Fishers of men? Here's the catch ... Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 4:12–23:

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen. From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him. He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.

Give a man a fish, a proverb instructs, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. (My dad tried that with me, and let’s just say that it’s a good thing Mom still bought fish.) But what if you take away his fishing nets and set him far away from his trade? What does it take to walk away from the only sustenance-providing work you know, just to join a ministry that focuses only on feeding the souls of others?

Today’s readings gloss over a critical point about Jesus’ call to the fishermen to become these “fishers of men.” They would have known nothing other than their trade to feed themselves and their families, and these were not times in which people socked away enough for a sabbatical from their careers. We know Peter was at least married, so he had family obligations. Andrew, James, and John had to work to feed themselves, likely every day except the Sabbath, and had to compete with each other and other fishermen in Galilee to sell their catches. Not only were these men unlikely theologians — those got chosen much earlier in the life of Hebraic communities — but they were among the working poor in a region under Roman occupation and heavy taxation.

If all you do is teach a man to fish and then take him out of the water, what does he have left?

Clearly the Lord had placed His finger on the hearts of these disciples, but the context of their choice is still worth pondering, because it was still their choice. Jesus did not order them out of their boats and their comfort zones; He invited them to join Him. Nor did He promise them wealth, riches, or even a morsel to eat. These four apostles first joined with Jesus and deliberately left their sustenance trade on the promise that they would help save others, not so much themselves.

This is the self-giving love that Jesus would preach and exemplify in presenting salvation, but it is also a reflection of the model of salvation from the beginning. The Lord chose the Hebrews to be His instrument of salvation to the world, eventually rescuing them from Egypt and bringing them to the Promised Land for that purpose. The Israelites would build the City on the Hill, Jerusalem, as a place for the world to come hear the Word of God and be converted by this nation of priests and prophets. It was for this purpose that Moses led them and delivered them the Laws, so that they might be outward-directed in caritas rather than concerned over their own portion and power in the world.

In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus begin this process all over again with Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Once John the Baptist’s prophesying is fulfilled in Jesus’ baptism, Jesus rebuilds that path of salvation by which the world will be converted through the Israelites. This time, however, Jesus chooses men who are willing to give up any sense of their own power and connection to this world, men who are willing to throw in completely for others for their own sakes.

Here’s the catch, however: none of these men are perfect either. They only slowly begin to realize that there’s a catch to this mission — that it will require them to change their own hopes, dreams, and ambitions. Judas Iscariot never submitted to that and was lost. James and John would jockey for power. Peter would deny Jesus three times during the Passion to protect himself. Thomas would scoff at Jesus’ resurrection until he put his hands into the wounds to see for himself. Not until the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost would the disciples fully grasp that their mission would mean giving their lives — literally for almost all of them — to save both Israelites and Gentiles alike through the preaching of God’s love and mercy and repentance of sin.

They became fishers of men rather than fishermen, and in doing so built a church to provide that path of salvation by which the world could be converted. The apostles also understood that the temptations of worldly power and ambition would always threaten that connection, just as it had for the ancient Davidic kingdom. In our second reading from Corinthians, Paul issued a warning to those who would elevate apostles and preachers above the Word and above Christ as well:

For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.

Paul’s warning emphasizes the lesson of today’s Gospel. In order to become His disciple, we all have to leave the boats behind. We cannot put ourselves above Christ; we cannot effectively build salvation by working for ourselves first and foremost. We are all called to be fishers of men for other men, not for our own sake. And in that way, we can all share in the glory of Christ.

The front page image is “Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew,” English engraving c. 1160-1180, on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.