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    Followers of a Powerless Master

    What kept the twelve disciples, cowards and weaklings like the rest of us, dragging their feet along the road on the heels of their woebegone master?

    By Shusaku Endo

    June 26, 2022

    When we patch together all the scattered references in the Gospels to unpleasantries in Nazareth, we grasp the extent of the hard feelings which greeted Jesus after returning there from the Lake of Galilee. Incurring such animosity and opposition even from his kinsmen and former acquaintances, Jesus observed that the “foxes have their holes, the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). We hear these sad words coming from Jesus, and our own heartstrings quiver in poignant sympathy. Saying with regret that “no prophet is acceptable in his own country,” Jesus went away again from his own home town.

    “After this many of his disciples withdrew and no longer went about with him.”

    This breaking up of his disciples, mentioned only in John 6:66, occurred most likely at about this time. The disciples who remained with him were reduced, it seems, to only a few. It is also written in John’s Gospel that Jesus turned to them and sadly asked: “Do you also want to leave me?”

    Those who had chosen to depart were doubtless persuaded that they could no longer afford to entrust their dreams to Jesus. Most of them still considered him a teacher fully capable of hypnotizing the mass of people, and they still had cause to regard him as a leader worthy to replace John the Baptist; but when they saw in one place after another, both on the shore by the lake and again at Nazareth, that the people were turning away, these disciples lost the heart to follow him. In their estimation also, Jesus had become forever a “do-nothing” and a “weakling.”

    red and white fishing boat moored by a beach

    Photograph by Timon Studler Used by permission.

    For those disciples who chose to remain with Jesus, we find it hard to imagine what could be brewing in their minds and hearts. When he asked them sadly “Do you also want to leave me?” Peter’s response is on record: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” … Those disciples who stayed on in spite of their misgivings, in spite of the wavering in their own minds, had found it impossible to imitate the break that was made by those who had departed. Certainly, even the ones who remained with Jesus had lost much of their hope in him. But whatever the explanation, they could not bring themselves to desert their powerless master. Had they had it within themselves to defect, they would have chosen to do so. And yet for nothing in the world could they bring themselves to break away from Jesus, who was now an outcast, who now stood isolated.

    Very likely, the weaker Jesus appeared to be, the more they unconsciously felt what unspeakable regret and loneliness might afterward be theirs, if they too were to forsake him.

    The disciples were, so to speak, pretty much like the rest of us after all – a collection of no-good cowards and weaklings.

    After leaving Nazareth, Jesus and the few disciples still with him moved through the dreary hill country, always on foot, from one town to some other neighboring town. The disciples were exhausted, near the point of losing hope entirely. Jesus continued his prayers to God. Often he spoke the sad lament: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” And while he did so, he began to detect in his inner ear the voice of God calling him, and he became aware of how hard it was going to be for him to obey that voice. The disciples still were totally unaware of the master’s intense inner struggle. …

    There is something baffling in the picture of these dozen men or so, silently walking behind Jesus of Nazareth, their bone-tired feet carrying them into the lonely hill country stretching before them toward the north. The disciples did not belong to the priestly caste of Jewry, nor were they men of formal education like the doctors of the Law. Neither did they come from the moneyed upper class of people living in Tiberias. They were in fact a group of men, fishers or tax collectors and the like, from the lower middle class, all of whom (except Judas) had been living in the towns and villages near the Lake of Galilee until they came to know Jesus. The words written by Paul more than twenty years later to describe the early Christian church at Corinth can well be applied to these disciples too: “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”

    It would be a mistake to suppose that these men became disciples of Jesus only after coming to appreciate his ideal of love. As I have said time and again, most of them simply joined the inner circle of disciples for the same reasons that drew the big crowds he encountered at the Lake of Galilee. No one can claim that the disciples, being men of simple heart, did not possess that sense of right and wrong which is part of being a devout Jewish believer, nor that as individuals they were totally free of vainglory and personal ambition. The authors of the New Testament were unable to hide the fact that the disciples in the end were also wanting in courage and will-power. When Jesus finally was arrested, they not only disowned, him, but it seems clear that his disciples gave first thought to their own safety, then begged for clemency from the Sanhedrin. In that sense they were ordinary folk, and weaklings at that, like most of us.

    Nevertheless, all of a sudden, following on the death of Jesus, their eyes were opened. Weaklings and cowards they had been, but nothing could intimidate them after that, not even death.

    They positively misunderstood Jesus. Not only did they mistake him, but also they never considered him as being the “Son of God.” Yet they persevered in dragging their feet along the road on the heels of their woebegone master, even after so many others had deserted. Was it some kind of inexpressible purity and melancholy in the eyes of Jesus? In our own lives there can be an occasion where we cross paths with another person, when the very thought of the other’s purity of heart can make us painfully conscious of our own meanness. Maybe with these disciples, at the time in question, Jesus still was that kind of master, and the only thing which held their little band together was a feeling that they would be haunted by lonely regret for the rest of their lives if they were to desert him now.

    In spite of any such feeling, however, they, too, turned traitor at the end. (Treachery was not confined to Judas Iscariot, for all the disciples still remaining had a hand in it.) The disciples were, so to speak, pretty much like the rest of us after all – a collection of no-good cowards and weaklings.

    Nevertheless, all of a sudden, following on the death of Jesus, their eyes were opened. Weaklings and cowards they had been, but nothing could intimidate them after that, not even death. They never flinched at any physical terror. For Jesus’ sake they stoutly bore the rigors of distant journeys, and stoutly they held out under persecution. Peter underwent martyrdom in Rome about the year AD 61. Andrew was put to death by starvation in the Greek city of Patras. Simon, who had belonged to the Zealots, is said to have been killed for preaching Jesus in the city of Suanis, and Bartholomew was flayed alive and then hung on a cross at Albanopolis.

    What in the world effected so marvelous a turnaround in them, so amazing a change? Was it no more than some trace of influence picked up from Jesus, who himself had accomplished nothing, that made his disciples act as they did? The usual way in reading the New Testament is to keep the spotlight on Jesus, but if we go back and read again in a way to see the disciples play leading roles, then a singular theme emerges – how weaklings, cowards, and no-goods metamorphose into characters of unshakable faith.

    From A Life of Jesus, by Shusaku Endo, translated by Richard A. Schuchert, SJ (New York: Paulist Press, 1973). Copyright 1973 by Shusaku Endo, 1978 by Richard A. Schuchert. Used with permission.

    Contributed By

    Shusaku Endo (1923–1996) was a Japanese author known internationally for his novel Silence. He wrote from a Catholic perspective.

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