(Year B, 3rd Sunday of Epiphany, January 21, 2018; Gospel Reading from Mark 1:14-20)
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. – Mark 1:17-18 (ESV)
What does it mean to be “fishers of men”? This passage is typically used in sermons on evangelism, and the importance of preaching the Gospel to all nations. There are two features of the reading that I want to focus on in this reflection: first, using the occupation of being a fisher rather than, say, a carpenter (Jesus could have easily found craftsmen after his earthly father’s trade and called them to be “builders on the Foundation” or something similar); second, the immediacy and totality of the disciples’ answer to the call.
The Galilean seaside, where Jesus grew up, would have hosted many who claimed the occupation of fisherman. To many today in an almost post-scarcity world, to be a fisherman is to be a sportsman, and the focus is on claiming the largest, the strongest, the best fighter of the denizens in the pond. This is almost the exact opposite of what the fisherman who is a tradesman is after – rather than biggest, strongest, meanest, the tradesman is concerned with quantity above all else. Because for the tradesman, this isn’t about bragging rights. Who cares if I net the meanest fish in the pond if my net and the rest of the haul are ruined with its thrashing? Who cares if I can boast in my prowess at landing a monster fish if there’s not enough for sale to fund my misadventure?
Here, I think, is one of the first clues why the Author chose fishers to be Jesus’ first disciples. They would understand the logic and strategy of the divine mission. Whereas a carpenter would be preoccupied with the quality of their work (not a bad goal in and of itself, but still potentially a stumbling block to pride), a fisherman would understand that the goal was not to net the best followers for Christ, but as many as possible – and God would concern Himself with their quality.
Another reason for the call of fishermen is that it is the fulfillment of prophecy.
In Jeremiah 16:15-21, the prophet relates the words of God to say that He will send fishers and hunters after His people, to catch them and hunt them from “every mountain, every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.” There is good reason to believe that Jesus calling his first disciples from Galilean fishermen is a fulfillment of this prophecy. Beyond the literality of Jeremiah foretelling divinely appointed fishers and Jesus literally calling fishers to be “fishers of men,” Jeremiah 16 foretells an in-gathering of wanderers (vv. 15-16); God demanding recompense for iniquity (vv. 17-18); and calling Gentiles (“the nations”) to acclaim the Lord (vv. 19-21). Does this sound familiar?
To me, the choice of fishermen as the first disciples is an interesting detail, but the real message of the passage, the one that has immediate resonance with us, comes in their response – immediate and decisive. There were no negotiations, no longer conversations, simply Jesus issuing his call, and the fishers leaving everything – home, livelihood, even family – to follow him, not knowing with any kind of certainty what would come of doing so. This is the kind of obedience we are to have – immediate and decisive. When given the choice between following the call of Jesus and anything else, the true disciple chooses the call of Jesus.
To be clear, where the cares of the world do not interfere with following that call, there is no charge to neglect or scorn them. However, we must ever be on guard that we do not place those cares in a de-facto place of primacy, only following Jesus at the convenience of our situation. This is why there is no contradiction in Paul exhorting the Church to obey those in authority and the Apostles disobeying the authoritative call to stop preaching in the Name of Jesus: the understanding is that insofar as the authority is in step with the Authority of God it is to be obeyed. Yet when the authorities require what is alien or even abhorrent to God, the Christian chooses to be out of step with the earthly authority, in order to be in-step with the Authority in Heaven.
This week, pray for readiness and willingness to obey the call of Christ without question, trusting in His Goodness to be your rest, your certainty, and your peace. Seek to be like first century fishers, more concerned about casting a wide net for Christ-followers, and not on landing the most desirable, most liked, most impressive. As you pray for your obedience, and your personal evangelistic mission, pray also for world missions, that missionaries would be bolstered by the Spirit of God.
Grace and Peace to all in the Name of Jesus Christ.