"Follow Me" The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels
F Scott Spencer. Interpretation. Richmond: Apr 2005.Vol.59, Iss. 2; pg. 142, 12 pgs
Copyright Interpretation Apr 2005
Jesus displays audacious personal authority in summoning his followers to join him in advancing the kingdom of God. He does not negotiate with disciples. Moreover, the content of his call implies an alternative political (imperial) as well as religious (spiritual) vocation.
The familiar evangelical chorus, "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus"-originating among new believers in the Garo tribe of India and now sung by Christians throughout the world-pithily captures the cost and commitment of discipleship demanded in the Gospels ("no turning back," cf. Luke 9:62).' For all its popularity and piety, however, this folk song also skews key dimensions of following Jesus depicted in the gospel narratives. In particular, the emphasis upon individual ("I") and volitional ("have decided") responses to Jesus overshadows the scriptural focus on social and imperial aspects of discipleship.
Canvassing the five main episodes in the Synoptic Gospels featuring a direct call to "come after" or to "follow" Jesus,2 we discover that the vocation of discipleship stems much more from an overwhelming political compulsion than a deliberate personal decision. The initiative and authority belong to Jesus.3 With breathtaking audacity and sovereignty, Jesus dares to break into the lives of two fraternal pairs of fishermen and a tax collector-without warning, during business hours-and order them to "come after/follow me." And without discussion, without deliberation, they "immediately" and mysteriously leave their jobs and follow Jesus. In the two scenes where would-be adherents approach Jesus first and an exchange ensues, Jesus promptly takes the reins, reorients the seekers' misguided preconceptions of discipleship, and insists that they follow him on his own terms-period. Jesus does not negotiate with disciples. He does not force anyone to follow, but those who do follow fall under the force of his call and agenda. Bluntly put, it is his way or the highway.
Such a pushy, peremptory Jesus is scarcely in vogue today. This image smacks too much of a high-handed despot, an absolute monarch, like Caesar or Herod in Jesus' day. An imperious Jesus-summoning people to drop everything and follow his way-seems too close for comfort to imperial oppressors in the first century (and our own). And, in fact, the fit between Jesus' domineering mien (which should not surprise us, given his basileia [kingdom/dominion] preoccupation and kyrios [lord/master] designation) and the conduct of Caesar and cohorts is not at all comfortable. The rule that Jesus promotes, while as totalitarian in scope as anything Caesar might imagine, runs directly counter to the tyrannical character of Caesar's regime. Jesus advances the basileia tou theou, the just and merciful empire of Israel's God,4 before whom no other gods or kings, deities or powers, are worthy of honor.
In this article concentrating on three of the five "follow me" scenes in the Synoptic Gospels, I begin to explore not only the persuasive imperious style of Jesus' calls to discipleship, but also their subversive imperial substance. Various activities linked with Jesus' "follow me" commissions-seemingly routine acts of fishing and eating, on the one hand, and the ritual, religious act of burying, on the other-pack more political punch than is often assumed, especially in the highly charged atmosphere of Roman-occupied Palestine. And it may be that Jesus and/or the synoptic evangelists intended that punch to level a knockout blow against exploitative Roman domination.5
Jesus' first public act of ministry in Matthew and Mark, under the general heading of "proclaiming the kingdom of heaven/God," occurs in transit near the seaside village of Capernaum (Matt 4:18-22//Mark 1:16-20). As he "walked by/passed along" the shore of the Sea of Galilee, he spies two fisher-brothers, Simon (Peter) and Andrew, in mid-cast and summons them to "follow me." No exchanging of greetings, no stopping to chat, no waiting for break time. And then just as abruptly, with no questions asked, the fishermen "immediately" forsake their nets and follow Jesus as he keeps moving ("as he went from there"/ "as he went a little farther") and recruits yet another pair of brother-fishermen, James and John, busy at work in the family boat with their father Zebedee. Without so much as a "hello" to Zebedee from Jesus or a "goodbye" to Zebedee from his sons (even the maverick Elijah permits Elisha to give his parents a farewell kiss),6 Jesus snags (hooks) two more followers on the fly.
Although providing no elaborate job description or plan of action, Jesus does issue a succinct "mission statement" for his new disciples: "I will make you fishers of people." The imperious thrust of Jesus' call continues not only in the brazen confidence of his claim ("I will make you what I want you to be"), but also in its vocational focus on fishing. Unfortunately, in the popular imagination, few biblical metaphors have been more misunderstood than this one.7 Among North American Christians at least, catching or fishing for people tends to conjure up quaint images of "picturesque peasants in rowboats" on a placid summer day at the lake,8 illustrating the evangelistic duty of every Christian to "win souls," one by one, to Jesus-to enlist others in our cozy fellowship, our fishing club for Christ. Wholly missing in this idyllic portrait are the harsh physical, political, and economic realities of the Galilean fishing industry in Jesus' day.
Although some fishers in first-century Palestine angled with hook and line (no rod and reel!), this was not what occupied Peter and company. They cast nets (either a smaller one single-handedly or a larger dragnet) to catch as many fish as possible not for recreational purposes, but in order to make a living-a hard living at that.9 In a word, fishing was taxing business, in both the physical and financial sense.10 Trolling throughout the night on a lake subject to sudden storms, hauling in (if lucky) hundreds of pounds of fish flesh, gutting it for sale or transport, and tending to the basic tools of the trade (nets and boats) through an endless cycle of washing, mending, folding, and repairing-all of this made for grimy, smelly, bloody, back-breaking work, despised by elites and sophisticates who, nonetheless, enjoyed the product of the fishermen's labors.11
While the fishermen themselves might profit from their toil, fishing revenues in Herodian-controlled Galilee were severely siphoned off by a tightly regulated political monopoly. Buoyed by his opulent new capital city Tiberias, dedicated to the emperor on the western bank of the Galilean sea, as well as by the booming demand for Galilean fish sauces and stews throughout the empire, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, seized the opportunity to make the small inland lake of Galilee into a real "sea," his own private "little Mediterranean" pond.12 The Roman client-king developed his own microcosmic version of Caesar's claim to own all the oceans and waterways of the realm and everything in them.13 At every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus' disciples, were caught in Antipas's conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping.
When Jesus comes along, then, and calls the four Galilean fishermen to follow him, he is essentially saying: "You're working for me now, not Antipas; you're fishing for the kingdom of God, not the Roman-Galilean empire." We are not told what motivates the men to drop their nets and follow Jesus. Perhaps they already sense in Jesus the prospect of a new way of doing business, an alternative kingdom. In any case, they respond not only to Jesus' potential liberation, but also to his patent domination evident in his imperious command to follow. They cast their lot (and net) with a new ruler, the agent of God's empire.
Beyond the exploitative dimensions of the Galilean fishing trade in Jesus' day, a more obvious (but still curiously neglected) aspect of such work was its fundamentally destructive aim. To catch fish is to kill them! Appropriately, Old Testament prophets use fish-catching (along with fowl-hunting) as an image of devastating divine judgment not only against oppressive foreign nations (like Egypt; see Ezek 29:2-7), but also against the iniquitous people of God (idolatrous Judah in Jer 16:16-18 and unjust Samaria in Amos 4:1-2). Habakkuk uses the same image, but with considerable angst: "You [O Lord] have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. The enemy brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults.... Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying the nations without mercy?" (2:14-17).
We might pose a similar query to Jesus: "Why perpetuate this violent, destructive fishing metaphor as a blueprint for Christian mission?" As one writer has quipped, at least sheep (another stock zoological image for God's people) get to be fed and tended for a while before being shorn and/or slaughtered.14 By contrast, the work of fishing is swiftly "fatal and final"15-for the fish!-and eerily evocative of the marauding, martial force of imperial conquest. So what is Jesus up to with his people-fishing call? It is hard to say, and I do not want to blunt the shocking, disturbing punch of Jesus' call with banal explanation (especially since he provides no commentary). Suffice it to say that, on some level, Jesus appropriates the agenda of rapacious imperial domination in order to establish an alternative kingdom, the empire of God. As Jesus himself "catches" people, far from killing them, he feeds, heals, exorcises, and resuscitates the needy. Such is the good news of this kingdom.16 But in one dramatic case at least, in the process of liberating an "occupied" demoniac, Jesus sends a pack of Legion-infested pigs hurtling down the mountain and into the Sea of Galilee, which is the opposite action of pulling fish out of the sea, but with equally lethal results (Matt 8:28-34//Mark 5:1-20//Luke 8:26-39). And the "Legion" troop is as obvious a symbol of Roman military might as one could imagine, and by no means an innocuous reference, given this Legion's virulent disruption of the demoniac's life and its own violent destruction in the abyss.
In Mark's narrative, Jesus' next "follow me" call comes soon in the succeeding chapter and targets a tax collector named Levi (2:13-17). Matthew and Luke contain closely parallel accounts later in their Gospels (Matt 9:9-13//Luke 5:27-32), the main distinction being Matthew's naming the disciple "Matthew." Once again the episode is set "beside the sea" (Mark 2:13), near Peter and Andrew's home fishing village of Capernaum; and once again, while "Jesus was walking along" (Mark 2:14//Matt 9:9), he abruptly challenges a man on the job-"at the tax booth"-to join him. Without delay or discussion, Levi/Matthew gets up from his desk and goes with Jesus. Luke punctuates the scene with the stark comment, "he left everything" (5:28). And so the pattern continues: Jesus' intrusive, imperious call triggers an immediate, immoderate response.
But not everything matches the previous call scene. Most notably, Jesus does not provide any explanation of what he intends for Levi to do. There is no "I will make you fish for people" or anything more fitting for Levi's profession ("I will make you collect people, count the crowds, assess the situation, etc."). The blunt "follow me" without any elaboration only accentuates the effrontery of Jesus' mandate.
While on the surface it may seem that Jesus and the gospel writers could not care less about Levi's particular identity or occupation, closer historical and literary analysis suggests otherwise. First, any mention of a tax collector (telones) in first-century Palestine can scarcely be considered incidental, given the heavy, multi-layered tax burden imposed on the vast majority of the population for the benefit of a tiny elite minority. Part of this politicaleconomic network was sketched above in relation to the Galilean fishing industry. To elaborate briefly, any Galilean worker was subject to a staggering hierarchy of financial debts-head taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, shipping fees, transport tolls, and other customs and duties-starting with Caesar at the top of the patronage heap and extending to Caesar's chief client-rulers, like Herod Antipas, with various agents and functionaries taking their cut (and then some) along the way. And then we should not forget the taxes and tithes exacted by the Judean temple establishment in Jerusalem that was tolerated by Rome in exchange for keeping the peace.17 Embedded in such a stifling system, it is no wonder that Judas the Galilean and others instigated a tax revolt (unsuccessfully), claiming God as the only true Master worthy of tribute, financial and otherwise.18
Levi's tax office or customs house by the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum constituted a daily, tangible reminder of the problem. Levi was part of the system, one of Herod's minions, and perhaps, by virtue of his location, the very one who leased the fishing rights for Peter and associates and levied the first tariffs on their catches.19 And while the synoptic stories tell us nothing about Levi's business practices, the original audiences would doubtless have assumed a propensity toward cheating and profiteering, with the help of police enforcement.20 As John the Baptist discerns in Luke, tax collectors and soldiers ganged together in extortionist practices (Luke 3:12-14). Moreover, Levi's name (in Mark and Luke)-evocative of the priestly tribe of Israel supported by the people's tithes and offerings-may have elicited a sardonic smirk: here someone who symbolizes legitimate, voluntary "taxation" in Israel's theocratic kingdom is working for "King" Herod (in Rome's hip pocket) to impose extra, onerous tax burdens on God's people. As the parable of the Good Samaritan indicates in Luke, Jesus is not any too sanguine about current Levitical commitment to justice in the first place (10:30-37).
While Jesus does not physically topple Levi's tax booth, as he will the tables of the temple money-changers, by calling Levi to leave his post, Jesus still disrupts the Galilean tax system. A "closed" or "out to lunch" sign at the local customs house could only encourage tax evasion. Actually, "out to lunch" aptly describes Levi's whereabouts, because the next scene features a dinner party at his home with Jesus and a large company of fellow publicans and other assorted "sinners." The initiative seems to shift, as Jesus apparently "follows" Levi home to eat. But in fact this fellowship meal boosts Jesus' honor and fits his plans quite nicely. Luke stresses that Levi "gave the great banquet for him [Jesus]" (5:29) and later makes clear, in Jesus' encounter with another tax worker (a "chief" officer named Zacchaeus), that Jesus is not shy about inviting himself to dinner in imposing terms ("I must stay at your house today," 19:5). Each of the Synoptic Gospels depicts Jesus' eating with tax collectors and sinners as an intentional, integral part of his mission (cf. Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34; 15:1-2). Levi may provide the house and the menu, but Jesus controls the affair as both honored guest and imperious (as well as gracious) host. Jesus uses this venue, as he explains to his Pharisaic critics, not merely to socialize but to evangelize-to call and challenge sinners like Levi and associates. Only Luke specifies the goal of calling "sinners to repentance" (5:32). In the case of the tax collectors at least, if Jesus calls them, as he did Levi, to forsake their jobs and follow him, that guarantees some measure of reform, not only for the individual employees, but also for the whole Herodian economy. Abandoned tax booths at seaports and checkpoints throughout the Galilee do not bode well for imperial business.
LEAVE THE DEAD
Matthew and Luke21 share another "follow me" call of Jesus, albeit in different settings (Matt 8:18-22//Luke 9:57-60). Matthew's Jesus remains headquartered around the Sea of Galilee, preparing "to go over to the other side" (8:18), while Luke's Jesus is "going along the road" southward from Galilee to Jerusalem (through Samaria) (9:51-57). In both cases a prospective disciple22 approaches the itinerant Jesus with the frank assertion, "I will follow you wherever you go." Such an open-ended commitment might seem to be exactly what Jesus would want and even more-since it comes unexpectedly without Jesus' prompting. But in fact Jesus does not warmly accept this seeker's offer. He doesn't quite turn him away either, but rather clarifies the extreme nomadic lifestyle demanded of all who follow ("the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."). The ensuing silence and disappearance of the would-be follower suggest that, for all his initial bravado, he ultimately preferred a good night's sleep to the rigors of camping out with Jesus.
Attention immediately shifts to a second prospect to whom Jesus asserts his authority and commands, "Follow me." The peremptory, initiatory element is more evident in Luke, where Jesus abruptly pivots from responding to the first man to calling "another" who happens to be in the neighborhood. In Matthew, Jesus' call answers the proposal of another interlocutor already designated a "disciple." But whoever starts the conversation, the content is the same: not only Jesus' "follow me," but also his stunning dismissal of the second person's plea to bury his father before journeying with Jesus. "Let the dead bury their own dead," Jesus bluntly retorts. He brooks no adjustments, however seemingly justified, to his urgent agenda.
If few of Jesus' statements have been more misunderstood than "I will make you fishers of people" because of cultural naïveté, few have caused more consternation than "let the dead bury their dead," because its meaning rings all too clear, regardless of cultural context. Ancient Jews, Greeks, and Romans, as well as most people today across the ethnic and religious spectrum, regard some form of decent burial and "last rites"-especially for close kin-as a fundamental human right in a civilized society. If anything qualifies as an "excused absence" from any other activity, mundane or extraordinary, it would be burying one's parents. Addressing his son Tobias, Tobit patently reflects the core values of Jesus' Jewish environment: "My son, when I die, give me a proper burial. Honor your mother and do not abandon her all the days of her life.... And when she dies, bury her beside me in the same grave" (Tob 4:3-4). At the appropriate time, Tobias faithfully fulfills his father's wishes for an "honorable funeral" (14:11-13), the ultimate commitment to Moses' stipulation to "honor your father and mother."
Whereas elsewhere Jesus staunchly supports this Decalogue commandment, even against certain legal experts who sought to mitigate its requirements (Matt 15:3-6//Mark 7:8-13), his refusal to allow a prospective follower to bury his father seems to turn the law on its head. Exceptions were made for high priests and holy Nazirites oath-bound to avoid corpse impurity, even of immediate kin, at all costs (Lev 21:10-11; Num 6:6-7).23 But while Jesus devotes himself wholly to God and generally supports purity regulations (e.g., sending the healed leper to the priests for inspection), he does so as an ordinary Galilean Jew, not as high priest or Nazirite (Nazarene does not equal Nazirite). Matthew and Luke highlight Jesus' royal lineage through David, not a priestly one through Aaron, and depict Jesus touching dead bodies at funerals and, unlike the abstemious Baptist, imbibing fermented drink at banquets in very un-Nazirite fashion.24 Jesus is not flouting laws pertaining to kosher diet or corpse impurity: he is simply acting like most Israelites who eat and drink and must tend to the dead. In fact, proper attention to burying the dead, while rendering the handlers temporarily defiled, insures the wider maintenance of order throughout the land.25
Thus the bizarre mandate to let the dead bury their dead appears to run counter not only to cultural norms, but also to Jesus' own typical attitude and behavior. Popular attempts to disentangle this interpretive knot often resort to further religious/spiritual considerations. While Jesus does not hold his followers to exceptional high-priestly or Nazirite standards, he does insist that they put God's will and way first above all other obligations, familial and funereal. The imperious Jesus speaks again: he would have resisted any plea to "first (proton) let me go" and do anything. Also, in order to make the "leave the dead" injunction somewhat more palatable, commentators commonly regard one or both "dead" references in spiritual terms: "Let the (spiritually) dead bury the (spiritually) dead."26 That does not clarify much (who are the "spiritually dead" and why is Jesus thinking of them here?), but at least the "spiritually dead" might theoretically be able to do something with other dead folks (spiritual or not), whereas the incapacitated "really dead" can hardly be expected to do anything.
But Jesus does not blanch at impossible images (think of camels passing through needles' eyes) nor does he limit himself to some artificially compartmentalized "religious" or "spiritual" sphere of life and death. So again, while not denying that Jesus calls for personal commitment and consecration to God above all other loyalties, I push further to try to ascertain possible material and political implications of Jesus' vocation. Taken in its starkest sense, "let the dead ones [pl.] bury their own dead ones [pl.]" evokes an absurd, grisly scenario of multiplying dead ones and mass new-burial. If the recently dead are relying on the previously dead to bury them, then clearly burial has ceased to take place; rather, the body count will only continue to rise.
Byron McCane has persuasively argued that the man who approaches Jesus is specifically concerned about "secondary burial," that is, re-burying or gathering his father's desiccated bones with his ancestors' in the family tomb, culminating a year-long ritual of mourning.27 Given his urgent eschatological mission, Jesus doesn't have time to allow this extended burial process to happen "first." Bodies and bones must be left as they are. If the setting underlying the would-be follower's request "is a normal first-century burial cave," as McCane avers, "then the father's body is only one of many that lie there, each of them in varying states of decomposition and burial."28 Accordingly, if Jesus' command is heeded, the decomposition will proceed apace, but the (re)burial will halt. Before long, the tombs will be filled only with disarrayed skeletons, many disjointed from one another.
Such a picture of untended, disorderly tombs is upsetting enough, both physically and socially, since gathered bones reinforce kinship ties. But conjoined with the political experience of imperial conquest and occupation and with Jesus' previous statement about "foxes and birds," the macabre scenario, I suggest, is even more disturbing. While the prospective disciple may be thinking about unburied bones (already) in a family tomb, Jesus' word-picture evokes memory of much less fortunate corpses and carcasses as well. Recall, in the wake of Babylon's conquest, Ezekiel's famous landscape of dry bones that had never even been accorded the dignity of initial burial (Ezek 37:1-14). The book of Tobit displays a similar situation in the aftermath of Assyrian aggression, though Tobit himself does everything he can to clean up the marauders' mess:
If I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it. I also buried any whom King Sennacherib put to death when he came fleeing from Judea in those days of judgment that the king of heaven executed upon him because of his blasphemies. For in his anger he put to death many Israelites; but I would secretly remove the bodies and bury them (1:17-18).
And perhaps most relevant to Jesus' shocking non-burial portrait is God's charge to Jeremiah, on the brink of Judah's invasion by Babylon:
For thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters who are born in this place, and concerning the mothers who bear them and the fathers who beget them in this land: They shall die of deadly diseases. They shall not be lamented, nor shall they be buried; they shall become like dung on the surface of the ground. They shall perish by the sword and by famine, and their dead bodies shall become food for the birds of the air and for the wild animals of the earth (16:3-4).
Jeremiah's horrible picture comes from the same chapter, noted above, that speaks of God's iniquitous people being snared by foreign fishermen (16:16-18). Once again, then, we confront a tragically apt image of the devastating predicament of Jesus' occupied land and nation. Roman and Herodian rulers established and enforced their hegemony over Palestine through capital punishment as much as economic exploitation, leaving a trail of exposed bodies in their wake. Apart from the myriad casualties of invasive military conquest, victims of crucifixion, sometimes in the thousands, regularly served as gruesome billboards of imperial occupation.29 To punctuate their glorious authority and their enemies' ignominy, the Romans typically permitted only dishonorable burial of the crucified in criminals' caves or graveyards, apart from family. More often than not and more shamefully still, they simply left the dead hanging on the cross or cast them into shallow grave pits "for the birds of the air and for the wild animals of the earth" to consume.30
In the tradition shared by Matthew and Luke, Jesus elsewhere envisions the apocalyptic scene of human corpses as carrion for scavengers: "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather" (Matt 24:28//Luke 17:37).31 Could Jesus have something similar in view in his "let the dead bury their dead" pronouncement, immediately preceded by references to "foxes [have holes] and birds of the air [have nests]"? Such zoological illustrations are usually thought to be random, innocent examples of creatures with homes (holes/nests), unlike the wandering Son of Man. Jesus could just have easily spoken about donkeys with stables, sheep with pens, pigs with sties, etc. But he does not. He selects instead two animals known for their rapacious, predatory habits, one of which he later applies in Luke 13:31-33 directly to the murderous Herod Antipas-"that fox" who wants to kill him as it already has beheaded John (Jesus is not admiring Herod's "foxy" wiles or looks).32 Jesus also speaks derisively in Matthew and Luke about those who "live in luxury . . . in royal palaces" (Luke 7:25; cf. Matt 11:8)-a description that precisely fits Antipas, with his recently minted mansions in Sepphoris and Tiberias. "That fox" has quite a den; that bird has a nest to die for-built on the backs and bones of Galilean workers.33
In leading his followers on a homeless course, with no place to lay their heads, Jesus identifies with those who are marginalized and displaced in occupied Palestine and counterpoints the vulturish imperial authorities and their cohorts who live in palatial splendor. However, in exhorting his followers to leave the dead unburied, Jesus more co-opts than counters imperial policy: exposed, disgraced corpses are the stock-in-trade of brutal conquerors, the bread and butter of voracious birds and foxes. Again, Jesus' language shocks, jars, and puzzles in a way that no explanation can fully satisfy.
But perhaps we gain some purchase on Jesus' meaning by realizing that appropriating enemy rhetoric can be a means of resistance-subversion from within, taking over (overtaking) the channels of power and communication. This is dangerous business, of course, not only because of the potential to fail, but more critically, because of the tendency to become like the enemy in the process. Ironic distance from the oppressor must be firmly maintained alongside strategies of appropriation. Jesus accentuates this separation by his vagabond, anti-Herodian existence: he dwells in no royal villa on the beach. Aligned with the unsettling image of unburied bodies, we might then imagine the homeless Jesus wandering among his dead compatriots in sympathy and lamentation, even with eschatological visions of divine restoration and resurrection on the horizon-not unlike those that came to Jeremiah and Ezekiel in their dark valleys of dry bones (Jer 16:14-15; Ezek 37:3-14).
But whatever Jesus was thinking and doing, we can be assured that his head was not in the clouds and his feet were not off the ground. Preoccupied with the realities of fishing, feeding, taxing, and dying, Jesus places himself squarely in the jaws of imperial politics. And he bites back with imperious force, marshalling followers with a simple, yet sweeping, command to leave everything for the sake of advancing the kingdom of God. As Martin Hengel observes in his classic study of Jesus' leadership, Jesus fits the mold of apocalyptic, charismatic leaders who summon supporters to follow them "very concretely and with an unconditional ultimacy."34 However, Hengel also distinguishes Jesus from such leaders in terms of political engagement. Hengel admits that Jesus' kingdom message, like that of John the Baptist, "could be misunderstood in a political way."35 But Jesus did not set himself forward as a political messiah.
While Jesus' precise personal role in the kingdom of God remains ambiguous in the Synoptic Gospels and while Jesus does not call his followers to arms in conventional resistance mode, this study has proposed that a political-economic orientation, far from misunderstanding Jesus' vocation, represents an integral component of it. Jesus' imperious call is also an imperial call. Provocatively and precariously, he uses the talk and tactics of empire to subvert the current regime and to promote a just, alternative order, the empire of God, "on earth, as it is in heaven."
[Footnote] 1 See W. J. Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman, 1976) 97. 2(1) Matt 4:18-22//Mark 1:16-20; (2) Matt 9:9-13//Mark 2:13-17//Luke 5:27-32; (3) Matt 8:18-22//Luke 9:57-60; (4) Matt 16:24-26//Mark 8:34-37//Luke 9:23-25; (5) Matt 19:16-30//Mark 10:17-31//Luke 18:18-30. 3 Cf. J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 3: Companions and Competitors, ABRL (New York: Doubleday, 2001) 72: "Jesus seized the initiative in deciding who would be his disciples. He confronted certain individuals with his imperious command to follow him, a command that brooked no opposition or delay." 4 For a consistent reading of basileia tou theou as "empire of God," see the commentary by W. Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000). 5 While recognizing differences among the respective gospel reports, I assume that the three episodes under investigation reflect basically reliable tradition about the historical Jesus (largely because of their radical, countercultural thrust). My main concern, at any rate, is to probe the literary-narrative and socio-political contexts of these "follow me" accounts. For a thorough discussion of the historicity of the call stories, see Meier, Marginal Jew, 3.40-197. 6 1 Kgs 19:19-21. On Elijah's call of Elisha as a literary model for Mark 1:16-20, see J. Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 27 (New York: Doubleday, 2000) 183-84. 7 See C. Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1988) 132. 8 R. A. Horsley and N. A. Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997) 25. 9 On various modes of fishing in the Sea of Galilee, see J. J. Rousseau and R. Arav, Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 93-97. 10 On the Galilean fishing industry in its Herodian political context, see esp. K. C. Hanson, "The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition," BTB 27 ( 1997) 99-111 ; K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998) 106-110; M. Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000) 27-30, 143-47; Horsley and Silberman, Message and the Kingdom, 24-26, 46-47; S. Freyne, "Herodian Economics in Galilee: Searching for a Suitable Model," in Modelling Early Christianity: Social-Scientific Studies of the New Testament in its Context, ed. P. F. Esler (London: Routledge, 1995) 35. 11 The attitudes of Cicero and Terence were typical: "And the most shameful occupations are those which cater to our sensual pleasures: 'fish-sellers, butchers, cooks, poultry-raisers, and fishermen', as Terence says" (On Duties 1:42, cited in Hanson, "Galilean Fishing Economy," 99). 12 On the analogy between the Mediterranean Sea and Sea of Galilee in Herod's worldview, see Sawicki, Crossing Galilee, 27-30; her reference to "the backdrop of Herod's disneyworld, the Mediterraneanized Kinneret [Sea of Galilee)" (p. 185) offers a suggestive modern image. 13 See Juvenal, Satires 4:51-55, "Every rare and beautiful thing in the wide ocean ... belongs to the Imperial Treasury," cited in W. Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001) 141-42. 14 E. Best, Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark, JSNTSup 4 (Sheffield: (SOT, 1981) 171-72. 15 Meier, Marginal Jew, 3.195 n. 124. 16 See the summary of Jesus' benevolent works of healing and deliverance in Matt 4:23-25, immediately after his calling the fishermen. Specific examples multiply as the narratives of Matthew and Mark develop. 17 On the tax system in first-century Roman Galilee, see R. A. Horsley, Galilee: History, Politics, People (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995) 59-61, 137-44, 203-221; Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark's Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001) 27-51, 112-119; Hanson and Oakman, Palestine, 113-116; Rousseau and Arav, Jesus and His World, 275-79; Freyne, "Herodian Economics." 18 See Josephus, Ant. 18.3-10; R. A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987) 77-89; R. A. Horsley and J. S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985) 190-99. 19 Hanson, "Galilean Fishing Economy,' 103. 20 See J. R. Donahue, "Tax Collector," ABD , vol 6, 337-38; D. C. Duling, "Matthew," ABD vol 4,622; Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 217-19; E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993) 227-30. 21 Many scholars regard the common sayings tradition in Matthew and Luke (designated "Q" for Quelle, "source") as an early, independent (from Mark) witness to the historical Jesus. 22 Matt 8:19 specifies a ' scribe," whereas Luke 9:57 refers more vaguely to "someone." 23 A regular priest must also avoid defiling contact with dead relatives, "except for his nearest kin: his mother, his father ...'; only the high priest "shall not defile himself even for father or mother" (Lev 21:1-3, 10-11). 24 See Matt 1:1-17; 9:23-26; 11:18-19; Luke 3:23-38; 7:11-17, 33-35; 8:49-56. For a recent suggestion that "a broadly Nazirite symbolism" may inform Jesus' "leave the dead" saying, see M. Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000) 23-48. Bockmuehl bases his case, however, primarily on the Nazirite connotations of Jesus' activity during his final hours (Last Supper vow not to drink the fruit of the vine again; refusal on the cross to drink soldiers' wine), not on his usual conduct throughout his ministry. 25 For an excellent treatment of the nexus between material and social features of burial customs in Roman Palestine, see B. R. McCane, Roll Back the Stone: Death and Burial in the World of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International. 20031 1-108. 26 Recent interpretation tilts in favor of treating the first reference metaphorically and the second literally: "Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead." see M. Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers, trans. J. Grieg (New York: Crossroad, 1981) 7-8; Sanders, Historical Figure of Jesus, 225-26; Bockmuehl, Jewish Law, 26-27. 27 McCane, Roll Back the Stone, 73-77; "'Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead': Secondary Burial and Matt 8:21-22," HTR 83 (1990) 31-13. The gathered bones might be placed either in special stone containers (ossuaries) or in designated niches (loculi) in family tombs. 28 "'Let the Dead'," 40. 29 After the death of Herod the Great (4 B.C.E.), for example, the Roman official Varus crucified some two thousand Judean rebels (see Josephus, Ant. 17.295). 30 See the discussion of the disposal of crucifixion victims in J. D. Crossan and J. L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) 245-47; M. Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) 87-88; R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah, ABRL (New York: Doubleday, 1994) 1206-1211; McCane, Roll Back the Stone, 89-108. 31 See McCane, Roll Back the Stone, 63-66. 32 On "fox" as an image of "malicious destructiveness" in Luke and the LXX, see J. A. Darr, On Character Building: The Reader and the Rhetoric of Characterization in Luke-Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992) 127-46; idem, Herod the Fox: Audience Criticism and Lukan Characterization, JSNTSup 163) Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998) 173-88; cf. H. W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas, SNTMS 17 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972) 343-47. Foxes were typically associated with scavenging jackals and wild dogs in biblical thought, with the LXX sometimes translating "jackal" with the Greek term for ' fox ' (alopex; e.g. Lam 5:18, describing the ruin of Jerusalem after the Babylonian siege: ". . . because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate; jackals prowl over it"// ". . . foxes [alopekes] walked in it" [LXX]). Cf. Ps 63 : 10; Isa 34:3, 13, 15; 1er 9:10-11, 22; Ezek 13:4; 1 En. 89:10, 42-49, 55. 33 In a twist of tragic irony, Tiberias was actually built on the site of an ancient graveyard or necropolis; see Rousseau and Arav, Jesus and His World, 316-18. 34 Hengel, Charismatic Leader, 57. 35 Ibid., 36.
[Author Affiliation] F. Scott Spencer Professor of New Testament Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond