AT 09: Through the Eye of a Needle: Faith and Discipleship

The “discipling” of new believers, leading them into a deeper personal relationship with Christ, has long been a practice within the Christian church. But the perception that discipleship is something that touches relationships, reconciliation, ethics and justice has not been so obvious. Christians often have tended to view discipleship more as an individual, spiritual affair – a matter of personal piety rather than corporate lifestyle or social commitment.

Discipleship central to the gospel narratives

Some form of the word “disciple” occurs hundreds of times in the gospel narratives. Alongside their intention to introduce Jesus and to clarify his significance, all the gospel writers were deeply concerned to communicate the meaning and implications of discipleship.

Jesus called all people to repentance and faith in light of the dawning of God’s kingdom (Mark 1:14-15). He sought positive response to his message and a personal allegiance to himself as bearer of that message from all his hearers. But within this general summons, Jesus called certain individuals to a more exacting commitment of discipleship that involved leaving family and home to follow Jesus physically on his journeys around the countryside proclaiming the kingdom.

This means that Jesus had two main kinds of supporters: local sympathisers, who embraced his message but did not join him on his itinerant ministry, and disciples or followers, who accompanied him on his travels and who were personally authorised to minister on his behalf. The mutual sharing and fellowship of this group of men and women compensated for the loss they suffered as ones who left all to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28-30).

The inner circle of this group comprised twelve disciples or apostles specially appointed by Jesus in Mark 3:13-14. “The Twelve” were distinguished from the wider body by a combination of greater personal intimacy with Jesus (“to be with him”) and a special commissioning (“to be sent out”) to preach, exorcise and heal as Jesus’ authorised representatives. They also had a symbolic role, constituting a backward reference to Old Testament Israel and a forward reference to the new messianic community. Despite their special role, however, the Twelve possessed no special dignity or authority within the larger body of disciples. Whenever they tried to arrogate such to themselves, conflict developed and Jesus gave corrective teaching (see, for example, Mark 9:33-41; 10:35-45).

Discipleship, then, is only one form of positive response to Jesus described in the gospels. Not all who repented and believed became disciples; most did not. Yet the gospel writers concentrate most attention on the experience of the disciples because the disciples provide the clearest illustration of what it means to encounter the kingdom of God. They exemplify most powerfully how a commitment to the way of Jesus touches relationships, reconciliation, ethics and justice.

Jesus’ initiative in calling disciples

Discipleship always began with Jesus taking the initiative, calling those whom he wanted and laying down the conditions he required them to meet. Jesus delighted in choosing individuals who, by contemporary standards, were least qualified for the job. He chose fishermen, not learned experts in religious affairs. He chose small-town Galileans, not sophisticated urbanites from Jerusalem. He called tax-collectors, individuals regarded as “unclean” outcasts in Jewish society because of their collaboration with Rome in exploiting God’s people. At the same time he chose violent, dangerous Zealots, fanatical nationalists who would as soon assassinate Romans (and tax-collectors!) as handle their coinage.

Greek philosophers and Jewish rabbis also had disciples. But in their case a disciple would approach the master and ask to join his school, and would typically be an able, studious individual, well equipped for higher learning. Not so with Jesus. He nominated his own disciples and paid little regard to the “natural equipment”. Why? Because Christian discipleship is pre-eminently a gift, an unearned privilege, a relationship conferred by grace. The ability to succeed in discipleship is received, not achieved. “Apart from me”, Jesus tells his disciples in John I5:5, “you can do nothing.”

Yet Jesus did not dragoon people into the cause of the kingdom. His call, though authoritative, was not irresistible. It could be refused (cf. Mark 10:17-22) – and for good reason! Accepting Jesus’ call involved some very difficult choices. It meant accepting the conditions of discipleship he laid down, and those conditions were not easy.

In Mark 1:15 Jesus demands a twofold response to his proclamation of the kingdom of God: repentance and faith. The fishermen respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship in a twofold way: they leave all and follow Jesus. Becoming a disciple involved a fundamental act of repentance, expressed in their “leaving”, and a radical commitment of faith, expressed in their “following”.

In the biblical tradition, metanoia or “repentance” is not simply a change of mind or opinion, as it was in secular Greek. Nor is it primarily a feeling of remorse or sorrow for wrongdoing, as in popular usage today. Biblical repentance entails the redirection of one’s entire manner of life. The term requires a turning away from an existing way of life, with all its values, ambitions, priorities and allegiances, and turning towards a new way of life, with a new set of values, ambitions, priorities and allegiances.

A decisive break with the social order

For the four fishermen in Mark 1:16-20, conversion to discipleship required them to make a decisive break with the existing social order in three main areas. First, they abandoned their possessions and means of livelihood: they left their boats and nets. Discipleship had economic implications. Second, they relinquished their positions of authority and control; they left behind their hired servants. Discipleship had implications for existing patterns of social status and power. Third, and most demanding of all, these fishermen detached themselves from family ties and traditions, the primary source of identity and stability for first-century Palestinians. Discipleship had costly ramifications for family life and kinship responsibilities.

Why did Jesus require such a radical conversion of his followers, such an emphatic break with life as usual? One common explanation is that Jesus expected the end of the world to be imminent. Time was short; extreme measures where needed for extreme times. As it turned out, however, Jesus was wrong about the closeness of the End and, by implication, the ethical radicalism he demanded of his followers can no longer be sustained today. According to this perspective, the response of the fishermen cannot be regarded as a viable pattern for Christian disciples today – which is most convenient!

Indeed, Jesus’ mission was characterised by a sense of eschatological urgency, which in part accounts for the rigorous nature of discipleship as depicted in the gospels. But it was not so much the temporal imminence as the totalitarian character of the impinging kingdom that explains Jesus’ radicalism. I suggest that Jesus placed such severe demands upon his followers because he wanted his company of travelling disciples to serve as a symbolic demonstration that God’s kingdom lays claim to the whole of one’s life and requires the radical transformation of everything one is and does.

Jesus’ disciples had to make a categorical break with life as usual because life in God’s kingdom, now breaking into the present, required a fundamental recalibration of their social, political and economic values and commitments. That is why, later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus gives ethical teaching that corresponds directly to, and redefines the values of, the three spheres of existence left behind by the fishermen in order to follow Jesus:

  • They had to make a break with their possessions and livelihood because within the new order of God’s kingdom, a wholly new attitude toward wealth prevails: “Now hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).
  • They needed to leave behind their hired servants because within the kingdom community there is to be a new attitude to social power, prestige and authority: “. . . whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43, 44).
  • The break with family was necessary to show that in the messianic community an entirely new concept and experience of family comes into being: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).

In short, those entering discipleship had to leave behind the world as they knew it in order to enter a new world, with a disturbingly new vision of life. The discipleship community was to be a living, breathing demonstration that God was making a new way of life possible. It was to serve as a visible incarnation of God’s kingdom on earth, a colony of the new age planted in the midst of the old.

Discipleship had to be radical. Otherwise where would have been a yawning credibility gap at the heart of Jesus’ message. How could Jesus have gone about announcing the in-breaking of God’s cosmic reign on earth – the climactic fulfilment of all human history – while allowing his followers to go about their normal lives as though nothing had changed?

And yet, Jesus did not expect the same expression of commitment from everyone who embraced his message. Localised sympathisers did not leave their jobs, home and families; they remained a functioning part of the existing social order. Nevertheless, the transforming agenda of the kingdom, most starkly visible in the company of disciples, was also apparent in the lives of local supporters. They too began to redistribute their wealth (Luke 12:13-21; 19:1-10); they used their homes and possessions to serve the goals of the kingdom (Mark 11:1-17; 12:41-44; 14:3-9; Luke 8:1-3; 14:12-14; 22:7-13); they cared for the poor and the sick, the prisoners and the oppressed (Mark 9:38-41; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37).

The almost suicidal renunciation of all means of human security placed the fishermen in a situation of radical dependency, even powerlessness. In order to follow Jesus they had divested themselves of all that gave them control or power over their own and others’ lives. It was an unwillingness to live at such extreme risk and vulnerability that disqualified the rich man, despite his obvious piety, from following Jesus (Mark 10:17-22).

Conversion to a risky, dependent faith

Where does this all leave us today? From the perspective of the gospel narratives, “radical discipleship” is a tautology. There is no discipleship other than radical discipleship. It is radical because it requires a thorough-going conversion of one’s personal, social and political values and commitments. It requires a risky, dependent faith that looks wholly and solely to Jesus for identity, provision and protection. The most strenuous commands of Jesus, such as those requiring redistribution of wealth or a nonviolent response to aggression, presuppose such conversion and faith.

It is true that the economic dispossession and itinerant lifestyle of those first disciples was a response specific to, and appropriate for, the unique circumstances of Jesus’ historical ministry. Subsequent generations of believers are not required to imitate in detail the economic divestment and subordination of family ties required of the earliest disciples. (There is little evidence of such imitation by Christians in other New Testament documents though see 1 Cor. 13:3). Their lifestyle was not a blueprint to be replicated but a model to learn from. As the foundation of the messianic community, they are a paradigm for all Christians, not in the sense that we copy them in specifics but that, like them, we allow the reality of God’s kingdom to challenge and transform every dimension of our lives so that we also become living proof that God has made a new corporate way of life possible.

The above essay is a shortened version of an article by the same title that appeared in Faith and Freedom (December 1994: 8-12). Used by permission.

Chris Marshall is Head of the Department of New Testament Studies at the Bible College of New Zealand in Auckland He is author of Faith as a Theme in Mark’s Narrative (Cambridge University Press, 1989) and Kingdom Come: The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (Auckland: Impetus Publications. 1993)