy. In time we learned to avoid eye contact with the inviting sergeant and stand way in the back of the formation to hide and avoid being “volunteered.” Matthew’s (Matthew 4:12-23 )account of how Peter, Andrew, James and John immediately responded to Jesus invitation reminded me of my time in basic training. I’m always amazed as to how quickly the disciples dropped everything and just followed Jesus. I wonder how I would respond to a request from a stranger who asked me to stop what I was doing and follow him. I think I would have tried to avoid eye contact, and if asked to volunteer, make some excuse or at least ask for some time to think about it. After all, how could I possibly stop what I’m doing right now? It's too important. Maybe later.
Could we drop everything, leave our families and communities, and follow someone we didn’t even know? Both Matthew and Mark emphasize the word “immediately to describe the new recruits’ snap decision. Snap decisions are not always good, but sometimes they are. I think we all have made snap decision that turned out really well. Don’t we sometimes wonder what prompted those decisions?
And so what does Matthew’s Gospel mean to us? Does it mean leaving behind the promise of a steady income in a successful family business? Or, maybe its letting go of things that hold us bound - as symbolized by the fisherman’s nets in our story. It can be any manner of things and will vary from one person to another. While Jesus does not ask everyone to leave everything behind, no one can be a disciple and follow His call to repent without leaving something behind, or without letting go of the nets that keep us ensnared.
Jesus is calling us to a new way of life and asking us to “repent,” or turn the focus of our lives to being God centered. At its most basic level, discipleship means saying “yes” to Jesus and following him wherever he leads. There are times we try to run away and go back to where we were before but like the young recruit trying to be invisible, we can’t hide in the back out of sight. Jesus is relentless, and as often as we try to run and hide, he will find us.
With regard to “snap decisions” or responding to what we are inspired to do, John Powell writes There have been quite a few times when I have felt the winds of God’s grace in the sails of my small boat. Sometimes these graces have moved me in pleasant and sunlit directions. At other times the requested acts of love were born in the darkness of struggle and suffering. There have been spring times and there have been long cold winters of struggle for survival. God has come to me at times with the purest kindness, at times with the most affirming encouragement, and at other times with bold frightening challenges. I think that all of us have to watch and pray, to be ready to say “yes” when God’s language is concrete and his request is specific-“yes” in the sunlit spring times and “yes’ in the darkness of winter nights. (John Powell, S.J., The Christian Vision, The Truth That Sets Us Free, p147)