Yes, why didn't he call on a few journalists to "spread the good news" instead of a bunch of poorly educated fisherfolk? Or, for "journalists" insert whatever your occupation or calling happens to be. Today's Puzzling Passage from Dr Ian Elmer explores the meaning in Jesus' first call being to fishermen.
There is an intriguing scene in the humorous Australian film, Crocodile Dundee (1986), where the central character, Michael J. "Crocodile" Dundee (Paul Hogan), speaks about his religious faith.
In answer to a question from the American journalist, Sue Charlton (Linda Kozlowski), about his fear of dying after an earlier brush with a huge crocodile, Mick Dundee replies:
Nah. I read The Bible once. You know God and Jesus and all them apostles? They were all fishermen, just like me. Yeah, straight to heaven for Mick Dundee. Yep, me and God, we'd be mates.
Mick Dundee has a point. The first disciples were all fishermen and much of Jesus' early ministry appears to have been exercised amongst the fisherfolk who plied their trade on the Sea of Galilee.
Matthew's Gospel (4:12-23) relates that Jesus chose to relocate his mission to the seaside fishing village of Capernaum and that the first disciples whom he called were four fishermen, Simon (Peter), his brother Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John.
Three of these four disciples, Peter, James and John, would become part of Jesus' most intimate inner circle (17:1-13; 26:37) and, later, all four would be commissioned as "apostles" (10:2) — an event which is prefigured in Matthew's gospel where Jesus promised to make them "fishers of people". But this event has an even older history.
According to Matthew, Jesus' relocation to Capernaum and his work amidst the fisherfolk of that village and its surrounds was foretold by Isaiah, who the coming of new life from the fabled lands of "Zebulun" and "Naphtali" that abutted the Sea of Galilee.
The idea inherent in the fishing motif seems to have been that the apostles would "lure" converts into the Jesus Movement much as they had the fishes of the sea. But perhaps there was also a very practical reason for Jesus choosing fishermen as his disciples and missionaries, which goes to the very heart of our understanding of the Christian vocation.
Fisherfolk of the Eschaton...
Of all our canonical Gospels, Matthew's Gospel is the most apocalyptic in its outlook. The Greek word, apokalypto, literally means to "to lift the lid" — that is to "reveal" something that is yet unknown or unseen.
Matthew is charged with an apocalyptic fervour that presents the story of Jesus as the harbinger of the end times, the last days (eschaton) of the present world order. Matthew's Gospel is as much an example of that genre of writing, apocalyptic eschatology (visions of the future), we usually only associate with the likes of the Book of Revelation or the prophet Ezekiel. And like the author of Revelation, Matthew is reflecting on earlier eschatological motifs found in the likes of Ezekiel and Isaiah.
The image of fisherfolk spreading their nets to capture a huge haul of those destined to be saved from the final judgement also reminds us of the eschatological visions of a restored Israel in Ezekiel. In Ezekiel (47:9-11), fisherfolk ply their trade along a wonderful and superabundant steam that flows from the Temple out into the desert bringing fertility and new life to the whole land of Israel (47:13-20), turning the salt water of the Dead Sea fresh and the barren wilderness into a green orchard.
Following that line of thought, the reference to the ancestral lands and patriarchs of "Zebulun" and "Naphtali" in Matthew's quote from Isaiah (Matt 4:15-16) are similarly significant.
According to Genesis (49:13-14), "Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his flank shall be at Sidon". While the geography is qualified with the usual want of precision, it seems clear that Zebulun occupied the northern parts of Galilee west of the Jordan, with the west shore of the Sea of Galilee near its borders.
As a son of Nazareth, Jesus was a Zebulunite by domicile and, through the tribe of Judah, by birth. Moreover, Jesus was a son of Zebulun like the prophet Jonah, who had much to do with ships and fish. And Matthew's Jesus, in particular, makes mention of Jonah and the men of Nineveh in his teaching (e.g., Matt 12:39-41; 16:4). Jonah was not only renowned for spending three days in apparent death in the belly of primordial sea monster Leviathan, but he was a prophet among the Gentiles — all of which served to make him a "sign" for the future mission of Jesus (Matt 16:4).
Turning to Naphtali, we find a pedigree that bespeaks the characteristics of a deer swift at bearing "lovely fawns" (Gen 49:21) — sometimes translated as "good news" (Derritt, 1980) — and finding "favour" with God are granted all the riches of the Sea of Galilee (Deut 33:23). Moreover, in later rabbinical tradition this last instruction from Deuteronomy was interpreted as granting to the Naphtalites alone the entitlement to harvest the superabundant fish of the Lake, while fishing with a line was permitted to any Israelite by the Deuteronomic legislation.
Hence, when Matthew opens his story of Jesus with a relocation to Capernaum he, unlike his source in Mark's Gospel (Mk 1:16-20), presents Jesus' actions as a conscious fulfilment of the prophesy of Isaiah (8:23-9:1) that, from the lands of "Zebulun" and "Naphtali", light would dawn on all "people who sit in darkness, overshadowed by death". The actions of the Matthean Jesus are such as to bring people living in darkness to a light which is also new life.
The Lukan story of the incident is different in many respects, with the disciples responding to a miraculous catch of fish rather than a pre-emptive call from Jesus. In Matthew, this story acts as an entree into the Sermon on the Mount, which signals the advent of the new Moses whose teachings represent the definitive interpretation and fulfilment of the Law. Matthew's community viewed itself as the faithful remnant, the foretold "assembly (Gk. Ekklesia) of God". Its apostolic forebears are styled as the fisherfolk of the eschaton, the descendents of Naphtali, whose right it was to harvest converts from the rich depths of humanity.
Fisherfolk as Disciples...
The job of a fisherman in Jesus' day was difficult. Fishermen worked year-round in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, often at night. They were skilled at making and mending nets; at catching a variety of fish; and at processing the fish for consumption or sale.
It is possible, therefore, that Jesus called fishermen to his retinue not only because the imagery evoked by their occupation mirrored their vocation, but also because they were a hardy group of skilled workers and personable salespeople, whose occupation brought them into contact with a wide range of potential customers from all walks of life.
There is something quite distinctive about the character of fisherfolk and their trade, which sets them apart from farmers, sheep herders and other agriculturalists. The agriculturalists are people of habit, copying his neighbours. A farmer has periods of furious activity during planting and harvest, and periods of inactivity, even laziness, while awaiting the harvest. The fisherman, on the other hand, will fish year round; going out with little warning, and subject to the vastitudes of capricious sea.
From the point of view of the mission-field the conditions of fishing are not at all inappropriate. Seeking people to follow Jesus would take the same care, dedication, and skill used in fishing (Matt 10:5-15; 40-42). The disciples learned that they must seek all kinds of people to follow Jesus; although, as every fisher knows, some would "get away" (Matt 10:14-15).
Like Peter and Andrew, the brothers Zebedee and even Mick Dundee, Christians are very ordinary, down-to-earth people. The gifts they bring to their Christian vocation are all-too-often the skills inherent to their everyday experiences and occupations. And, similarly, the people to whom they are called to minister are found in their own homes and workplaces.
The fisherman Mick Dundee was confident that he would be "mates" with God. The image invoked here is an eschatological one — albeit from a more personal or individual perspective than that which we find in Matthew. Mick assumes that in the "kingdom in heaven", he will be found swapping fish stories with "God and Jesus and all them apostles".
In exploring that image, I am reminded of a comment I've made elsewhere regarding Charles de Foucauld (Brother Charles of Jesus). Brother Charles was monk and priest who forsook the monastery cloister to live among the Tuareg tribesmen of the Saharan desert.
Charles would later say that he wanted to be among those who were, "the furthest removed, the most abandoned". He wanted all who drew close to him to find in him a brother, "a universal brother" (Voillaume, 1975).
The remarkable thing about Brother Charles was that he always felt that he had no "vocation" as such, no specific call from God. He simply did what was presented to him by life; helped those in need whom he encountered; prayed for those who were in his life. His fellow "little brother" Rene Voillaume (1975: 7) spoke of Brother Charles' notion that "God does not guide us in the abstract, or in some vague way ... [but] God reveals himself in the most personal circumstances of life ... [in our] 'living' now".
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2010Dr Ian Elmer