Angling for Justice
On the third Sunday of Epiphany, the theme of light turns toward the world and toward justice. Oddly enough, the lectionary reading pivots from God-and-light to world-and-light with a story about fishing.
As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
Years ago, when I was a student at a Christian college, I heard a sermon on these verses during Mission Week in chapel. I remember being amazed and convicted: “The disciples left their jobs to follow Jesus!” with my next thought being, “I could never do that.”
The preacher intended to inspire us to become missionaries and give up everything to go “fish” for people. Save the lost. Evangelize the world. Like the apostles. Like Jesus. A heroic calling. That’s what God wants true believers to do.
That Simon, Andrew, James, and John made such a sacrifice was inspiring. Mostly, however, that sermon made me feel inadequate. I couldn’t imagine being like them — walking away from everything immediately to go after Jesus.
Sacrifice. That’s what we were always encouraged to do. Give up our dreams, our hopes, our ambitions. Surrender. Follow. And, if you were a woman, submit.
But that’s not really what this story is about.
When Jesus walked by that lake and called to Simon and Andrew, he wasn’t inviting two fellows on a fishing trip to drop everything and hang out. He wasn’t calling successful small businessmen to give up what they’d built. He wasn’t beckoning these fishermen to leave a good — or even decent — livelihood.
In the first-century Roman Empire, fishing was a miserable job. Cicero once referred to it as one of the “most shameful occupations,” a list that included not one but two fish-related jobs: “fish-sellers, butchers, cooks, poultry-raisers, and fishermen.”
Fish were, of course, a valuable and important part of the economy; they were a necessary commodity for feeding millions of people across a massive empire. But there was no such thing as a free enterprise fishing business and there were no fishing entrepreneurs. Fishing was controlled by the Roman state — and profited only the elite.
For the fishermen themselves, fishing was essentially a subsistence enterprise. While local families often formed small fishing cooperatives (which seems to be the case for the brothers mentioned in this passage), their work was not their own. The best and biggest fish would be shipped off to Rome for the tables of the wealthy. Fisherfolk would get no profit from it since Caesar functionally owned the lake and all the creatures in it. The best of the catch literally belonged to him.
After Rome took its portion, some middling fish might be sold at regional or local markets, but those fish would be heavily taxed in a system of tariffs, duties, and tributes, and those who caught the fish would see little from their sale. The leftover small fish — if there were any — fed the fishermen and their families.
In the ancient Roman Empire, you didn’t work for yourself. You didn’t choose a job or a career. You worked for Caesar. Your entire family worked for Caesar. You, your parents and children, and your neighbors and friends were part of a massive political and economic hierarchy which took nearly all the work of your hands and gave it to the wealthiest people in the empire — and from which you, your relations, and your community received almost no benefit.
Simon and Andrew weren’t middle class. They didn’t run a successful business. Maybe they owned their own boat instead of renting it. But most likely not. They weren’t even what we think of as working class. They were peasants on the bottom rungs of an extractive and abusive system. And those peasants were often in conflict with the politicians and tax collectors who stole from them. They resented imperial control of their homeland and its lakes and waters. They swam in a sea of injustice.
Understanding this, re-read the story. Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee and calls out, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
Simon and Andrew respond: Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
No kidding. Wouldn’t you?
This isn’t about sacrifice. Jesus invited them out of a miserable existence into an entirely different life, a better one. He offered them an alternate way of living — “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” You don’t have to be part of Caesar’s empire. Join me as we pursue the long-awaited commonwealth of God’s justice and mercy.
Of this episode, biblical scholar Ched Myers says, “Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.”
Instead of fishing for Caesar, they chose to go with this compelling rabbi who promises something different: “I will make you fish for people.”
Jesus’ remark surely harkens back to the vision of the prophets where the unjust, those who abuse the poor, will be “hooked” like fish in punishment for their sins. Amos says, “The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks” (4:2). And Ezekiel threatens the wealthy Egyptians who oppress other nations: “But I will put hooks in your jaws and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales. I will pull you out from among your streams, with all the fish sticking to your scales” (29:4).
Fishing isn’t about converting people to bring them to church. For the prophets, fishing is a radical snaring of the wicked, wrenching them out of the familiar environs of oppression and setting the world a-right with divine justice. Jesus invited the peasant fishermen to fish for people — to “hook” Caesar’s elite and beach the empire. When he called them, he called them to participate in God’s work in the world.
Basically, Jesus bid them to angle for justice. That was an invitation they were probably waiting their entire lives to receive. They’d been entangled in Roman fishing line far too long. It wasn’t hard to drop Caesar’s nets and pick up the hooks of God.
Lo, in my soul there lies a hidden lake,
High in the mountains, fed by rain and snow,
The sudden thundering avalanche divine,
And the bright waters’ everlasting flow,
Far from the highways’ dusty glare and heat.
Dearer it is and holier, for Christ’s sake,
Than his own windy lake in Palestine,
For there the little boats put out to sea
Without him, and no fisher hears his call,
Yea, on the desolate shores of Galilee
No man again shall see his shadow fall.
Yet here the very voice of the one Light
Haunts with sharp ecstasy each little wind
That stirs still waters on a moonlit night,
And sings through high trees growing in the mind,
And makes a gentle rustling in the wheat. . . .
Yea, in the white dawn on this happy shore,
With the lake water washing at his feet,
He stands alive and radiant evermore,
Whose presence makes the very East wind kind,
And turns to heaven the soul’s green-lit retreat.
— Eva Gore-Booth, “Secret Waters”
Only birdcall heralds this day.
A white flock in perfect symmetry
crosses the brightening sky.
Here a drop of pure peace,
deep still water,
a mirror for ourselves.
And there the Golan Heights,
etched in shades of palest blue,
merge with sky.
What is this inland sea teaching,
born at the heart place
of this land?
It opens not to the world, to vast waters, but to us.
Drink of living water,
you who are divided.
— Maureen Grady, “Dawn Breaks Over the Sea of Galilee”
If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, "It's beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,"
I'd love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
and ask yourself, "I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them."
— Richard Brautigan, “Your Catfish Friend”
There is perhaps no expression more traditionally misunderstood than Jesus' invitation to these workers to become "fishers of men" (1:17). This metaphor, despite the grand old tradition of missionary interpretation, does not refer to the "saving of souls," as if Jesus were conferring upon these men instant evangelist status. Rather, the image is carefully chosen from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used as a symbol of Yahweh's censure of Israel. Elsewhere the "hooking of fish" is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and powerful (Ezekiel 29:4). Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.
. . . The point here is that following Jesus requires not just assent of the heart, but a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships. The first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the "world" of the disciple: in the kingdom, the personal and the political are one. . . This is not a call "out" of the world, but into an alternative social practice.
— Ched Myers, “Binding the Strong Man”
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