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The Five Books of Jesus
Book One, Chapter Three
It’s quiet on the lake where Simon and his brother Andrew are searching desperately for fish to fill an empty boat and empty stomachs, but the hours have been empty, too, so the only proof they have of their hard day’s work is the gleam of the late afternoon sun on the gathered waters. Zebedee’s boys pull closer and call out to Simon and Andrew that they’re giving up on the lake for now, and that they might as well use the last few hours of daylight to go over every inch of their nets for repairs so that tomorrow, any fish that do swim by won’t escape. Andrew laughs, and Simon nods, but they don’t follow their friends to the shore. Simon isn’t one to give up easily on fish.
Andrew looks out after them absently as he tugs again on the net. The way the light shines off the water hits him all at once with an aching memory of the river Jordan, of the days before his Master there sent him away. He looks across the boat at his brother: the way Simon searches the water reminds him of the night before he left to follow the Jordan downstream in the first place.
They had both longed to see the prophet then, but their faith had to compete with concerns about finances and fish. No matter how quickly they traveled to the south and back, they knew, their family would struggle in their absence.
“We can wait,” said Andrew, “if we’re careful, we can save money slowly, and maybe next year—”
“No,” said Simon. “For this, you don’t wait.”
And they sat there in the darkness.
“You go,” said Simon. “I can manage. Go now and see him.”
And Andrew looked across at Simon, steady Simon, surprised at his brother’s capacity for sacrifice.
“I’ll come back as quickly as I can,” said Andrew.
“No,” said Simon with a force Andrew later found echoed on the east bank of the Jordan. “If he really is a prophet, you stay with him and learn everything.”
So Andrew took a length of rope with him as he made his way around the lake and up the river to Bethabara, where he heard John’s voice crying out in the wilderness, where he was cleansed beneath moving waters, where a promise made him John’s disciple. Every day, he would tie a knot for each new teaching to come from his Master’s mouth, and every night he would untie each knot and repeat the saying it had marked so he wouldn’t forget, so that when the time came he could bring all his knowledge back to his brother in Capernaum.
Until the day another Galilean came to John, and a bird swooped down across the water. That evening, Andrew asked his Master who the man had been, but John didn’t answer. Instead, he looked at the rope in Andrew’s hand and said to him: “Go back to Galilee, my son. I thought God wanted you here, but I was wrong. He wants you to be a fisherman.”
Andrew looks down now at his empty net. His brother worked night and day so he could go south. He was a disciple of the famous John; he saw Jesus, the town’s new obsession, baptized. And what did he learn, in the end, from all this? That God wants him to be a fisherman.
A fisherman, apparently, who does not catch fish.
He begins to untie and retie loose knots in his net, so that tomorrow, no fish will escape. With each knot, he still remembers something his Master said. Andrew looks across at Simon, who is no longer scanning the waters for signs of moving fish. Simon is looking back instead toward the coast, at a man who seems to be calling them.
They have almost reached the shore before Andrew can recognize the man’s face.
“What can we do for you?” asks Andrew.
“I want you to follow me,” Jesus says.
“I’m no longer anyone’s disciple,” says Andrew, and he looks out across the lake, where John says he belongs.
“I’ll make you fishers of men,” says Jesus.
Andrew and Simon look at each other in disbelief: how does he know? Simon nods to Andrew, says, “Times like this, you don’t wait. Go with him.”
But Jesus says, “Both of you. Come.”
So without pausing to discuss finance or fishes, they go.
That night over a campfire on a barren hill, Jesus prepares a few pieces of flatbread and some fish to share with two sets of brothers: Andrew and Simon, James and young John. After he says the prayer of thanks and finishes his own small portion of the meal, he entertains them with a story: one about a man who discovers that a treasure has been buried under a certain overgrown field. In the story, everyone thinks the man is crazy when he begins to sell everything he owns, and the man doesn’t dare tell them otherwise: after all, if he explains what he’s raising money for, someone else will buy the field before he can. So the man just smiles and keeps his mouth shut until the money is ready and the land is bought and he can recover the treasure at last.
“What’s the treasure?” says James.
“The kingdom of God,” Jesus says.
Why does he need them? To share his work, helping shoulder the burden of others’ suffering whenever he steps into a town?
Or does he ask them to follow him because he knows none of this will mean much in the end if he can’t find a few people who can also share his secrets?
They’ve eaten, and they’ve talked, and they’ve listened, and the sun has long since set, but Jesus hasn’t made any sign of moving off this dry, wasted hill, of spending the night somewhere better than this desert place. When he lies down to sleep, his four new disciples get nervous. Although they’ve lived their whole lives in this region, only Andrew has ever spent a night in a desert place, and that was with John and all his disciples down by the Jordan. But tonight, there are just the five of them and their Master is asleep, as if there were no reason for concern, even though he must know he is in exactly the kind of place where evil spirits wander when they are looking for a home.
Simon offers to keep the night’s first watch and tend the fire. He’s had a long, thankless day on the lake, then an unexpected, exhilarating evening on the shore and on this hill, where he’s desperately hoping not to lose control of his body and mind during the night.
Simon wakes James before he surrenders to exhaustion, and after listening guardedly to the night winds and the unseen passing of an owl, James wakes Andrew, who doesn’t quite make it to the morning without waking John. When Jesus wakes, the first thing he sees is a worried John studying his face.
James Goldberg is a poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, documentary filmmaker, scholar, and translator who specializes in Mormon literature.
Original artwork by Sarah Hawkes.