Years ago, as a volunteer high school teacher in New Britain, part of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, I used to watch and wonder at the Western evangelists who passed briefly through the towns and villages, handing out irrelevant tracts and moving hurriedly on before they could learn names or develop genuine friendships. I also suspect those irritating evangelists of the type who harass total strangers with isolated Bible texts, promises of heaven and threats of hell, are convinced that they are merely out to catch men (sic?) and, as such, obeying the teaching of Jesus as found in this morning’s lectionary gospel reading. If in this context, Jesus was the master fisherman, it would be nice if intending followers and prospective evangelists were to look again at Luke’s version of this well known story before embarking on their task.
Luke is one of the best of all New Testament writers. By tradition he was both an artist and one concerned with health issues (a physician perhaps). Tradition maybe ….but what we do find is that Luke can tell a great story and paint verbal pictures with consummate skill. Here he turns his pen to a partially symbolic story about Jesus and gives it some extra twists missed by other writers such as John.
But there is an important point at issue here. Here, Jesus, as so often in his dealings with those he meets, certainly does not pepper his targets with neat religious quotations, nor for the most part, does he seem to concentrate on the issue of their salvation. Even more surprisingly, nor does he seem in great hurry to affect a conversion. In today’s instance Jesus finds his disciples in the context of their daily work and involves himself with that context. He asks if he can borrow their boat as a floating rostrum – then with that task behind him – he gets involved with their fishing enterprise. There is even the sense that this earns him the right to invite the fishermen to share his world and his mission.
Involvement with context is at the heart of all meaningful interactions. If we don’t understand that those we meet each have their own history, their own worries, experiences and interests – in short their own context, then without this awareness, how can we begin to communicate?
Today’s story is often used as an example of how Jesus used miracle, yet the fishing part of Luke’s story as a miracle is rather non-remarkable. Certainly when Jesus was out in the boat speaking there is no reason why he might not have spotted the whereabouts of the fish. A shadow in the water, a series of ripples ?… it does not require special expertise to notice fish from a good vantage point. In any case, anyone who has tried fishing will know that luck can change in a most dramatic fashion without the need to invoke a miracle.
But if it comes to that, for that time a story with a literal meaning did not mean what it means today. The modern theologian, John Dominic Crossan, is fond of reminding beginning Bible scholars that it is first and foremost what the story meant to the audience for whom it was intended – the people of the day – not us that counts. In those days, as a host of scholars have since pointed out, (including the great St Augustine), literal meaning meant the part of the story that literally affects the listener.
In reality, we may not be particularly affected by the injunction to fish for people, particularly if our own experiences of fishing have been placid affairs. Fishing today for most folk is relatively refined and gentle. Standing in the sunshine at the end of a wharf or sitting on a deck chair dangling a rod over a gently flowing river, or perhaps from the back of a pleasure launch using the right hooks, the best bait, the right weight line and where the only real hazard for most of today’s recreational fishermen is keeping a weather eye for the fishing inspector, intent on ensuring each species hooked does not exceed the limit bag or fall short of the permitted size for the species.
Perhaps this tranquil image is why many today do not see the full intent of the analogy when it comes for fishing for people. To find out exactly what fishing for people means to us we could do worse than look to our own Church setting to see what it reflects. Jesus modelled fishing for people in the case of Zebedee and Company as meeting them in their every day context – and surely the fact that he had something to contribute to that context made his message entirely relevant. If our meeting is restricted to the Church setting it follows we are expecting others to discover our context rather than we theirs.
Jesus took it one step further. He not only went to where the fishermen were, he chose to frame his critical question in terms that related to their situation.
Thus if we see the story in terms of the setting of Jesus’ metaphor, we may begin to understand its value. To the fishermen Jesus’ chosen metaphor of fishing to catch people would have had an association easy to grasp. Fishing in Galilee meant fishing with a net. A net is flexible yet not discriminatory, stretching to enfold as many fish (and perhaps as many types) as possible. Perhaps this part is a retelling of the resurrection story in John where the number of fish is declared as 153. This too is helpful, not as Jerome incorrectly put it because there were 153 different types of fish known at the time, but more simply because the inclusive net is designed for all types, and despite the stress, the net (which presumably stands for the Church) does not break.
Simon Peter and his mates would have understood fishing to be associated with nets. We can’t be sure that they understood the implication of fishing for a wide range of fish, as meaning the gospel has something to offer everyone, but there is of course no reason why we should not reflect on our own Church activity to ask if our fishing, so to speak, is only directed at a narrow range. For all the talk of inclusiveness the range of people sitting in the seats of a typical congregation tends to speak for itself.
Apart from the net approach, there are other ways of catching fish. Some indigenous tribes in some parts of the world use poison to paralyse the fish. (Or should that be Poissons?) From the days of misspent youth I remember those (not in this instance me I hasten to add) who used what was euphemistically called a public works fly – in other words a plug of gelignite. I leave my listeners to imagine the religious equivalent. Many, if not most recreational fishermen would use a hook – but remember that recreational fishing of the sort we might indulge ourselves today is a far cry from what fishing meant in the days when Jesus was talking to fishermen at the side of the sea of Galilee. They would not see the act of fishing as an easy option. For the disciples, fishing would be physically demanding, even dangerous with the ever present problem of only partially sea worthy craft and – in the pre Met Office days – unpredictable storms.
It is not for me to choose the readings for today, but in one sense if the lectionary compilers were intending to set the scene for our fishing story they might better have chosen something from the Old Testament like 23-30 of Psalm 107: (NIV)
23 Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
24 They saw the works of the LORD,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,and he brought them out of their distress.
Remember Simon Peter and his mates were denied the possibility of using what we would now see as essential modern boat building techniques and machinery coupled with the non availability modern synthetic materials to make the fishing gear. This meant fishing for the first century professional fisherman meant hard and sometimes precarious work. The fishing for people option in that context, implies being prepared to take risks for uncertain returns.
Again our congregation in context speaks for itself. We look at our activities and ask are we taking risks to achieve our mission or are we more showing signs of the recreational fisherman – doing only that which comes easy?
There are also layers of meaning in the gospels. Luke at times could be quite subtle and scholars like Ched Myers claim that in Jesus’ call to be fishers of men he was using a phrase that the Hebrew prophets had been known to use as a euphemism for judgement on the rich. If this was Jesus underlying intention Jesus was in effect calling his disciples from among the common people so that they could join him in the struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.
As an isolated phrase either verbatim from those who heard Jesus deliver the challenge – or even words shaped by Luke to anticipate what followed, we shouldn’t get carried away by trying to second guess the intended meaning.
However we can notice two aspects of the story which suggest Ched Myers is on the right track. First the fishermen, who might have been expected to be highly resistant to the call to leave their nets clearly felt Jesus could understand them well enough to lead them. There was a mission that they related to – and as poor fishermen who probably resented the ways in which the uncaring controllers of society treated those like themselves, even a suggestion of overturning the situation would have resonated. And second, intended or not, Jesus mission did indeed overturn much of the established order, starting in fact as Ched Myers said, with the world of the disciple. Even if Jesus’ words were misrepresented by Luke – or by the modern commentators, Myers draws our attention to what following Jesus would come to mean.
Almost two thousand years later we find the challenge to put aside the nets of our familiar world, so to speak, to join in the continuing mission to overturn the existing order of power and privilege. Clearly history teaches us that many will not heed this call. But when those fishermen first realised Jesus was relating to them…what was it: “they brought their boats into land, then they abandoned everything and followed him”. Jesus challenge to the fisherman now becomes our challenge. Our response is in what happens next.