Fishing for people

21 January 2018
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 3B (RCL)

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:6-14
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

No doubt, the designers of the lectionary chose the passage from Jonah and the passage from Mark to to with the collect: give us grace to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ. But called to what? It’s always struck me as odd that Simon and Andrew, and James and John would be attracted by a call to fish for people. I can never get the image of little people flopping around on the shore out of my head.

It’s too bad we hear such a little snippet of Jonah’s story. We miss his running away, and his petulant response to what has to be the most successful sermon ever, if we go by impact per word. Of course, the point of the story is that Jonah is called to Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s archenemy, the Empire that destroyed them. The Assyrians were seen by the Israelites as ruthless oppressors, and Jonah is supposed to preach in their capital city. After the calamity of the fall, first of Israel, and then of Judah, the theologians had to cope with theological crisis. Did other gods overpower our God? The solution was monotheism. There is only one God, and the calamity was God’s doing (or not — see Job). Jonah deals humorously with one of the implications of that monotheism. God is the God even of people we hate. It would have been so much easier to leave them consigned to other gods, and go on hating them!

The passage in Mark’s Gospel raises the question what was so compelling about Jesus’ message. I suppose we could ask the same question about Jonah’s message, but the story doesn’t seem to be interested in it. In Mark, however, since this is the first episode of the gathering of a circle of disciples, we are left puzzling about why Andrew and Peter, James and John would follow Jesus. Many commentators speculate that this wasn’t the first time Jesus had met these four; that they had been intrigued before this encounter. But this remains exactly that – speculation. Mark is telling us the story this way for a reason.

So, the attractiveness has to be in the call itself – I will make you fishers of people. The seashore was a liminal space. Roman law didn’t apply at the seashore (it could not be owned). Andrew and Peter are poor – they own a net, probably a small circular net with floats on the edges, much like similar nets still used to this day. James and John were further up the social and economic ladder – dad owned a boat and made enough money to hire help. The Roman Empire bought a lot of fish — the army marched on a kind of jellied fish. Here were people in an agrarian economy, built around cultivation and husbandry, reduced to fishing because that’s where the markets were (you couldn’t offer fish at the altar in the Temple, because fish couldn’t be domesticated).

The Empire had shattered the economy of Palestine, and taxed people off their lands. That is probably the story of Peter and Andrew. So, when Jesus calls them to fish for people, they don’t have much to lose by following. And if we keep in mind that they are net fishermen, the image of catching people in a net might speak of rebuilding the networks of community. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul uses the image of the net: I urge you brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no tears (rips) among you, but that you be mended into the same mind and the same purpose. He uses exactly the same word for mending as Mark uses for what James and John were doing with their nets. So we have some evidence of the image in use in early Christian communities.

He is inviting Peter and Andrew into a new network, a new safety net, to replace the one destroyed by Rome. James and John, then, though they have more resources, might be attracted by the idea of rebuilding, or mending, that network, restoring the covenant economy in the face of Rome’s destruction. It meant turning away from the Roman economy (which Palestinians would have experienced as oppressive), toward re-forming local community networks. That would have been attractive.

In my Nazarene days, we always understood ‘fishing for people’ to mean bringing others to Christ (whatever that meant). That never seemed very attractive to me. But if it means re-knitting people into functioning community, repairing the safety net, that call I could get behind.

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