Fishing boats in the harbour in Skerries, Co Dublin, earlier this month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Matthew 4: 12-23:
12 Ἀκούσας δὲ ὅτι Ἰωάννης παρεδόθη ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν. 13 καὶ καταλιπὼν τὴν Ναζαρὰ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς Καφαρναοὺμ τὴν παραθαλασσίαν ἐν ὁρίοις Ζαβουλὼν καὶ Νεφθαλίμ: 14 ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,
15 Γῆ Ζαβουλὼν καὶ γῆ Νεφθαλίμ,
ὁδὸν θαλάσσης, πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, Γαλιλαία τῶν ἐθνῶν,
16 ὁ λαὸς ὁ καθήμενος ἐν σκότει φῶς εἶδεν μέγα,
καὶ τοῖς καθημένοις ἐν χώρᾳ καὶ σκιᾷ θανάτου φῶς ἀνέτειλεν αὐτοῖς.
17 Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν καὶ λέγειν, Μετανοεῖτε, ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
18 Περιπατῶν δὲ παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν τῆς Γαλιλαίας εἶδεν δύο ἀδελφούς, Σίμωνα τὸν λεγόμενον Πέτρον καὶ Ἀνδρέαν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, βάλλοντας ἀμφίβληστρον εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν: ἦσαν γὰρ ἁλιεῖς. 19 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου, καὶ ποιήσω ὑμᾶς ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων. 20 οἱ δὲ εὐθέως ἀφέντες τὰ δίκτυα ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ. 21 Καὶ προβὰς ἐκεῖθεν εἶδεν ἄλλους δύο ἀδελφούς, Ἰάκωβον τὸν τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ μετὰ Ζεβεδαίου τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτῶν καταρτίζοντας τὰ δίκτυα αὐτῶν: καὶ ἐκάλεσεν αὐτούς. 22 οἱ δὲ εὐθέως ἀφέντες τὸ πλοῖον καὶ τὸν πατέρα αὐτῶν ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ.
23 Καὶ περιῆγεν ἐν ὅλῃ τῇ Γαλιλαίᾳ, διδάσκων ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς αὐτῶν καὶ κηρύσσων τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς βασιλείας καὶ θεραπεύων πᾶσαν νόσον καὶ πᾶσαν μαλακίαν ἐν τῷ λαῷ.
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles –
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake – for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’
The Gospel reading in the Revised Common Lectionary for tomorrow week, the Third Sunday after the Epiphany (23 January 2011), is: Matthew 4: 12-23.
On the previous Sunday, tomorrow morning (16 January 2011), we shall have read the account in Saint John’s Gospel of the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist and the calling of the first disciples (John 1: 29-42). This followed by the account in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, of Christ withdrawing to Galilee after the arrest of Saint John the Baptist, preaching in the area around Capernaum, and then, as he walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, calling his first disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter and the brothers James and John, son of Zebedee.
I imagine, as they listen to this Gospel reading in the pews, a number of phrases are going to resonate immediately:
● “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light” (verse 16);
● “for those who sat in the region and the shadow of death light has dawned” (verse 16);
● “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (verse 17);
● “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (verse 19);
● “Immediately they left their nets [or the boat …] and followed him” (see verses 20, 22).
Despite the familiarity of those phrases, I’m sure there are images and quotes that leap out at you on reading this passage afresh.
And some come back to us in the more familiar language of other translations and versions:
● “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (verse 17, RSV).
● Or, “Follow me, for I will make you fishers of men” (verse 19, RSV) for example?
In popular newspaper cartoons, humorous office absences are often indicated by a sign hung on the door declaring: “Gone Fishin’.”
Fishing in our culture is often seen by none-fishers as idleness, a sedentary past-time, taking it easy, doing nothing.
I can’t imagine it was like that for the first disciples. It was a tough career task: think of the night work, the storms, and the difficulties in finding a catch that occur time and again in the Gospels.
I don’t know which was a more difficult and demanding task: being a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, or being a Disciple of Christ … especially when the call comes from someone who has withdrawn to Galilee after the arrest of his cousin, the one who publicly baptised and acclaimed him, John the Baptist.
Either way, the four first disciples were going to have no lazy day by the shore or the river bank, or as followers of Christ.
Becoming “fishers of men,” “fishing for people,” is going to bring these Galilean fishers into a relationship not only with Jesus, with their families, with their neighbours, with the tax collectors, with Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots, with the powers of this world, with Gentiles, with the people who sat in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death.
Sometimes, in ordained ministry, we do not cast our nets far enough or deep enough. No wonder then that most of the time, when we pull in those nets, we find them empty.
There is saying that fish come in three sizes, small ones, medium ones and the ones that got away.
Too often in ordained ministry, we know about the small ones, we’re good with the medium ones, but we pay little attention to going after the ones that get away.
Fishermen taking care of their nets in the fishing harbour at Pythagoreio on the island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
I’m a vegetarian, but the image of patient fishing is worth working with. Ernest Hemingway, in The Old Man and The Sea, says “Il faut (d’abord) durer … It is necessary, above all else, to endure. It is necessary to endure.”
Many years ago, when I hitch-hiking and youth-hostelling in peaks on the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire in my late teens, and staying in Ilam Hall, I came across the work of that great Anglican writer, Izaak Walton (1593-1683), known not only for his biographies of John Donne, George Herbert and Richard Hooker, but also known as the author of The Compleat Angler.
In The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton points out that fishing can teach us patience and discipline. Fishing takes practice, preparation, discipline; like discipleship, it has to be learned, and learning requires practice before there are any results. And sometimes, whether it is fishing in a river or fishing in the sea, the best results can come from going against the current.
Walking along the pier in a small Greek fishing village last summer, as I watched the careful early morning work of the crews in the trawlers and fishing boats, I realised good fishing does not come about by accident. It also requires paying attention to the nets, moving them carefully, mending them, cleaning them after each and every use, hanging them out to dry,.
And fishing is also about noticing the weather, watching the wind and the clouds. Good fishing takes account of contexts … it is incarnational.
And all of these apply to the work of ordained ministry.
Time and again in Gospels, the Kingdom of God is compared to huge net cast over different numbers of people and species. We are the ones called to cast that net, but do so we need to attend to our own discipline, endurance, and patience.
Ordained ministry is not passive following of Christ.
We can’t hang any sign outside on our office doors saying: “Gone Fishin’.”
Nor can we passively stand by the bank or on the shore, content with two sizes of fish. We are called to go after the one that others let get away, not just those who come to Church regularly, but their families, with their neighbours, with the tax collectors, with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots of our age, with the powers of this world, with Gentiles, and especially with the people who sit in darkness and in the region of the shadow of death.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with NSM and part-time MTh students on 15 January 2011.