Theologian and Scripture scholar Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza made an interesting point in a recent lecture. "Women must always think twice when they hear the words 'men' or 'man,'" she mentioned. "Is the term referring specifically to males, or is it just a way of talking about human beings?"

Catholics face a similar "double-thought" when they hear Jesus call people to ministry. Is He calling them to be Christians, or is He inviting them to be priests or nuns? My seminary spiritual directors and retreat masters frequently used Sunday's Gospel (Matt 4: 12-23) to define and understand calls to the priesthood. Similar passages are still used during ordination and religious profession liturgies.

Are these calls meant for all Christians, or are they an invitation to live a priestly or religious life?

Meant for all

The evangelists' original readers never asked. When the Gospels were written, Chris-tians were not yet separated into clergy and laity. This non-Christian division only came later. Jesus' Gospel calls are meant for everyone. Christians used these passages to reflect on the implications of that event, zeroing in on the generosity of their response to it. These narratives were never earmarked for particular individuals in the community.

An interesting aspect of the Gospel is Matthew's remark, "When Jesus heard that John has been arrested, He withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea." Many scholars believe John's arrest forced Jesus to recognize His own call by God. Once content to be John's disciple, this Galilean carpenter now begins to look at His life from a more dangerous perspective.

The four fishermen in the next part of the passage are also called to leave their security and begin exploring a different lifestyle. They only know that, after coming into contact with Jesus, people are more important than fish.

From the second reading (I Cor 1: 10-13, 17), we learn that unity is the focal point of every call. Paul writes, "I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose." Paul's reasoning is ironclad: "Is Christ divided?"

The authors of the Christian Scriptures presume every person in the community is called to create, sustain and build unity among all who follow the risen Jesus. Such a process is everyone's responsibility.

It's often difficult to hear a call in the midst of our everyday lives. We're tempted to ask the Robert DeNiro question, "Are you talking to me?"

God's presence

Seven hundred years before Jesus' birth, Isaiah attempts to deal with the same question (Is 8: 23-9: 3). Yet his people aren't worried as much about calls as signs that Yahweh is helping them win their war with the Assyrians.

Reflecting on a recent withdrawal of enemy forces from Galilee, the prophet encourages them to see this as the sign of a "great light" shining on those who have "dwelt in the land of gloom." It's cause for "abundant joy and great rejoicing."

What some interpret as just a miliary maneuver, people of faith regard as a sign of Yahweh's presence.

We can be just as incredulous of God's presence in our everyday lives. Matthew deliberately depicts Jesus calling His first four disciples precisely where they are, "casting a net into the sea," or "in a boat...mending their nets." Trained to hear such calls as invitations to a select few, ordinary Christians frequently overlook the calls which take place where they are.

Then again, perhaps they prefer not to notice the call. After all, if we don't hear it, we're not responsible for the demands which accompany it.

(1/20/05)