Now restricting this study to the records of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, particular notice should be taken of yet another feature of their stories. Though it has been mentioned in the initial review of the record of the calls of Jesus’ first four specifically called disciples, this feature, as part of the movement of this project, demands to be given its own special attention. That feature is the mention of the father of James and John, Zebedee, and the fact that his sons leave him when Jesus makes the call.
Now, this is not an overlooked feature by any means, though a significant aspect of this departure has been overlooked to be sure. 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. This is undoubtedly true, and the earliest followers of Jesus certainly saw themselves as a fictive kinship group and a new humanity. Of course, at the same time, it is often said that Jesus prizes family values above all else. This event seems 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, Mark informs his audience 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 adds 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). It should be noted that Luke does not specifically mention James and John leaving their father (the explicit mention of which apparently does not serve a purpose in particular telling of the Jesus story), 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? Such is certainly possible. 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? Maybe. Is it purely to make the point that following Jesus may very well involve the sacrifice of livelihood and of family relationships? This would be a reasonable conclusion.
Is a reader 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? That could work as well. While all of these conclusions could certainly be drawn, and while there is no need to raise a protest to any of these ideas, there is something far more basic happening here, and it is in connection with the underlying narrative, which is that of the nation of Israel.