Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
Matthew 4:12-23 - link to NRSV text
I've seen quite a few license plate frames, bumper stickers, and caps over the years that said something like, "I'd rather be fishing." And who can forget the fabulous fishing scene from the movie Office Space, in which cubicle workers feeling dehumanized as cogs in the most impersonal of corporations escape to a local lake for a day of casting rods and drinking beer? To us twenty-first-century urbanites and suburbanites, fishing serves almost as a synonym for doing nothing, for vacation, for relaxation. And when we come across language of fishing in the New Testament, we're often tempted to do something that I think we often do without thinking with imagery of shepherds and sheep -- we imagine a kind of idealized, peaceful, pastoral version of these activities. And then we're puzzled and disappointed when our walk with Christ doesn't match up to the tranquility of these scenes we've imagined.
But fishing wasn't an escape from work for folks like Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John. It was work. Fishing was a major industry in the Galilee, and fishers like the two pairs of brothers we encounter in this Sunday's gospel were very small cogs in the whole works. Fishers who didn't own their own boats had to rent them. Even fishers who did own their own boats had to pay a seemingly endless series of taxes and fees to gain fishing rights and work their trade. In the end, their catch -- if they were lucky enough to have one -- went more to make the richest in their society -- folks like Herod Antipas -- even richer than it did to benefit those whose backbreaking labor got the fish out of the sea and into the processing plants and markets. Fishers of fish, even those who owned their own boats, weren't their own bosses; they were cogs in a machine at least as impersonal and dehumanizing as the one that was grinding Office Space's disgruntled workers down.
Maybe that's one reason that Peter and co. were so willing to leave their nets when Jesus called. To be sure, Jesus said that if they followed him, they'd still be fishers. Being a fisher is no day at the beach, if you'll pardon the pun. A fisher's life is full of uncertainty and extremely hard work; Jesus isn't promising them a life of ease. But Jesus' call could have offered two things potentially of immediate appeal, even if the work was just as hard as their former trade:
First, meet the new boss -- not at all the same as the old boss. Jesus is lord of this new enterprise. Maybe even then, the fishers to whom Jesus called could tell that Jesus was not going to use his power and his followers' labor simply for his own benefit. Maybe they were figuring that whoever Jesus was, he couldn't be as bad as the toll collectors to whom they answered. Little did they know at that point that Jesus would be calling toll collectors too, but they were right about what kind of boss Jesus is: the kind who uses power to empower others, rather than to increase his own honor, status, and wealth. They're not just going to work; they're going to work with Jesus. The new enterprise brings them into relationship with him.
Second, and maybe I'm off-target about this, but there's something about becoming "fishers of people" that sounds a lot less dehumanizing than descriptions of the ancient fishing trade that I read (for one of them, check out K.C. Hanson's and Douglas Oakman's Palestine in the Time of Jesus for good information about this and other aspects of Jesus' society and culture -- and it's a fairly readable treatment designed for undergraduate courses). Becoming a "fisher for people" is going to bring these Galilean fishers not only into relationship with Jesus, but into a whole new network of relationships with others. Their relationship with Herod Antipas and the powers of this world, with the hated toll collectors, with their neighbors, with their families, with Gentiles and Pharisees, with anyone who hears Jesus' call and, responding to it, becomes a sister or brother ... none of these will ever be the same.
In America, our culture exalts "being your own boss" and "being your own man," being independent. Even -- or especially -- those who seem to be closest to those goals often discover that they're illusory. The kings of this world answer to the kingmakers, the kingmakers to bosses of their own. Having Jesus as lord -- as one's only Lord -- frees us from the webs of ambition we make only to get caught in them ourselves. Working for and with Jesus, we can cast a different kind of net -- one that frees and empowers rather than binds and dehumanizes. Answering Jesus' call, we start to hear the world's cries; we are drawn into relationship as we find what we need to serve as Jesus' co-laborers in the world. It's not easy work, but it's the work we were born to do. It's the vocation where we will become more fully human and understand better what the divine is up to among us.
Thanks be to God!
This reflection reminds me of a sermon from the past by my American Baptist minister on "peace I bring you." She said that when Jesus states he will bring us peace, we had better watch out! This is hard peace, peace from confrontation of oppression. This is demanding peace. How apt on MLK Jr. day. Am. Baptist Fosdick said: "two ways to kill someone like Jesus: crucify him and worship him." Fishing ain't easy; neither is peace.
Posted by: Rev. Marti Garrison | Jan 21, 2008 12:11:56 PM
I see you like Bruce Malina. He was a fave of New Testament professor Bill Herzog.
Posted by: Rev. Marti Garrison | Jan 22, 2008 1:29:05 PM
I'm borrowing some of these thoughts, but approaching it from a different angle. I think Jesus high-tails it for Capernaum because John's arrest makes him realize that the authorities are playing hardball. He experiences a moment of fear which catapults him to a Big Moment, wherein he decides once and for all to pursue his ministry to it's fullest. I'll be drawing a parallel between this and the story of MLK's "kitchen table conversion".
God calls us to devote ourselves entirely to faith and ministry. It's repentance; changing our way of thinking to view all of life through the lens of faith; to see all of life as ministry. In doing that we open ourselves up to Big Moments, as well.
Posted by: Eric Deibler | Jan 25, 2008 11:31:19 AM
Some writers suggest that Jesus’ move to Capernaum was motivated by concern for his own life. I think, however, when you observe the aggressive tone of the Gospel story, it is more likely that Jesus, came out of hiding, moved by John arrest, and began preaching the very message of his predecessor. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is not the ear mark of a man seeking to blend in with the cosmopolitan crowd, rather a man who, employing a phrase that we have heard a lot this election season, HAD FOUND HIS OWN VOICE.
Posted by: Allen Simons | Jan 26, 2008 11:29:33 PM