Commentary: Mark 1:14-20
Form and Redaction
Mark composed 1:14-15 as a transitional summary to introduce the first stage of Jesus' ministry. He followed this with a double call narrative from pre-Markan tradition (1:16-20; compare 1 Kings 19:19-21 and Mark 2:14). His chief redactional contribution to this narrative was to place it (and thus the call of the disciples) at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry. The first call narrative resembles a pronouncement story in that it focuses on the "fish for people" saying and may have grown out of it. The second call represents a dramatic advance over the first. James and John leave behind, not mere nets, but their father (compare Lk 9:59). The two stories share the same shape: Settings (vv.16a, 19a), Jesus sees the disciples working (vv. 16b,19b), the command to follow (vv. 17, 20a), response (vv.18,20b). They have been artistically linked by the replacement of the words "immediately" and "after" (opiso); First call —"after"/first response—"immediately"/second call—"immediately"/ second response—"after." In the preaching and baptismal instruction of the early church, such stories would have motivated discipleship and the forsaking of a familiar past to follow Jesus into a problematic future.
These verses return Jesus to Galilee, the arena for his ministry in chapters 1-8 and where his disciples will again encounter him as the Risen One (14-28; 16:7). They also summarize the content of Jesus' preaching. The moment of crisis and opportunity (kairos) has been filled to the fullest. The kingdom of God, the sphere of God's rule, is ready to invade this world (4:26,30; 10: 23-25). On the one hand. God's kingdom is already a hidden present reality in Mark's gospel (10:14-15;12:34). On the other hand, Mark's expectation of the kingdom's future arrival remains sharp (9:1;14:25). The good news is that God reigns (Is 52:7), and this reality requires a prompt and decisive reaction. The only appropriate response is to repent (reorient oneself away from sin and back toward God) and believe in (trust in, have confidence in) God's gospel, which has Jesus Christ as its center (1: 1).
"Calling us in the midst of life's occupations, this text creates belief, conversion, and discipleship."
To "repent" and to "believe" should be seen as two perspectives on a single action. The disciples' immediate decision illustrates the urgent response which the kingdom's advent calls forth.
Mark focuses the two call stories on Jesus the authoritative caller, rather than on the disciples as examples to be imitated. We read nothing about the disciples' feelings or motivations. Jesus' abrupt challenge leads to an immediate and radical response, one which underscores his authority as Son of God (1:1, 11). Jesus is the chief actor and predominant subject of the indicative verbs: Saw, said, will make, called. The alacrity of the disciples' response and mention of what they left behind serve to emphasize the authority of Jesus' call. This fits perfectly with Mark's emphasis on Jesus' authority to teach, exorcize and forgive sins in the first section of the gospel (1:22, 27; 2:10; 3:15). In this pericope,.Jesus demonstrates authority in his elective seeing, commanding and commissioning.
In Mark's gospel, these calls point forward to the disciples' own proclamation of repentance (3:14; 6:7-13) but even more directly to the situation of Mark's first read papers. Privately, to these very same four disciples (13:3), Jesus predicts what is to be experienced by the Markan church. The church will repeat the fateful pattern of John and Jesus. John preached (1:7) and was handed over ( l:14, NRSV "arrested"). Jesus preached ( 1:14) and was handed over (9:31; 10:33; 1:21, 41). So, too, in the church's time gospel is preached (13:10; 14:9) and the proclaiming church shares Jesus' fate in being handed over to trial because of their witness (13:9-13).
In danger of being led astray by false messiahs (13:6, 21-22), Mark's church is called once more by the authoritative Jesus through this text. Mark wished to revitalize the church's mission and call it to a new life of discipleship, one which might involve cutting ties with one's family (1:20; 13:12).
Mark's church is called to await the imminent end time while active in evangelism. 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 offers a somewhat different perspective on living life under the pressure of the eschaton. The lesson from Jonah offers an example of proclamation and the repentance that can result, even with such unlikely folk as Assyrians.
The gospel text sets forth the pattern for discipleship. Jesus takes the initiative with his radical, authoritative call for disciples to break with their past (10:28), to proclaim repentance (6:12), and to follow him into his mission of suffering (8:34; 10:42-45) as those who "fish for people." Calling us in the midst of life's occupations, this text creates belief, conversion, and discipleship.
Richard D. Nelson