Fishing for people

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus sounds a lot like John, the man who baptized him (see Matthew 3:2, 17). The reign of God has come near, and we must understand that its closeness and its presence among us demands a complete reorientation of our lives: Repent. Turn around. Change course. Get out of the hamster wheel and onto a better path. Repent.

John the wilderness prophet has been arrested, but Herod cannot silence the proclamation of God’s reign, much less stop its invasion of the world. In Pasolini’s film version of The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Jesus is walking at a brisk pace down a country road. A group of farmers traveling the opposite direction stop to look, perhaps to exchange a greeting, and, as he passes them, almost over his shoulder, he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and just keeps moving. Where is he going?

Now he is at the lake, sees two brothers at work, says to them, “Follow me, I will make you fish for people,” and just keeps moving. The two hurry but they can barely keep up. Now he sees another pair of brothers, at work in the boat with their father, and he calls them, and immediately they leave the boat and the old man and follow him. The four hurry but they can barely keep up with him. What’s the rush? Where is he going? What about Zebedee, the old man? Is he too slow for the pace at which God’s reign is invading the towns of Galilee?

What a scene: Jesus and thefour men rushing away from the shore, and the old man alone in the boat, a net in his lap and a puzzled look on his face. “James, son, what do you want me to tell your mother?”

Matthew has no interest in Zebedee’s feelings, or anyone else’s, for that matter. This is no script for a television mini-series or a touching documentary. Peter’s wife, Andrew’s children, or Zebedee’s thoughts are completely irrelevant for the story Matthew is telling. In Matthew’s story, there’s only the urgency of Jesus’ call and the immediacy of these men’s response. There’s neither ‘hello’ nor ‘good-bye.’ There’s no quick discussion of what to do with dad nor a careful weighing of options between brothers. There’s only “the strange power of this Jesus, who declares and compels rather than explaining and persuading (Placher, Mark, p. 31).”

Matthew makes sure you and I understand that Jesus’ call is not some kind of church commercial inviting us to consider membership in an institution that will fulfill our spiritual needs and help us raise well-rounded children. This call is unlike any other; it grabs your soul like a voice from heaven, and when you hear it, there are only two options: you either follow its demand or you pretend there is no call, no divine claim on your life.

This call is intrusive and disruptive, and the chances that it will rearrange your relationships and your goals in life are 100%. In Jesus, the reign of God is invading the world, and this call pulls us out of our routines and makes us part of God’s mission. This doesn’t mean that we all quit our jobs and hit the road with Jesus or that we cease being the children of our parents, the brothers and sisters of our siblings, or the parents of our children. But this call to discipleship does make our lives part of God’s healing and liberating work and it redefines the meaning of words like brother and sister and neighbor and righteousness. This call grabs you not just for the sake of your soul, but for the sake of God’s reign in the world.

So the fishermen leave their nets and their boat, but they do not stop fishing. Who they were and what they did has been claimed and rearranged by Christ. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

I have heard and read that story countless times, and for years, fishing for people sounded just fine to me. I thought of Peter and Andrew as fishermen turned mission workers: instead of catching fish, they brought people to Jesus, or something like that. Fishing for people sounded fine until I thought some more about the details: fish get caught in a net, they are pulled out of the water, then there’s a lot of wild wiggling and tossing, but eventually they all end up – fried, baked, or poached – on somebody’s dinner table.

Fishing for people – the phrase suddenly lost its missionary innocence, and I thought about the many ways in which fish are tricked with bait and fooled with lure only to get hooked and reeled in. Fishing for people cannot be about tricking or fooling people, though, if it is to have anything to do with the mission of Jesus.

I wondered what Matthew’s first readers might have thought when they heard this phrase, “I will make you fish for people,” and what kind of associations it triggered in their minds. A commentary directed my attention to a passage from the the book of Jeremiah, one of the great prophets in Israel, a passage many of Matthew’s first readers would have been familiar with. In chapter 16, the prophet declares,

I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight. Jeremiah 16:16-17

The Lord announces a day of judgment, and people will be caught like fish and hunted like animals hiding in the clefts of the rocks. Fishermen and hunters are instruments of God’s judgment, and read next to this passage, fishing for people sounds frightening. Have Peter and Andrew, James and John been called to round up people for God’s imminent judgment as the kingdom of heaven is drawing near? Does this explain the urgency and speed with which Jesus is moving from scene to scene? Was Herod’s iniquity in putting John in prison the final straw?

The disciples followed Jesus as he went throughout Galilee, teaching in synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. They watched and learned. Great crowds gathered, people came from all over Galilee, even from Jerusalem and from beyond the Jordan (see Matthew 4:23, 25). But this was no roundup operation. People followed Jesus and they witnessed the power of God making things right among them.

The disciples followed Jesus and they participated in his ministry of teaching and healing and restoring life. How did they participate? Mending nets used to be part of their daily work: after the catch was brought in and taken to market, they would sit on the beach or in the boat, checking the nets for rips and holes, and repairing them. They used to do this until the day when this irresistible voice disrupted their daily routine, commanding, “Follow me.” As fishermen they had many skills: they knew how to be patient, they had developed endurance, they worked well with others, and they had learned to cope with failure as well as success. But perhaps the best gift they brought to the mission of Jesus was their ability to notice even the smallest tear in a net, and their skill and care in mending it.

The purpose of God’s judgment is to make things right in the world. God doesn’t judge to condemn, but to restore and make whole; God judges in order to mend what is torn and broken.

In the advance of God’s reign in the world, the only fishing that is going on is done by God in the work of Jesus. The net has been cast wide, and God is letting it sink to the deepest depth, deeper than our best hopes can reach, down even to those who sit in great darkness and in the shadow of death, and God is pulling the net in, ever so slowly and carefully so as not to lose a single one.

The net, of course, is Christ and all who belong to him, all of his brothers and sisters, young ones and old ones, the whole family of God, fishing for people. We are the net, woven into a web of new relationships and mended by the grace of God, and we are the catch.

The people who sat in great darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the shadow of death light has dawned. Isaiah 9:2/Matthew 4:16

We are the net and we are the catch, and we are being pulled up from the dark depth not to be left lifeless on the beach, but to live together in the light of God’s glory. This fishing expedition is a rescue operation, and Jesus calls us to it for the sake of our souls as well as for the sake of the reign of God in the world. More than anything, he calls us together into a social network of grace, stretching across time and space, so as not to lose a single one. This call is intrusive and disruptive, but it also draws us – all that we are and all that we do – into wholeness. Thanks be to God.