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February 4, 2007 (The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany)—“Wise or Foolish Trading”
Interim Pastor Steven Jensen
Isaiah 6:1–13; 1 Corinthians 15:1–11; Luke 5:1–11
I suspect you, too, have met a number of people in recent years who have done very well for themselves trading stocks and securities. It seemed one pastor friend always had his nose in his computer, waiting for just the right second to sell one fund and buy the next. A former boss retired early and is able to spend time traveling with his wife around the country, just allotting a portion of each morning to adjust his holdings and increase his wealth. I have to admit despite being labeled in my younger days as a math whiz, I get cross-eyed when it comes to dealing with my own financial matters anymore—and accountants appreciate that there are people like me.
Some of us are in wonderment as well at the number of people who seem to be able to snatch up the multi-million dollar properties in our islands—often as one of several vacation homes. And what makes it worse is that some of these “dot-com” multimillionaires are in their twenties!
Then there are the Donald Trumps who at least appear to turn everything they touch into gold.
These seem to be just the latest in a line of people who have been able to seize on an opportunity and know how to work it to their advantage.
Some of you are old enough to at least remember the stories of the oil, steel, and railroad barons. James J. Hill was one of those who over a century ago bought up the stock of the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad when everyone said it was worthless. He built a railroad empire that later was known as the Great Northern.
History majors will remember William Henry Seward, Secretary of State in Andrew Johnson’s administration, who purchased a vast chunk of frozen wasteland from the Russians in 1867, for the tremendous sum of $7 million. It was called “Seward’s Folly”—a waste of taxpayer money at a time when the country was trying to pay off the expenses of the Civil War. Now, of course, it is the richest state in terms of natural resources.
Like these last two who apparently traded everything for nothing and came away winners, two millennia ago four Galilean fishermen walked away from everything they had worked their entire lives for and followed an itinerant preacher. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were men we still sometimes wonder about. Remember what we just read? “And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
That day, age, and culture are so far removed from us, we give little thought to the occupations of those in our Bible stories and often misunderstand and under-appreciate them.
Just weeks ago we were singing a favorite Christmas carol: “The first Noel that angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” We just assume these shepherds were poor. If they owned their herds, they may have been pretty substantial citizens in the region’s economy. The point is that, knowing little about shepherds, we take their poverty for granted.
We have a similar impression of the fishermen of Jesus’ day. How many times have we heard them referred to as “poor Galilean fishermen?” The Sea of Galilee was some fourteen miles long and eight miles wide. It is believed that most of those who fished its waters cast lines from the shore or hired out as crew on privately owned vessels. But according to our Gospel reading, Simon Peter, presumably with his brother Andrew, owned his own boat. And the other fishing boat in the story belonged to James and John, or to their father Zebedee. These fishermen also had nets, mighty valuable equipment in a land that produced little hemp or fiber. They must have owned or leased docking facilities, and it is evident from the story that they had the necessary hardware for stretching, drying, and repairing their nets. They may also have owned a donkey cart or two with the necessary animals for transporting their catch to market in the major city, Capernaum. Then, too, there was some kind of partnership involving Peter, Andrew, James, and John.
If all of that is true, it is safe to conclude that these four entrepreneurs in the Galilean fishing community had a successful enterprise that rewarded their hard work. Yet they traded it all away, and for what?
Having heard and read this story year after year, I don’t know that we have given the details of this event and their new relationship with Jesus much critical thought. We extend the mystical and miraculous elements of scripture beyond all reason, arriving at the conclusion that Jesus just happened to come by the waterfront, borrowed the deck of Simon’s boat to be his floating pulpit, and then expressed his appreciation by providing these fishermen the greatest catch they had ever seen. It naturally follows that these fisherman were so impressed that they became his disciples.
Actually, it is more reasonable to suppose that these four had known Jesus for some time, likely years. They were natives of Galilee, and he had grown up in that region. Probably they had listened to his preaching, knew something of his amazing works, had struggled in their own minds to understand and evaluate his words and works and aims and cause. If this were the case, the effect on these men of a miracle right on their own fishing ground, and an invitation to discipleship right there, would be all the more compelling.
“From now on you will be catching people” was likely spoken with a confident smile. Jesus had probably noted for some time the courage, vigor, and integrity of these four. He wanted them among his disciples, and today he feels they are ready for the challenge.
For their part, with eyes wide open, they are ready for the challenge, trading away the fruits of years of hard labor on an unforgiving sea. But they are trading it all for a cause.
We should not overlook, either, the greater and deeper dimension of their choice. They are sacrificing everything material for something personal—a relationship with one who has inspired their admiration, their friendship, their awesome devotion.
Do we not often find remarkable and inspiring those rare persons who put aspirations and ideals above material considerations? This is what humanity is about. It is heartening to hear young people embrace ideals which we in our time may have been constrained to compromise, but which tug at our hearts our entire lives. God made his creatures capable of spiritual understanding, vulnerable to the exciting sense of mission, able to grasp and fulfill opportunities in his service. In today’s reading from Isaiah, he responds to the divine challenge with words that inspire us: “Here am I, send me.” In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he decries the impracticability of speaking in tongues. “In church,” he says, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
This is what Christianity is about: men and women realizing that the most challenging use of their time and their skills is in the cause of Jesus Christ. The priceless opportunity to realize their destiny in the spiritual kingdom—this the fishermen got in return for abandoning their assets on the beach.
There were times, I suppose, especially after the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, that many of the disciples may have wondered if they had made a wrong choice. But clearly after the resurrection and Jesus reappearing among them, they never had another doubt—not even as they met their own deaths. No disciple ever returned to his former pursuit. There is something our souls confirm is right when we give ourselves over totally and completely to God and trust that he will lead us in the right direction and make great things come of our humble efforts.
My eldest god-daughter’s father gave up a rewarding and lucrative career as a chemical engineer to pursue his heart’s calling in seminary. Times have sometimes been fiscally difficult as a pastor, but he has never returned to his former vocation.
I regularly meet people who have likewise walked away from high-paying and ego-stroking positions to live hand-to-mouth ministering to others in war- or famine-plagued countries of Africa and Asia—and they could not be more satisfied with their lives.
You, I am sure, know others who have concluded careers and now dedicate their lives assisting in a classroom, taking people to medical appointments, delivering meals on wheels, visiting people in assisted living facilities, and more. Others who are just starting out are selecting careers more for the contribution they can make to enhance the lives of others than the paycheck they will receive.
As one who has done some vocational counseling, I have often encouraged people to think about how they feel in the morning as they contemplate beginning another day. Do they dread having to go to their place of employment and force themselves to grit their teeth and simply make it through the day, or are they excited about what the day will offer as they use their God-given talents for another?
As a pastor, I ask you disciples: Can people see that you want God more than you want things by means of what you do?
For those of us who were taught to get our money’s worth, the transaction of the fishermen gives us pause. If these men were leaving the fishing trade forever, if they would no longer be concerned with boats and nets and tackle and bait, why the miracle of the great size of their catch? Perhaps only a catch such as they had that day could prove how little satisfaction there is in sheer economic success.
When a person trades away the material for the spiritual, their acquisition not only increases its worth to them; but of greater significance by far, it increases their worth to their Lord. In the Christian scale of values, prosperity’s greatest usefulness is to demonstrate that it cannot satisfy the longings of our souls. What tools and abilities has God given you, what desire has God put in your soul, that you might use to be a fisher of people and a disciple of Christ? Jesus has invited you, Christian, to be a disciple. Are you ready to meet the challenge?
Copyright © 2007 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org