Fishing

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.  In yesterday’s post we looked to the people called to accompany Jesus on his mission. Today we discuss some insights about fishing in the first century as well as being “caught” in our time.Clearly Jesus is calling the disciples to a life with him.  But every “calling to” is by default a “calling from” in some sense. Fishing was not as easy as getting a boat and “having at it.”

Fishing was controlled by the “powers that be” in two ways. (1) Commercial fishermen worked for the royal family or wealthy landlords who contracted with them to provide a specific amount of fish at a certain time. They were paid either with cash or with fish. (2) Fishermen leased their fishing rights from persons called “toll collectors” in the NT for a percentage of the catch. The “tax” could be as much as 40% (see Malina & Rohrbach, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 44).

Thus, Jesus calling fishermen is more than just calling them away from their families. It also involves a break from the “powers that be” — the wealthy and or the government — and into a new power: the reign of heaven. Carter (Matthew and the Margins) comments about significance of Jesus calling fishermen:

The double call narrative in 4:18-22, then, utilizes a common form to present Jesus as God’s agent enacting his commission to manifest God’s saving presence, the empire of the heavens, and to legitimate the beginning of an alternative community of disciples called to live on the basis of this reign. The calls occur in the midst of the empire’s close control of fishing whereby licensing, quotas, and taxation secure Rome’s sovereignty over the water and its contents. Jesus’ call contests this dominant reality by asserting God’s sovereignty and offering an alternative way of life. [p. 120]

While the fishermen have some economic resources, their social ranking is very low. In Cicero’s ranking of occupations (De Off 1.150-51), owners of cultivated land appear first and fishermen last. Athenaeus indicates that fishermen and fishmongers are on a par with money lenders and are socially despised as greedy thieves (Deipnosophistai, 6.224b-28c). The two characters have a socially inferior and economically precarious existence under Roman control. It is among such vulnerable people that God’s empire is first manifested. [p. 121]

At one level the phrase does bring up an image of the unwilling being netted and dragged into the boat/the church. Perhaps it isn’t so bad for parents to “drag” their children to church. Maybe we should “drag” more people into church, whether or not they want to come. Put up roadblocks on the street and force the cars into our parking lots! Or maybe the “dragging” indicates that the coming of the Kingdom is out of our control. We are going to be “caught” in its coming whether we like it or not.

Generally we view being captured in such a way as a negative thing; but we also talk about being “captured by love”. The relationship of love is often something out of our control. It happens to us. When its power runs its full effect, it means a change in life — marriage is as much a dying to the old life as it is the beginning of a new life. That new life brings with it new relatives, whether we want them or not. Being captured by Jesus’ irresistible call meant an end to the old life and relations for the fishermen, so that they might start begin a new life together as followers of Jesus.


Image credit: Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter, c. 1636-40, by Nicholas Poussin, Public Domain

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