Did you ever wonder if Mr. Zebedee was upset with Jesus? He had worked his whole life to build up his fishing business. He must have been pretty successful at it, able to hire on some help. No doubt part of the reason for that success was the presence of two strapping sons. Those extra hands made for a profitable enterprise. We can suppose he was imagining being able to retire soon and hand over the family business to his boys. He’d sit on the porch in his rocker, made by the master craftsman, Joseph, perhaps, and watch them toiling away. That vision of the future was taken away because of that Nazarene, that Jesus character. He didn’t know anything about fishing, how labor intensive it was. Now Zebedee was going to have to make do without his sons. Like so many sons over the years they had loftier dreams than simply following in their father’s footsteps. They weren’t content with catching fish when Jesus offers them the opportunity to be fishers of men. How can an old man in a boat compete with that!
That is a long introduction to this thought: for the past ten months during the pandemic we have been praying a “Prayer for Spiritual Communion” at every Mass. Since most of us aren’t able to receive the Blessed Sacrament in person we want to bring Jesus into our hearts, hence, the prayer. In that prayer is this line addressed to Jesus: “I love you above all things.” At every Mass I have to ask myself, is that really true? Do I really love Jesus above all things? It seems to have been true of Simon and Andrew, of James and John. They loved Jesus more than their jobs, their homes, their accustomed way of life. They loved him enough to leave their father in the boat. They loved Jesus enough to follow him into the unknown. If I love Jesus above family, friends, and hey, myself and my comforts, shouldn’t it show itself somehow? What do we really mean when we say “I love Jesus above all things?”
Two of my wisdom figures might help us to unpack what we’re talking about. The first is Rabbi Abraham Heschel who wrote: “God is of no importance unless God is of supreme importance.” God, faith, spirituality can’t be a hobby, a pastime, something we work in as we have the leisure. God is more important than what we ordinary fret about. Our natural inclination is to worry about ourselves, what we are going through, what our needs are, how we are feeling, our health, our finances – you know the drill. When we are obsessed with ourselves we don’t have room for God. But we also know what it is to get over ourselves — we know it when we love. Take the love of a parent for a child. Parents are more concerned about how their children are doing than about how they are doing. The love they have for their children supersedes their own needs and desires. What matters to them shifts. Something similar happens in our relationship with God. God ceases to be some kind of cosmic Santa Claus who we are trying to wheedle something out of and instead becomes the one that we love because we are loved. God is of supreme importance because we know that God can better care of us than we can take care of ourselves. All the other things in my life only make sense in the light of God’s love.
That understanding clarifies some of the mistaken ideas we have about what it means to love Jesus above all things. It is easy to imagine that to do so requires something of us like what those first followers did: leaving our proverbial life boat behind and going off on a crusade to somewhere exotic. But the reality is that we can love Jesus above all things right where we are and just as we are. Loving Jesus above all things does not mean doing different things, it means doing things differently. Most often Jesus in asking us to follow him wants us to do so in the providence of our everyday lives. We relate to the people woven into our lives differently because we recognize in them the very presence of God. We go to work or school differently because we are doing what we have determined is what God wants us to do. We use our time differently because we understand it as a precious gift from God. It’s not that we need to get out of the boat. We’ve got to get out of the way so that God can make a way.
The second wisdom figure to help us understand this passage is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor killed by the Nazis. He wrote: “When Jesus calls someone, he calls him to die.” We die to an old way of life, a former way of thinking, a previous mentality so that we can put our hand in the hand of the man who calmed the waters. Church, once we acknowledge that this world is passing away, as St. Paul put it in the epistle; once we repent and believe the good news, as Jesus preached in his first sermon; once we leave our ordinary way of thinking behind and follow Jesus; as did Peter, Andrew, James, and John, then we love above all things. By our very lives we are fishing for other people to bring them into oneness and unity with God. When we follow Jesus we no longer have a job, we have a vocation. We no longer merely belong to a nuclear family, we belong to the divine family. We no longer have to get through times of weeping, our sorrows are turned into joy. We no longer need to receive expensive gifts, we have the giver. We no longer worry about what we can do, because we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. That is what is of supreme importance. That’s what we are striving to do in loving Jesus above all things.