January 23, 2005
Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Matthew 4:12-23 and Isaiah 8:23-9:3
What nets must we leave to follow Jesus?
It’s amazing how quickly the disciples drop everything and follow Jesus in the gospel today. They’re in the middle of a work day, fishing, and yet they hear the voice of the Lord and leave their nets behind, just as we must abandon all the nets of our anxieties and ambitions.
The nets are like the yokes that burden the people in the passage from Isaiah, and the poles, and the rods. They are all the things that weigh us down and shouldn’t.
I’ve been reading Thomas Merton again lately and I came across this passage:
Fear is the greatest enemy of candor. How many people fear to follow their conscience because they would rather conform to the opinion of others than to the truth they know in their hearts! How can I be sincere if I am constantly changing my mind to conform with the shadow of what I think others expect of me? Others have no right to demand that I be anything else than what I ought to be in the sight of God. No greater thing could possibly be asked of a person than this! This one just expectation, which I am bound to fulfill, is precisely the one they usually do not expect me to fulfill. They want me to be what I am in their sight: that is, an extension of themselves.
I really like this, and it’s really true for me. Of all the nets that trap me and catch me and keep from being myself, concern with reputation is the biggest. Pride is the biggest. Ego is the biggest. When I’m alone and at peace I know deep down what’s right and good, at least in a general way, because God is always calling us in who we really are, in our own actual natures. He calls us in what makes us truly happy. To do the will of the Lord is our delight, Psalm 40 says, and so whatever gives us true delight is always the will of God.
But then we get around other people, or I do, and I hear them talk and watch what they’re doing, and 9 times out of 10, even after all these years and all this prayer and instruction, I find myself getting pulled off my ground. I get disoriented, clouded.
Blessed are you when you are persecuted, Jesus says in the Beatitudes, and Robert Barron interprets that this way: blessed are you when you no longer care what other people think of you. Blessed are you when you are free of the false influence of others.
I think, too, of a related passage from Merton, a longer one that I keep coming back to. “How am I to know the will of God”? Merton asks. That’s the question I’m asking. That’s always the question, the only question. The disciples had the distinct advantage of being able to see Jesus face to face, in the flesh. He was actually walking by them, by the shore. But we’re not so lucky in a way, because here 2,000 years later Jesus is walking by in subtler forms. He’s always walking by, he’s always calling us, but through events and through moments and through the momentum and drift of our lives.
That’s Merton’s point: that in the absence of some sort of particular revelation, some sort of voice coming down from heaven, literally and physically, “the very nature of each situation usually bears written into itself some indication of God’s will.” Life is our call, in other words.
The Lord calls us through the actual facts, through what is possible and what isn’t. If it’s raining, God is calling me to get wet. If I rupture a disc, God is calling me to limp. The Lord calls us through our capacities and our incapacities. I’m really sure that I’m not supposed to be a neurosurgeon, for example, and that I’m not called to be an accountant either. I can’t add, and I pass out at the sight of blood. The Lord calls us in every moral situation we encounter, everyday. “Whatever is demanded by truth, by justice, by mercy, or by love must surely be taken to be willed by God,” Merton says. “To consent to His will is, then, to consent to be true.” Say a woman we know asks for our help. If she’s telling the truth and we have the means, it’s the will of God in that moment for us to help, because helping is the right thing to do and the true thing to do.
The Lord even calls us in the hoeing of a garden, Merton says.
The requirements of a work to be done can be understood as the will of God. If I am supposed to hoe a garden or make a table, then I will be obeying God if I am true to the task I am performing. To do the work carefully and well, with love and respect for the nature of my task and with due attention to its purpose, is to unite myself to God’s will in my work.
Entering data, dry cleaning a jacket, writing a brief. For most of us, most of the time, to stay at our nets is what God wants us to do, if only as a way of humbling us, of teaching us to die to ourselves.
I think the key is peace. I think the key is always to follow what gives us peace, as much as we are able to, at least.
A final passage from Merton, and another one I love:
Unnatural, frantic, anxious work, work done under pressure of greed or fear or any other inordinate passion, cannot properly speaking be dedicated to God, because God never wills such work directly. He may permit that through no fault of our own we may have to work madly and distractedly, due to our sins, and to the sins of the society in which we live. In that case we must tolerate it and make the best of what we cannot avoid. But let us not to be blind to the distinction between sound, healthy work and unnatural.
There’s a lot of wisdom here, and practicality. What we can’t avoid, we accept, of course, but the question is: what can we avoid? How much of the unnatural and anxious work we do is the result of our own sin and not the sins of the culture? And what good does it do to deny the distinction, to pretend that sound and healthy work is an illusion and that we have to forget it? That it’s unattainable?
No. God is calling us to what is sound and healthy and natural, and he is calling us through these things, and to do his will is to do all that we can to eliminate the stresses and the burdens and the distractions that keep us from such work.
I guess there are two nets, the right one and the wrong one. What must we do to put down the one and take up the other?
Whatever that is, that’s what God is calling us to do.