By Levi Jones
I love fishing. Some of my favorite memories growing up are stories about fishing with my cousins on their family farm. One such instance, we caught a catfish using a stick, fishing line, a hook, and some chewed bubble gum. We fastened the stick into some mud, tied the line and hook on, and molded the gum around the hook, throwing it into the pond while we went to dinner. When we came back, we found a fish on the line and began dragging it to shore. My cousins ran with the stick up the hill, while a friend and I pulled the fish into shore.
Finally, the fish popped up onto the bank and immediately slipped off the hook, flopping perilously close to the water, threatening to waste our perfectly good bubble gum bait. My friend and I jumped onto the fish and pinned it down in the mud, finally wrestling it into a bucket with water. We were proud of our catch, so we took it to the house and got pictures together with the fish. After that, we released the fish back into the water.
That’s always been my kind of fishing – catch and release. I’ve never really acquired a taste for fish. But, I love the sensation of hooking a fish and reeling it into the boat on a warm summer’s day. It’s satisfying, fulfilling, and requires very little thought on my part.
In the past, that is how I have imagined fishing in the story of the gospels. Jesus comes along the shore, sees some rugged fishermen, and says, “Hey, come follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” The fishermen put their reels down and head off behind Jesus to win the world, to save some souls.
It’s a beautiful, serene picture of a call to evangelism, matched by immediate obedience. That’s, perhaps, how many of us read this story, especially as people that spend any amount of time fishing around nearby lakes. Thus, we might look at this call from Jesus as a call to hook people to bring them into heaven.
But, in reading Jesus’ call to the disciples in this way, we have done great damage to the power of this story. In essence, we have altered it beyond recognition for what the initial disciples would have heard. This seems to me to be the reason that the Gospels have become so powerless. Discipleship has been minimized to getting people into the boat, counting the number of decisions that have been made for salvation, and thinking that this is the whole purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry – getting people to heaven.
But, you may recall the Lord’s Prayer: “May Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The whole purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry, culminating in the cross and resurrection, is bringing together heaven and earth in a sort of marriage, so that heaven and earth are “one flesh.” In other words, God’s will and way would be embodied on earth as it is in heaven – perfectly!
If the Gospel is about Jesus being crucified that I might go to heaven, we relieve ourselves of any responsibility for what happens in this world. It suggests that the whole point of Jesus coming to earth is to zap us out of here, allowing us to escape this prison. We have de-politicized the Gospel because we have taken it out of its Jewish context. In other words, we have not connected the stories of Scripture to their Jewish background.
So, let’s go back to the story at hand. Jesus shows up in “Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14b-15).
F. Scott Spencer gives us insight into the political situation of Galilee, writing: “While the fishermen themselves might profit from their toil, fishing revenues in Herodian-controlled Galilee were severely siphoned off by a tightly regulated political monopoly. Buoyed by his opulent new capital city Tiberias, dedicated to the emperor on the western bank of the Galilean sea, as well as by the booming demand for Galilean fish sauces and stews throughout the empire, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, seized the opportunity to make the small inland lake of Galilee into a real «sea,» his own private «little Mediterranean» pond.
The Roman client-king developed his own microcosmic version of Caesar’s claim to own all the oceans and waterways of the realm and everything in them. At every turn, family fishing businesses, like those of Jesus’ disciples, were caught in Antipas’s conglomerate net, forcing them to procure fishing licenses and leases, to produce demanding quotas, and to pay taxes, tolls, and other fees to an extensive bureaucracy monitoring the whole fishing enterprise, from catching to processing to shipping” (F. Scott Spencer, “Follow Me”: The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, 144-45).
Herod Antipas owned not only the sea, but everything in it. He also owned everyone that made a living from those waters. The fishermen, even those that were moderately well off, were vassals to Herod and, by extension, Caesar. Antipas had his hooks in the people, and it was difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
This is the cultural landscape in which we find Jesus strolling along the beach, proclaiming the kingdom, and telling fishermen to “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Here we see Jesus enacting politics, quite bluntly. He calls these fishermen, those participating in the kingdom of Herod and Caesar, to come be part of this new kingdom and to fish for Jesus instead of Herod.
The Jews had longed for deliverance from Exile for so long. In fact, Josephus, the Jewish historian for Rome, said that this is the reason that the Jews revolted against Rome in the middle of the first century. The Jewish people had calculated that the time had arrived in which they would finally be delivered from Exile.
This stems from the prayer in Daniel 9. Daniel prays to God asking when they would be delivered from captivity. After all, Jeremiah had said it would be 70 years. God responds, saying that God has heard Daniel’s prayer. There is good news and bad news. The good news is that God’s people will indeed be delivered. The bad news is that it won’t be 70 years but 70 weeks of years. Or, 70 times 7, which is 490 years.
The vision in Daniel’s writings describe four kingdoms, represented by various beasts arising out of the sea to power. Because of Israel and Judah’s disobedience to God, these kingdoms will keep the people in Exile. But, then, this wonderful vision turns. Daniel sees one like a son of man sitting next to the Ancient of Days, establishing God’s kingdom forever and dashing to pieces the kingdoms that were opposed to God’s way in the world.
This is the tension that the Jewish people are living under, anticipating the establishment of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ call to these fishermen is to follow him as members of God’s kingdom, even now being established in the midst of the kingdoms of the world.
Jesus goes even further by using the metaphor of fishing for the task that the disciples will be doing as his followers. Again, we think of fishing that isn’t extremely messy and difficult work. But the reality is it was extremely hard work. The mending of nets used to drag bottom to pull in large amounts of fish. The wild weather that could quickly whip up a storm on the sea in which those boats could easily sink. The smelly task of gutting and cleaning the fish. As Spencer puts it: “In a word, fishing was taxing business, in both the physical and financial sense” (F. Scott Spencer, “Follow Me”: The Imperious Call of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, 144).
Not only that, but the image of fishing is used as a metaphor for judgment in the scriptures. Jeremiah 16:16-18 reads: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; and afterward 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. And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with the abominations.”
As fishers of men, Jesus’ disciples are the agents through whom God will judge the world and its false kingdoms of power, manipulation, and oppression – or, idolatry. In essence, the disciples are the primary agents that begin to proclaim to all that God, in fact, is now King over all. This is what is commonly known as Theocracy – God reigns and rules.
Such a violent image of fishing and hunting for the disciples’ task is a little terrifying. We are distrusting of the notion that the disciples, and by extension the Church, is the agent of judgment against the world. After all, one need only look at the various abuses of power that the Church has wrought down through the centuries to be skeptical.
The Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem Witch Trials, and other historical actions by the Church have wrought serious destruction, which seems no different than Rome, Caesar, Herod, or any other king or nation. Point taken.
But, this is precisely the point in which we must ask what kind of God is this, whose agents enact judgment against the world. Would we not confess it to be the God of Genesis that brings the world into being and blesses it and also takes a wondering nomad and promises to make him the father of nations? It would most certainly be the God in Exodus that delivers slaves from Egypt and makes them His people. It is the same God that promises to give the people a heart of flesh rather than stone. It is the very God that tells Israel they are engraved on His hands.
And, what does that look like? It looks like a Jewish peasant that came proclaiming God’s kingdom, enacting freedom for the oppressed, sight for the blind, and release for the captive, proclaiming Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s Favor, and the forgiveness of sins. This coming of the kingdom stands in total opposition to the world’s use of power.
We see this quite clearly in John’s Gospel as Jesus is standing before Pilate, the kingdom of God confronting the kingdom of the world. “They argue over kingdom and truth and power. Pilate sends Jesus to his death and Jesus wins” (N. T. Wright, Kingdom and Cross). Jesus even tells Pilate that if his kingdom were like the kingdoms of this world, his followers would defend it. Jesus’ defeat of the kingdoms of this world comes through sacrifice, not tanks. Rome’s peace (pax Romana) was maintained by the sword; God’s peace is won through costly forgiveness
In this way, Jesus is the climax of Israel’s story. And, for Jesus to call disciples to follow him is to say that he believes that they can do what he does in fulfilling that very story – to be agents of reconciliation! After all, it is no accident that there are 12 disciples and 12 tribes of Israel.
God is re-constituting Israel through Jesus and his disciples. And, even as Israel was intended to embody a community upon whom God had a particular claim, one that called for total allegiance, the disciples are invited to live as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth. Now. To live as those that embody judgment of the world by “daily taking up their cross and following Jesus.”
As Jesus walks the shore proclaiming the kingdom; he also calls for repentance. That is – Jesus calls all those who might hear him to turn from the false kingdoms of this world and become fully fledged citizens of God’s kingdom, whose way of ruling this world is through Jubilee, forgiveness.
So, here we stand in the boat, hearing Jesus’ call. We can stay in the boat, remaining in the security of what is familiar and potentially beneficial politically, financially, or socially. The Church has sometimes opted for the safety of the boat of culture. The German church that refused to stand against Nazi Germany and collaborated in great atrocities against other nations, the Church that remained quiet while African Americans were abused and oppressed; the Church that acts out violently, both physically and verbally, against its enemies both far and near; the Church that turns a blind eye to the poor and oppressed, perhaps even benefitting from their labor while giving them insufficient wages to help build profits.
When we cease to call the world’s way of power into question because we are part of it or are silent, we are no different than those kingdoms and fail to live as God’s kingdom people. Without repentance, without turning from those kingdoms, we inevitably cease to be disciples of Jesus and choose to remain in the boat.
Or, we can opt for the insecurity of following Jesus. It’s dangerous and difficult to follow Jesus, not least of all in the Church. We will be confronted by kingdoms that use power to threaten us with death and destruction, both physical and otherwise. To be a people of the Kingdom is to be a people marked by the cross, which is a new way of utilizing power in the world. It is learning to forgive even mortal enemies. It is sharing generously with those who don’t have resources and networks of support to weather the storms of life. It is embodying non-violent resistance, like Martin Luther King, Jr., to those who implement violence as a means of getting what they want. It is living as a vessel of blessing through which God may bless others. Stepping out of the boat is scary because it demands “our life, our all.” But, thank God, “those who lose their life find it.”
Jesus calls, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news… Follow me and I will make you fish for people!” Let’s move out of the boat together and engage the world as God’s Kingdom people!
Levi Jones serves as co-lead pastor at Cornerstone Community Church of the Nazarene (Wagoner, Oklahoma) and an Associate Editor of Preacher’s Magazine.