The calling of Jesus’ initial group of disciples has an interesting feature that would have had significant historical resonance for the community of believers that had been and were being rooted in the story of Israel that gave meaning to the story of Jesus. That feature is the mention of the father of James and John, Zebedee, and the fact that he is left when Jesus makes the call. Now, this is not an overlooked feature by any means. Long has it been the case that expositors and preachers have drawn attention to this feature of the Gospel narratives, pointing out that when Jesus calls, He expects a wholehearted devotion that transcends family ties. Of course, at the same time, it is often said that Jesus prizes family values above all else, and this event does seem to fly in the face of the commandment to honor father and mother, but that is a subject for another day.
Reviewing the record then, we hear Mark telling us that “Going on a little farther, He saw James, the son of Zebedee, and John his brother in their boat mending nets. Immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed Him” (1:19-20). Matthew lets us know that “Going on from there he saw two brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in a boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets. Then He called them. They immediately left the boat and their father and followed Him” (4:21-22). Luke’s record is a little less explicit, in that there it is reported that Peter had been astonished at the haul of fish, “and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s business partners” (5:10a). Following that, Jesus directs words to Peter (5:10), which then flows into a report of their bringing their boats to shore, leaving everything (which would include James and John leaving their father), and following Jesus (5:11). We see that Luke does not specifically mention James and John leaving their father, but as is obvious, it is implied in the narrative.
Why mention Zebedee at all? Why this identification of James and John in this way? Is it for purposes of delineation, so that there would be no confusion due to the presence of multiple men named James in the record of the earliest church? Why mention the fact that they left their father? Did Zebedee have some type of standing in the early church and used that as a way to influence these authors to include a mention of him in their stories of Jesus? Is it purely to make the point that following Jesus may very well involve the sacrifice of livelihood and of family relationships? Are we to take from the fact that James and John are identified in this way, and that they are said to have left their father, while Andrew and Simon and others are not reported to have had to leave their father behind as an indication that the call comes differently to different people---some will be called to leave their family while others will not be asked to do such things? While all of these conclusions could certainly be drawn, and while we do not raise a protest to any of these ideas, there is something far more basic happening here.
That “basic” happening would have been readily identifiable to the original hearers of these Gospels, as the majority of the audience would have been well-versed in the history of Israel and the story of God’s people, ready (and rightly so) to hear, process, and interpret this story of Jesus according to the worldview that was constructed and given shape by that history. Much like those that confess Jesus as Lord and believe in His Resurrection are conditioned to a pre-disposition to accept accounts of the supernatural and miraculous, so too would the audience of the Gospel accounts, following His Resurrection that was understood to have shown Jesus forth as Israel’s Messiah and therefore God-in-flesh acting on behalf of Israel and the world, be conditioned to place the story of Jesus and His ministry within the context of God’s redemptive plan for His people and His world. That plan, of course, was intimately connected to Israel and is shown forth in the story that they told and the history that they shared, by which their identity and their interaction with the world was shaped.
So when we hear the Gospel authors telling us about Jesus calling His disciples, and we hear it with a post-Resurrection understanding as the human voice of Israel’s Creator God (realizing that all of these accounts, though seeking to relate pre-Resurrection history, are presenting a post-Resurrection narrative with a theological bias), and we hear this seemingly minor detail about the father of two of these disciples and the fact that they were called to leave him, our thoughts take flight to Genesis and to Abraham, where we can find “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household to the land that I will show you” (12:1).