The Life and Times of the Disciples – Life at Work

By Mary Jane Chaignot

In order to better understand the world in which the disciples lived, we must consider the larger world of the first century. The vast majority of people in Palestine were dirt poor. A numbered few were very rich. Fishermen were far from rich, but they weren’t poor either.

Answering the Call – Simon, Andrew, James and John
Almost immediately after his time in the wilderness, Jesus comes into Galilee and walks by the Sea of Galilee. Upon seeing Simon and his brother, Andrew, fishing, he calls them, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” With that simple call, they dropped their nets and follow him.

Going a little further, Jesus sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee, mending their nets. He calls them as well, and they immediately leave their father and his servants. (See Mark 1:16-20)

Authority of Jesus’ Call
This is the first glimpse of the authority that Jesus exuded. These four men responded immediately. Mark gives us no clue whether this was someone they just met or if they already had a previous relationship. Mark wants us to think that this was simply a first impression meeting with incredible results. The response of these disciples was decisive.

We tend to take their response for granted. Following as it does on the heels of Jesus saying people should turn their lives around (the meaning of “repent”), it is an example of people who do just that. Jesus walks up, promises to make them fishers of men, and they abandon everything -- their nets, their livelihood, their life.

James and John were further required to sever their relationship with their father at a time when that simply was not the norm. They weren’t downsized or told to leave; they leave of their own accord. We can only marvel at their response.

Fishers of Men?
But before we get totally carried away with the romanticism of their decision, let us think for a moment about what they were signing on to do. Jesus said he would make them “fishers of men.” The Greek actually reads, “I will make you become fishers of men.” This isn’t something that will happen overnight – they will become fishers. It’s going to take some time.

In addition, the idea of “fishers of men” raises a few eyebrows. Do men want to be caught? Is “fishers of men” meant to be a good thing?

Some scholars think that the image comes from apocalyptic Judaism, which believed that at the end of time all fish/men would be caught in a net and the good would be separated from the bad.  In that sense, this would be an ominous image.

This metaphor may suggest that the disciples will have a role to play in the process of gathering (rescuing/saving) men into the nets. These are just a few points to think about in the story. 

After Accepting the Call – Keeping Your Job
Even though all four of the disciples mentioned above follow Jesus without comment, they do return to their boats at various times in the gospels. We get the impression from the Gospels that they returned home regularly and continued their work.

Just how lucrative that work really was is a matter of debate. Fishermen might have been doing slightly better than most, but fishing was still a daily event. Those boats needed to bring back a catch of fish every day. We also know that the Zebedees (James’ and John’s family) had servants.

Having servants might suggest that they were pretty well off, but the term could mean rented slaves or even free hired workers. Day laborers were typically paid about 1denarius – the amount it would take to feed a family for a day. If a man didn’t get work each day, his family might not have anything to eat. Needless to say, life was quite precarious.

Answering the Call – Matthew
Another tremendous "call story" which again illustrates Jesus' authority, power, and presenceis the calling of Matthew. Yet, there are some differences from the call of the first disciples. To begin with, the disciple’s name.

Mathew, Mark, and Luke all refer to a disciple who is a tax collector. Mark and Luke refer to this disciple as Levi. But Levi is only mentioned here – he does not show up in any other stories or in any other lists of the disciples. However, in Matthew's gospel this incident occurrs with someone named Matthew. For this reason, the early church has always assumed Levi and Matthew are one and the same. Perhaps they are, but we’ll refer to him as Levi.

Matthew’s Day Job
The real interest, however, lies not in what his name really is, but in what he does for a living. He wis a tax collector, which means he is employed by Herod. As far as his fellow Jews are concerned, he is just as much a turncoat, if not more, as the Gentile tax collectors who worked for the Romans. In both instances, the opportunities for graft and greed are obvious, and those who choose this occupation usually rise to the occasion and take full advantage of their countrymen.

Tax collectors are hated, and for good reason. There is no uniform tax codes in Jesus’ day. Regions are assigned certain sums. The people who collect the taxes make their profits out of whatever extra taxes they can squeeze from their fellow citizens. So any given individual has no idea what his “fair share” will actually be. He has to pay what is asked.

Now, in this particular situation, Levi is sitting at a booth collecting taxes. This probably means that he is like a customs official sitting alongside a trade route collecting duty taxes from those passing by. We can all imagine just how lucrative that must have been.

But gross dishonesty isn't the only reason that tax collectors are hated. Let's pretend for the sake of argument that Levi is that one in a million tax collector with integrity, who performs his duties with a sense of fairness and honor. He is still despicable in Jewish eyes because his work brings him into daily contact with Gentiles, this preventes him from adhering to strict purity laws.

In Jewish society, he is an outcast. Yet, this is the very person to whom Jesus commands to "Follow me." Once again, Jesus stepps outside the boundaries of common sense and of religious institutions. It would be very hard for religious authorities to understand Jesus calling a tax collector, because in other ways Jesus’ actions are very traditional.

Matthew’s Response
However, there is nothing confusing about Levi's response. Without a word, he leaves his post and follows Jesus. Unlike Peter, James, and John, who leave their nets to become fishers of men, yet return to them from time to time, Levi walks away from his job, never to return. He leaves everything behind and puts everything on the line.

Despised by his countrymen, Levi can never expect any help or support from them. Nor can he ever again be trusted to work for Herod or Rome. For Levi, the decision is final; the commitment is complete. The radical nature of his response matches the radical and scandalous nature of Jesus' invitation. Things don't end here, however, because in the very next scene Jesus eats with the Levi’s fellow tax collectors.

Dinner with Tax Collectors
It's one thing to invite someone to follow along, to walk along as part of your group. But it's something else to share a meal with them. Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. We already know about the tax collectors, but who were the "sinners"?

Religious authorities don't usually refer to a group of people as "sinners" unless they were rather notorious, obvious, and well-known. These are people who deliberately violated religious law, who were definitely unclean. And everyone knows it.

Likewise, it is not clear whose house this really is – the text says simply "his house." Most scholars assume this is Levi's house. He surely could own a nice home with plenty of room to entertain Jesus, the other disciples, and his friends. Some scholars see this meal as a farewell celebration of sorts, a festive occasion which Levi employed to say good-bye to his old friends and his old way of life, and to welcome his new friends and life.

Commit to Jesus, and Jesus Commits to You
Additionally, there is also the issue of reciprocity. When Jesus invited Levi to "Follow me," he initiates a social relationship with him. By accepting that invitation, Levi places upon himself a social obligation to reciprocate in some way. Inviting Jesus into his home fulfills this obligation. By accepting, Jesus cemented that relationship and indicates that he intends to have an ongoing relationship with him and his friends.

Answering the Call - the “Other” Disciple
Another interesting insight into the background of another disciple can be found in John 18:15, 16. John writes, “Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest's courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in.” (Emphasis added.)

Speculation abounds as to the identity of this “other” disciple.  In these two verses, we learn that the “other” disciple is known to the high priest and has enough authority to bring Peter into the high priest’s palace. Because Peter and John are paired together at various other times in John’s gospel, some scholars think that the “other” disciple is the “beloved disciple,” referred to in John as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” This is hard to substantiate, though, because the text merely says “another disciple.” 

However, the verse is even more intriguing when scholars point out that “known to the high priest” uses a Greek word that suggests more than a mere acquaintance.  This is not like knowing your barber or dentist.  This knowing carries with it a sense of intimacy, like a very close friend.

If the “disciple whom Jesus’ loved” is the Galilean fisherman known as John, a careful reader might ask why a Galilean fisherman has access to the high priest under any circumstances.  But those who maintain that this is John suggest that his family provided fish to the high priest. We know they had servants, so maybe they had a bigger operation than previously thought.  All that’s possible, of course, but there is nothing in the text to support it. Still, it’s an option that makes sense to many scholars.

On the other hand, maybe the problem lies in the word “disciple.” We immediately jump to one of the twelve, but it is possible that others were around. John has already talked about Nicodemus in this gospel. Joseph of Arimathea will soon be mentioned. 

Whoever this “other” disciple is, he can walk into the high priest’s courtyard without hesitation and vouch for Peter to the extent that the “gate-keeper” let him in as well – he clearly has some clout. However, the point is that this disciple was able to give Peter access to the high priest’s courtyard where Peter would fulfill Jesus’ prophecy by denying three times that he even knew Jesus.

Other Disciples?
Beyond the few disciples we’ve discussed, we know nothing more about the background of any other disciples.

Life and Times