Follow the Leader

About 20-25 years ago I discontinued the use of the word “Christian” as a descriptor, choosing the term “Christ-follower” instead. In western and particularly American dialogue, the noun Christian has been relegated to use primarily as an adjective (i.e., Christian music, Christian books, Christian t-shirts, Christian schools). The noun Christian lost its meaning. A Christian is a person who follows (verb) Jesus. Nouns and verbs go together, thus Christ-follower.

But, what does it mean to be a Christ-follower, especially in the 21st century? How does it play out in our day-to-day living? Key to the answers to these questions is an understanding of what “following” implies…

When the first-century disciples heard Jesus say, “Follow me,” they understood exactly what he was asking of them.  When we look back in history, we look through the lens of what we know to be true today – Jesus was God’s Son, God in the flesh, the messiah, the savior, the resurrected one.  Not to those first ones he called.  To them, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi.

Jesus entered a religiously driven culture and education system.  In first-century Palestine, the boys (sorry girls) started school at about six years old.  For the next 3-4 years they memorized the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  Memorized.  The whole Tora!  By the time they were ten!  (Have you ever wondered why Jesus spoke to the people as though they had a good knowledge of the scriptures?  It’s because they did!).

By age ten, those with natural abilities to memorize and understand the scriptures began to distance themselves from others.  They were invited to continue on with their education.  The others?  They were invited to go back home and learn the trade of their fathers’.  Yes, they were cut.  Sounds a bit like sports in America.

Those that continued with their formal education spent the next four years memorizing the rest of the Hebrew scriptures – the Old Testament, as we know it.  Thirty-nine books.  Have you ever looked at how thick the Old Testament is?  Memorized!  During this time, the students also began learning the questions that surrounded the scriptures.  Questions, not answers.  We wouldn’t do so well with that in our culture, would we?  It also might explain why Jesus was more of a question-asker than an answer-giver.

As you can imagine, by age 14-15, only the best of the best students remained.  The rest were home learning their fathers’ trades.  Those remaining would then apply to a well-known rabbi to become one of that rabbi’s disciples. The goal of the student wasn’t just to learn from the rabbi but to actually become like him.  The student in effect, said, “I want to follow you – follow so close that I am actually covered by the dust you kick up as we walk together” (cf. Dust)

The rabbi would interview the student applicants to weed out the best of the best and end up with the “best of the best of the best.”  The rabbi wanted someone that not only could learn academically but that was actually willing to become like him.  Those weeded out would go home to learn the trade of their fathers.  To the ones he chose, he would say, “Follow me” and the disciple knew exactly what was being asked of him.  When the rabbi said, “follow me” he is implying to the disciple that he believed the disciple had what it took to learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission

As is evident in the Gospel accounts, Jesus was viewed as a rabbi.  The rabbi Jesus lived around the lake Galilee region, probably in Capernaum.  He had likely lived in this fishing village for a few years.  It was a small town so it would be safe to say he knew and was known by a majority of its residents.  I suspect the locals were fully aware that their resident rabbi wasn’t like any other rabbi they knew, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on why he was different.

Peter and Andrew fished that lake for a living.  They probably learned from their father, which meant they didn’t make one of the cuts in the education system.  James and John also fished the lake with their father.  Maybe they were 15-16 years old. And they all paid taxes to Levi who probably set up his tax booth near the shores of the lake so he could witness their haul; so he could charge enough taxes to satisfy Rome, King Herod, and insure his personal wealth.

To all five of these guys Jesus said, “Come, follow me.”  They knew exactly what he was saying to them.  Exactly!  There were invited to be with him, learn from him, become like him, and join him in his mission – become fishers of people. Can you imagine the sting of being cut, of being told that you didn’t have what it took, that you weren’t good enough for God?  And then to hear this unique, renegade rabbi that seemed to speak differently about God say, “Follow me” – how cool is that? 

Why wouldn’t they follow Him?  Why wouldn’t any of us follow Him? And why would we settle for an adjective instead of a verb?

He Picked Levi, Too!

Ten years ago we started Young Life in Elk River, MN, the town where I grew up. After a 20+ year absence from the community, we returned and I became the director of youth ministries at a local church. Five years into my tenure at the church, at the urging of the senior pastor, I left the youth ministry work in the hands of others and helped start the community outreach ministry.

A local Young Life presence exists only if the community deems it important enough to provide leadership and financial support. One way of communicating the importance of the ministry and to garner financial support is an annual fund-raising banquet. At our first banquet, we invited the Mayor of Elk River to close the evening with prayer. Prior to praying, she made a couple comments, including the belief that my late-father and former mayor would have been immensely proud of his son. I assumed she was right. Over the years, unfortunately, I’ve known of a number of dads who could not say they were proud of their sons. Take Alphaeus, for example.

Alphaeus’ son, Levi, had gone over to the dark side – he became a tax collector for the Roman empire. Conquerors relied heavily on the taxes collected from their subjects. Given the aggressive building of infrastructure including entire cities, the Romans especially needed to collect significant monies. Their approach was to outsource tax collection – the recruitment of locals as tax collectors. With community eyes, these local tax collectors were well aware who they could bleed for funds. They worked on commission – the more they could collect, the more for themselves. It has also been suggested that a tax collector had a quota to reach. Anything above and beyond was theirs to keep. In essence, a tax collector was a traitor in the eyes of his community.

In Palestine, the tax collector was more than simply a traitor. He was in league with the pagan government. They were doubly despised for their choice of occupation – traitors to the people and traitors to their God. The Mishnah, the written collection of Jewish oral tradition, tells us that Jews who collected taxes were disqualified in every manner – expelled from the synagogue, shunned publicly, and a family disgrace. Thus, tax collectors and sinners were considered one and the same (cf. Matthew 11:19, Luke 5:30, 15:1).

We don’t know anything about Alphaeus’ response to his son’s career choice. But we do have record of Jesus’ interaction with Levi, also known as Matthew (cf. Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17, Luke 5:27-32). Jesus was walking along the beach, much like he had when he called the fishermen – Peter, Andrew, James, and John – to become his followers. The Gospel of Mark indicates he was accompanied by a crowd that he was teaching. We can surmise that his newly called fishermen followers were among the crowd. We can also surmise that a source of revenue for Levi was the Galilee fishing industry.

Imagine the scene. Jesus is sitting on the beach teaching. Somewhere in the background, maybe down the beach a hundred feet or so, sits Levi at his tax booth. Imagine the fishermen in the crowd seething with anger just at the sight of this shunned traitor. Imagine, if you are Levi. What’s running through your mind as you watch the interaction of Jesus with the crowd? You long for such interaction.

Then Jesus breaks the rules again. He gets up, walks over to Levi and invites him to become a follower. Levi left everything, rose and followed Jesus (Luke 5:28). Everything. The fishermen left their fathers, but they could always go back to fishing as a fall-back option. Levi left everything. There was no going back. And he did not have family as a fall-back.

We should also imagine the crowd’s reaction to Jesus’ invitation of Levi. Imagine the deep and rightfully held indignation of the people when Jesus not only entered into a conversation with this shunned character, but invited him to join the crowd that was following him. Specifically, imagine the indignation of the fishermen. Jesus gave James and John the nicknames “sons of thunder.” Peter was passionate and zealous about injustice. I can imagine Jesus needing to physical hold these guys back when Levi rose to follow. Then Jesus broke the rules yet again – he accepted an invitation to a party Levi threw for him, inviting his “tax collector and sinner” associates.

Fast forward three years as Jesus said to his followers, “In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” (John 20:21). I suspect this experience was in the back of their minds as they listened to Jesus’ directive. Jesus expected them to set aside their righteous indignation in favor of the outsider. I assume he expects the same of us.