In Matthew’s account of the call of the first disciples, we don’t really learn anything about these four men except that they are fishermen by trade. Their social background would be humble and definitely working class. And we see these men respond immediately to the call of Christ, so immediately that they are willing to abandon their trades and families to follow him. What could be so compelling?
Maybe it’s how they interpret the invitation, which is decidedly odd: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” The older versions of the Bible have it as, “I will make you fishers of men.”
There is a similar passage in Jeremiah 16:16 – “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them.” But in that context, the fishermen are invading armies who will fish for the unfaithful people of Israel and destroy them.
And then, what happens to a fish when it is caught? It dies! Does our fishing for people result in their spiritual death? Is the church full of spiritually dead people?
And typically a fish doesn’t want to be caught and is pulled on board the boat unwillingly. So are we to force people into church and force them into a relationship with God through which they will only encounter spiritual death?
When you break this metaphor down, it really is a bit odd and doesn’t really seem to speak well of Christianity. If we read it another way, I think we get a better insight into what follows throughout the Gospel stories.
These first disciples would probably have heard of Jesus: he was, after all, walking all around Galilee proclaiming the kingdom of God, and as Galilean fishermen, they would probably have either seen him action or at the very least have heard about him. Galilee was a small place and, undoubtedly, Jesus was making a name for himself, so it is very likely that these fishermen would have been aware of him.
They would also, perhaps, have heard of John the Baptist’s proclamation that Jesus was mightier than he was. And, as good Jews, they would probably have been aware of the Jeremiah 16:16 verse where spiritual fishing meant overcoming God’s enemies.
So what might have been going through their heads when they decided to leave all behind and follow this new, radical teacher who had come back to Galilee from out of the wilderness?
Power and authority.
These fishermen were powerless men, fairly poor men, looking forward only to a life of daily grind to earn a living under the regime of the Roman Empire. These fishermen weren’t part of the social elite. They weren’t the movers and shakers in society who were able to exercise political power. They weren’t the type of people who had any authority in society whatsoever. And here was a man in their midst, a man declared by John as a mighty judge, now using a phrase that seems to indicate that those who follow him will share in his power and authority and the right to judge others.
What an attractive proposition for these powerless fishermen who were grinding out a living under Roman occupation. Perhaps Peter and Andrew, James and John fundamentally misunderstood the call of Jesus. Perhaps they heard it in a completely different way than we read it in today. Perhaps they heard this, in the light of Jeremiah’s prophecy and John the Baptist’s ministry, as a call to a share in authority and believed it to be the way out of their poverty and powerlessness. Here was a call to a new life in which they would have power and authority and would be respected by everyone as a result.
They didn’t really know who Jesus was, and they didn’t understand the implications of his ministry, but they had a hunch that following him would be the way for them to achieve power, authority, glory and respect. And, of course, that was a fundamental misunderstanding that stayed with them throughout the rest of their time with Jesus: fighting over who would be sitting on Jesus’ left and right in heaven; refusing to serve others but wanting to be served; not understanding that they had to die in order to live; shooing away the children from Jesus so they could have more time with him; enjoying the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; rejoicing at the turning over of the tables in the Temple…and then being utterly distraught at the crucifixion; running away from the authorities; refusing to stand with Jesus in his hour of need; going back to their fishing boats after the crucifixion.
Peter and Andrew, James and John were called by Jesus to fish for people and the ambiguity of that phrase led them to fundamentally misunderstand their call. I think we need to redeem this passage for what it is rather than just see in it a simplistic call to mission and evangelism, which is what we have turned it into in the modern-day church.
The call of Jesus on our lives is completely countercultural; it goes completely against our expectations of what it should be, it turns our whole world on its head. Following Jesus does not take us where we expect to go. But the road that Jesus invites us to travel, as difficult and unpredictable as it is, is the path that allows you and me to fulfill God’s purpose for us in our lives.
These first four fishermen started to follow Jesus because it would give them a share of power and authority. But power and authority in the Christian life are never on the agenda. Maybe it’s culturally expected that we want power and authority and respect – but Jesus’ curious invitation instead will take us the way of the cross and give us the opportunity to die so that we might live.
Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will help you fish for people.” The church throughout history has taken this as a call to mission and evangelism – which it is. But underlying it is the personal challenge that all of us face when we become Christians that Jesus will take us in a direction that we least expect.
This part of Matthew’s Gospel should leave us feeling a little uncomfortable about what it means to be a Christian. We are not called to an easy life, we are not called to power and authority – but to a tough life that will constantly surprise us and challenge us. Jesus constantly calls his disciples, constantly calls each one of us, to a new way of living – and the disciples constantly misunderstand what that means for themselves. I suspect that you and I can be guilty of the same misunderstanding.
So maybe we want to re-frame that invitation. Rather than hearing, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” what Jesus has to say to you, to me, to each of us, is: “Follow me – and you will never know what’s coming next. But know this: in following me you will please the one who made you.”