14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
I went fishing with my family a while back, and things get pretty quiet out on the lake, and maybe even a little bit boring. So I asked my children if they wanted to listen to some music while we fished, and they asked, “What kind of music do you listen to when you fish, Dad?”
I said, “I don’t know, something catchy?”
I’m not much of a fisherman. The last time I fished I used a plastic Fisher Price fishing pole emblazoned with Mini Mouse. We ate like kings and queens that night, which is to say that we got fast food on the way home. All I caught was algae. Actually, my entire family has been sick this week, everyone but me. So I guess that you could say that I can’t even catch a cold, let alone a fish.
I may not be a very good fisherman, but I think that we all get the basic idea. You bait your hook with something tasty, something tempting to the fish. You throw that baited hook out into the water and wait for some unsuspecting fish to come along and take a bite. Then you battle the fish for a period of time until it gets loose or you reel him in. Or, as they did in commercial fishing endeavors of Jesus’s day, you throw a net into the water, immobilizing the fish below, preventing them from swimming off, and forcefully pull them onto your boat.
All of that is to say that I find a few places where the metaphor of fishing for people breaks down.
This is a popular passage that is used to describe how Christians are to go out into the world and make more Christians. But I don’t think that hooks and nets were meant to be the main imagery here. Though if we are being honest, many Christians do a little bait-and-switch act when they introduce people to the Gospel.
This isn’t about a bait and switch. Nor is it about filling your net with fish or hooking people by the lip, and dragging them into a boat, or dragging them into the kingdom. In fact, I would say that this is even more than just a convenient metaphor that Jesus uses to connect with Simon, Andrew, James, and John, who happen to be fishermen. No, what Jesus is doing here is inviting these men into a radically different lifestyle, a lifestyle which in turn invites others as well. I would say that Jesus is inviting them to see the world differently.
Our scripture for this morning starts with verse 14, but I want to skip over verses 14-15 and come back to them shortly. Looking at 16 we find Jesus beginning his ministry along the Sea of Galilee. He sees two brothers, Simon, who is also called Peter, and Andrew…who is also called Andy. I just assume everyone had nicknames. As Jesus went a little further, he comes across brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who are also called “Boanerges,” which means “Sons of Thunder.”
In addition to them all having nicknames, all of these men were fishermen. And Jesus calls out to these two sets of brothers and invites them to follow him. To Simon and Andrew he offers this metaphor that would have been familiar to them. Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (v.17b).
But this is more than just a familiar metaphor for these fishermen. And it is surely not meant that they are to bring people to Jesus with hooks and nets.
The imagery of fishers fishing for men comes up a number of times in the Hebrew Bible. And being Jewish men, these brothers would have made the connection to passages like Jeremiah 16:16. Let’s go back to Jeremiah 16:14-15 for some context: “‘However, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when it will no longer be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but it will be said, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ For I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors.”
Jeremiah is addressing a portion of Hebrew people in exile and proclaiming that God will bring them back to the Promised Land. Now verse 16, “‘But now I will send for many fishermen,’ declares the Lord, ‘and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.’”
I want to admit that this is an extremely difficult passage to interpret, and there is not consensus among scholars about a number of issues here. So I’ll tell you what others have said, and then I’m going to give you my interpretation.
One interpretation is that God is going to send out fishermen and hunters to gather in the sinful Israelites so that he can punish them. This is especially understandable when you read verse 18a, “I will repay them double for their wickedness and their sin.”
The Word of God, for the People of God…
Some claim that the fishermen represent a gentle gathering of the Israelites for judgement while the hunters represent a violent gathering. I even read one person’s interpretation that said the fishermen represent the Christians who are trying to bring safety to scattered Jewish population today, while the hunters represent the Nazis who violently pursued the Jews during the Holocaust. This implies that the Holocaust was God’s judgement on the sinfulness of the Jews.
I’m not going with that one.
As I was reading a commentary by OT scholar Walter Bruggemann, I was reminded of Isaiah 40. Bruggemann notes that the language of repaying double for the wickedness of sins is very similar to what Isaiah says when he speaks words of comfort to the people after the exile. It doesn’t make sense to think that God punishes people double for their wickedness. No, God is fair, God is just. In the Old Testament God teaches “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The punishment should fit the crime. But what does seem consistent with God’s character is that he repays people with a double portion of grace for their wickedness. Neither Jeremiah 16 nor Isaiah 40 say how God is repaying these people double for their sins.
My interpretation of Jeremiah 16:16 is that God is now calling the Israelites back to the Promised Land. Yes, he is judging their wicked actions, but he is offering a double portion of grace and forgiveness. And the idea of sending out fishermen and hunters isn’t to suggest that some will be brought back violently and others brought back peacefully, as if fishing is peaceful for the fish! Isaiah isn’t saying that there will be nets, guns, or spears involved. When I read Jeremiah 16, especially when I read it through the lens of the New Testament and the person of Jesus, I find a God who is sending out fishermen and hunters, a God who will search over land and sea, to find those who have sinned, to find those who have wandered away, to find those who are at a distance, to offer them grace and forgiveness. God will search land and sea to bring people back from exile and into his kingdom.
And Jeremiah isn’t the only Old Testament writer to use this image of fishing for men and women. I won’t read through them all here, but you can find similar references in Habakkuk 1:14–15; Ezekiel 29:4–5; 38:4; Isaiah 37:29, and Amos 4:1-2. Not all references use this metaphor in the exact same way, but they always suggest taking someone out of one context and placing them into another.
So when Jesus says, “I will make you fishers of men,” he is just using a metaphor that will be familiar to Simon, Andrew, James, and John because they are fishermen, but also because from a young age they would have studied the scriptures.
Now with all of this information from the Old Testament, we must ask anew what it means to fish for people. Let’s back up to verses 14b-15: “Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”
You’ll see the phrase “good news” twice in those two verses, and it is used a third time earlier in this chapter. We should take notice! As I’ve said before, the word that is translated “good news” is the Greek word, “euangelion.” We also translate euangelion as “gospel.” This is the gospel.
If you ask people, “What is the gospel,” many will say something along the lines of “Jesus died for my sins so I can go to heaven when I die.” I believe that is true, but there is more. Jesus didn’t come into Galilee in Mark 1 proclaiming that he had died for our sins. And in Matthew 10:5-15 we find Jesus sending his disciples on a mission. Verse 7 in the NRSV says, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’”
The death and resurrection of Jesus is an integral part of the good news, but Jesus himself says that the good news is that the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven is at hand. And what does one need to do to be a part of that kingdom? Repent and believe.
This is where I push back. Repent is such an ugly word. We hear preachers screaming on street corners that we need to repent or burn. I’ve seen pictures of protesting Christians with strongly-worded signs, including who God hates, and the eternal destiny of these people. I even found pictures of this gem of a van with lettering that emphasized that whoremongers will be going to hell, and then invited you to donate to the driver. And it make a case for giving to the driver because, and I quote, “Your pastor lied.” The tithe is 10%.
Remember that to repent, metanoia in Greek, literally means to turn. Some need to turn more than others, but we all need to turn. When our lives don’t line up perfectly with God’s desires, we need to turn.
So let’s go back to the imagery of the fishermen and hunters from Jeremiah 16. God says that he will send out fishermen and hunters to search the waters, the mountains, and the valleys. God will search land and sea for those who have wandered away. And God will bring them back, offering a double portion of his grace. But in order to come back, they must turn away from something. It is the job of the fishermen and hunters to show the people that what is being offered, the Kingdom of God, is more beautiful, more holy, more right, more loving, and more peaceful than anything else that is out there.
There is a saying that fish don’t know that they are in water. Most fish have never been out of water, so they simply don’t know anything but water. As author, musician, entrepreneur, and public speaker Derek Sivers writes, “Fish don’t know they’re in water. If you tried to explain it, they’d say, ‘Water? What’s water?’ They’re so surrounded by it, that it’s impossible to see. They can’t see it until they get outside of it. This is how I feel about culture.”
Many people have never spent a significant amount of time in a different culture. But when you do, you start to notice things are done differently. When I was in Trinidad I was shocked to see multiple generations living under one roof. These were grown men and women with good jobs. Couldn’t they afford their own place? When I was in Jamaica, I was surprised by the way that they drive. Do those lines on the road not mean anything here? When I was in Texas, I was surprised by their diet. Have you not heard of vegetables?
Anyone who has ever been married or lived with a non-relative roommate soon realizes that not every family does everything the same. Do you sit down to eat together every meal? Do you say a prayer, or even sing a prayer? If all you ever know is your own way of doing something, you might not know that other cultures even exist. And you might be missing out on something beautiful.
I wonder if the job of a fisherman or a fisherwoman today is to show people other ways of seeing the world. Even as our world expands through electronic devices and social media, our circles of influence continue to shrink. We watch one news station or go to one website. We interact with the same friends day in and day out. And we don’t even realize that we are swimming in water because we don’t know any different.
I think that the role of the fisherman and fisherwoman is to pull the fish out of the water so that they can experience something different. No, not forcefully removing someone from the water, but showing them that there are other options.
In a culture that knows nothing but revenge, we show others forgiveness. In a culture that knows nothing but selfishness, we offer generosity. In a culture that known nothing but punishment, we offer grace. In a world that asks, “What can these people offer us?” We ask, “What can we offer them?”
Two years ago, when Paxton was in kindergarten, we made the decision to place our first-born child on a big, yellow bus with a bunch of strangers. “Just bring him back in a few hours!” As a parent, you need to learn to give up control, because you have no control over what happens on the bus. You might think that you have some control over what happens at home, but it’s like Lord of the Flies on the bus.
There was a little girl who rode the bus with Paxton who we later found out had a challenging first five years of life. She came out of an abusive situation and was living with a foster mom just up the hill from us. One day Paxton and this girl got off the bus, and the bus driver called the foster mother over and told her that the girl had been spitting on other kids, including my son. And for some reason, Tom Jones’s “She’s a Lady” starts going through my head.
The next day Paxton comes home with a note from this little girl, apologizing for spitting on him. And without prompting, Paxton said, “I want to write her a note back.” So in his best five-year-old penmanship, he scribbled, “I forgive you” on a card and took it to her the next day.
Two years go by and I find out that the foster mother and one of my friends walk together in the park. Sonya ran into them while she was jogging. The little girl had gone on to another family, but the foster mother still had stories about that challenging experience. And she told my friend about the spitting experience and Paxton’s forgiveness offered in a card. Through tears she said to my friend, “Who does that?”
Today I want to say that fishermen and fisherwomen do that.
Through our words and actions, we show people that something different is possible. A different kingdom is at hand. God has been searching the land and the sea, and if you will turn to him, you can be a part of something beautiful.