At Christmas the fact of the Roman Occupation of Israel is high in our consciousness, especially in relation to the 3 Magi from the Easte who encounter Herrod before they find Jesus and who avoid him afterwards. The slaughter of the innocents was the result. We then tend to forget about Roman occupation until we get to the trial on crucifixion of Jesus – we forget the massive impact that this occupation had on the lives of ordinary citizens. The Roman state claimed ownership over all land and water, with the result that those who earned their living from the land or from the Sea of Galilee had to pay stifling taxes to the Roman state. The result was widespread poverty with its knock-on problems of ill health, premature death, anger and resentment. Things got so bad that in 37 AD, a few years after Jesus’ death, the farming population went on strike and simply walked off the land at sowing time, thereby sabotaging that year’s crops. People were angry enough to be prepared to die for their rights. The strike focussed people’s attention on their oppression and the strike quickly spread. The streets of Jerusalem and other towns and cities were full of protestors.
In the case of fishermen, taxes had to be paid for the right to fish. A poor catch made no difference to the Roman authorities – you still paid your dues. With the costs of maintenance of the boats and nets, the fishing industry teetered on the brink. And forget the serenity we have in our minds as we imagine the gentle fishermen in their boats on the Sea of Galilee – it was backbreaking work and there was no chance of taking a holiday.
So, when Jesus invites Simon and Andrew to follow him, he is not only calling them to take a personal financial risk, he is calling them away from the business of feeding empire by the taxes they had to pay. Jesus is also calling them towards the work of healing, feeding, teaching, and loving the ordinary people who were suffering so much under Roman oppression. This calling is to conscientious resistance to oppressive and unjust power, and a turning to support those who were the victims of this power – the poor, the sick, the marginalised. This turning around, readjustment of life and priorities forms the backdrop to, the foundation of, Jesus’ ministry and teaching. But it is as if we don’t normally see it or take notice of it – it has become invisible.
Jesus proposes a different set up – a different KIngdom, whose values were exactly the opposite of those of the Roman Empire. Jesus showed us his priorities – and for us those are also God’s priorities – in the way he lived his life and spent his time and energy. So he fed the poor, healed the sick, used the poorest of the poor as role models, and taught us that whenever we do these things we do them for God. And here, in this passage, is the beginning of this way of life for four Galilean fishermen. Jesus gives two commands to these four men. First, he says ‘repent’ and then he simply says ‘follow me’.
We’ve made repentance a very religious thing – it’s something we do in church on Sunday and then probably forget about for a week. But, in many ways, repentance isn’t a religious thing at all. Repentance is a turning around of our entire selves – a 180 degree change of direction. To repent is to be changed. This was expressed by the early Christians in the baptism service by turning from the West (the setting sun) to the East (the rising sun) as a physical acting out of the meaning of the word ‘repent’. These days we repent with our bums firmly on seats and our eyes shut. In many ways the Disciples showed us that repentance should be done on your feet and with your eyes open. For them it was the difference between tacit support of an unjust regime by fitting into the system and keeping their heads down, and opting out of the system to be alongside those who were its victims. It was about risk, breaking the mould. It was political – not a party political debate, but decisive action.
In this passage, ‘follow me’ and ‘repent’ seem to mean the same thing. Both following and repenting lead the Disciples to a radical change in their everyday lives and priorities, away from safety and familiarity to a life lived completely differently.
The current pandemic has laid many things bare – we’ve seen some things more clearly than is possible when everything is running ‘normally.’ We’ve seen covid decimating poor communities; we’ve seen what we thought was stable collapse – normally fairly secure households have turned to food banks and well established businesses have closed forever; now we see that children from poorer households are falling behind with their schooling through lack of computers and internet access; hunger is an issue again; the NHS was already struggling, resources cut to the bone – now it’s on its knees and staff are traumatised and exhausted; we’ve seen how vulnerable elderly people in care homes are treated with indifference – that other elderly people with covid have been discharged from hospital into care homes as if the consequences didn’t really matter, and the staff with no protective equipment. We’ve seen more clearly that if there’s any stress in society it’s’ always the poorest and most vulnerable who pay the price. And we’ve seen that our exploitation of the environment will have consequences for us all. And just in case we were going to forget we got storm Christoph.
Although this has been traumatic, in some ways this exposure of the cracks in our social fabric has enabled change, or at least made it clear where the changes need to be.
In many ways we are not oppressed people – we are allowed to express opinions, we can vote, and we enjoy substantial personal freedoms. But, I think we are subject to a kind of oppression in that our ecological and equality problems seem insurmountable – we feel powerless to effect change. So, I’ve been faffing around trying to buy tea bags with no plastic in them and avoid anything containing palm oil. A friend of mine was told that, if she bought tea bags with plastic in, after use she should rip them open, put the contents in her compost heap and discard the bag. With the best will in the world, the latter isn’t really going to change anything of any importance. The former is my small part in changing demand which, in theory, will eventually change the market – but it’s going to take a long time. I suspect that it’s the practical equivalent of repenting on a Sunday with bum on seat and our eyes closed – a personal repentance, but not a huge change in direction.
Into this political and practical stalemate steps a young woman from Sweden who is trying to change the system that we all shy away from because it’s too difficult. Greta Thumberg is showing us what repentance is all about. She and her companions are demanding change with enormous dedication and energy – they really have thrown their whole selves into it. It’s worth watching the recent BBC documentary about her if you have access to iplayer. If you watch carefully you can see how she’s being used by powerful people to make it look as if they’re on board, while they’re really doing nothing, or simply tinkering around the edges – she’s on to this and is becoming angrier by the day. After an impassioned speech to the European Parliament, business continued with a discussion about standardising the amount of water used in toilet flushing. You could see the row of young people removing their translation headphones one by one id despair.
What Greta Thunberg is doing has been costly to her: the appalling torment of crossing the Atlantic in a small boat instead of flying; giving up on some of her education, and looking at the future and knowing it won’t be conventional or easy. This is exactly how our following the call of Jesus needs to be. We will be found wanting if all we’ve done is to go home after church on Sunday but do nothing different for the rest of the week. We might not have the courage and determination to emulate Greta Thunberg and friends but we can all do something. If nothing else we can learn to see things differently, to ask questions and be prepared to make changes. To consider that what you do is replicated by millions of others. You might make your garden tidy by spraying with weed killer and insecticide – but what does it mean if everyone is doing that? Can you leave some weeds in your garden and be proud of it? You might fill your bin with non recyclable plastic every week, but what does a town’s worth of non recyclable plastic look like? What can you do to change these things both personally and more widely?
In a way, churches can find themselves propping up the unjust system. For example, if people are hungry, what can we do but to set up food banks and make donations – it is our duty to feed the hungry. But this action allows the continuation of a political system which leaves people hungry – it maintains the status quo. We are bound to continue feeding the hungry but we also need to join Marcus Rashford and campaign to end hunger in a more sustained way – we need to demand change.
So, what are you going to do this week as a follower od Jesus, as someone who repents every week? Can you commit to doing one thing that will turn against the injustice, inequality and exploitation that we see all around us, even if it’s not convenient? I invite you to do one thing – and another thing next week. I’m going to write to my supermarket of choice and ask them what they are doing about single use plastics and palm oil…