I remember my Dad taking me fishing once. (Imagine a Johnny Dangerously kind of once.) I wasn’t able to sit still long enough to enjoy the experience—even though now I would love a few hours by a stream or on a lake just listening to nature—not fishing, I don’t eat fish and when I see folks fishing on the IB Pier I have to fight the urge to throw the poor gasping things back into the ocean. I also wasn’t able to deal with worm guts. I’ll just leave that there.
So to be honest, I have a really difficult time with the phrase “fish for people” or “fishers of men” because, well, fishing just isn’t my world.
But the passage from Matthew isn’t about fishing, not really. It’s about context and audience.
One author describes the life of a Jewish boy as follows(1):
“Around six years old many Jewish kids would have gone to school for the first time…This first level of education was called Bet Sefer (which means “House of the Book”) and lasted until the student was about ten years old…
By age ten students had begun to sort themselves out. Some would demonstrate natural abilities with the Scriptures and distance themselves from the others. These students went to the next level called Bet Talmud (which means “House of Learning”) and lasted until sometime around age fourteen.
Students who didn’t continue their education would continue learning the family trade…
Around the age of fourteen or fifteen, at the end of Bet Talmud, only the best of the best were still studying…Those now remaining would now apply to a well-known rabbi to become one of that rabbi’s talmidim (disciples)…This level of education was called Bet Midrash (“House of Study”). A student would present himself to a rabbi and say, “Rabbi, I want to be one of your disciples.”
And the rabbi would then determine: “you can be one of my talmidim” or “Go home and learn the family business.”
So somewhere along the way Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee had been told, “Guys, you’re good Jewish boys, and I can tell you love Adonai and his commandments, but you really need to stick to fishing.”
It’s like those easy or not so easy let downs during American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance. I can tell you obviously love to dance and dancing gives you joy…but you just don’t have what it takes.” And after rebuilding some of the damaged ego, those inevitable words come, “Now, sashay away.”
When Jesus says, “I’ll make you fish for people,” it’s not about fish, or even the art or profession of fishing; it’s about the people he’s calling. “Jesus calls the not-good-enoughs.” (2)
If we remember that we’re in the weeks following the Feast of Epiphany, and that all of our texts will deal with the manifestation of God to the people of the world, then the idea that Jesus walks along a shoreline and picks these guys who have been told — at least once — “Keep learning your family’s business” — that he calls the “not-good-enoughs” — should open our minds and hearts to the reality that God and the Church of God are exactly for the “Not-good-enoughs.”
Maybe we forget that God called Abrahm—the man the author to the letter to the Hebrews calls “as good as dead.”
Maybe we forget that God identified the Hebrews as his chosen people, even though they were the slaves of the Egyptians.
Maybe we forget that God called Gideon — a man so afraid of the Midianites that we was threshing wheat in the bottom of a wine press so no one would see him.
Maybe we forget because we are really quick to turn Abraham and Sarah and Miriam and Moses, and Gideon and Deborah, and Samson and Delilah into these epic stories of heroes and heroines, but they’re stories are only worth noting because opened themselves to the idea that God could do something amazing in their lives.
And Jesus, in keeping with that same tradition, calls men (and women) who were only good enough to keep learning the family trade. He calls people who, for a variety of reasons, aren’t considered “good enough” to have a Holy Vocation, to follow after him in a Holy Life.
I used to think that Jesus saying “I will make you fish for people” was about taking our ordinary vocations and translating them into something that can be used for God—so musicians would become Christian musicians; writers would be invited to become purveyors of Christian fiction; painters would hear the call to become then next Thomas Kinkade.
But I’m beginning to think that maybe it’s not about the job but about the people. Think about it. Matthew says that when Jesus extends the invitation, “Follow me,” that they immediately left their nets, that they immediately left the boat and their father, and followed him.
If you’ve ever been to Pike Place Market you may have noticed that in certain areas there is a certain scent to the place. A couple of small markets in Little Italy downtown San Diego wear the same cologne as those areas of Pike Place. So now, these guys who were just casting nets to catch fish, who were just in the boat with their father bringing in the catch of the day, are walking behind their new rabbi and it probably smells a bit like those areas of Pike Place.
But this is who God calls the Church to be. A body of people who are following after this particular manifestation of God who believes that Freak and Geeks can actually make the world a better place, just by being Freak and Geeks.
I guess what I am saying is that it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the work of ministry, the work of being a disciple, is for superstars or extra-ordinary people. But Jesus calls ordinary, average people to be his followers.
I like to think that they’re walking along and maybe in the background of the scene you would hear Joe Walsh singing:
We all live ordinary average lives
With average kids
And average wives
We all go bowling at the bowling lanes
Drink a few beers
Bowl a few frames
We’re just ordinary average guys
The apostle Paul echoes this theme in his letter to Corinth when he says that we wasn’t sent to baptize but “to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” He’s saying I didn’t come with Ph.D. level rhetoric or language, but as an ordinary guy with ordinary language, so that what stands out is the work of God.
It’s an amazing opportunity to reclaim—or realize—the understanding that God calls the ordinary, because who you are as a person has the ability to reach other people with the message of grace and reconciliation. And when one person, or one group of people, because to live out of an empowerment of their “Sombodiness” then Holy things happen. When we let the divine work in us and through us, then our everyday living has meaning.
“Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” I have that sign in my office; I have had it hanging near me in most every office I have occupied for the past 15 years of ministry because when we realize that we are a people set apart, and that our very living can be used by God—no matter what “station” we may perceive ourselves to have—then great things can happen.
(1) Bell, Rob (2012-07-24). Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (p. 130). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition