Mark 1:14-20. I Will Make of You Fishers of Men.

Our Gospel reading for the third Sunday in ordinary time comes from the first chapter of Mark. This reading picks up where the reading for the Second Sunday in Advent (Mark 1:1-8) left off.  Last week, we had an account from John’s Gospel of the call of Peter. This week, we have an abbreviated account of the calling of Peter & Andrew, and James & John.

Fishers of Men

The image of the disciples as fisherman is evident in all four Gospel accounts.  But Luke’s account of the call of Peter is slightly different than that in Matthew or Mark.  In the Lucan account, Jesus tells Peter to put our his net, and Peter doubts that the advice will work.  Then Peter does as Jesus asks, and Peter pulls in a large haul.  The fourth evangelist shifts this Lucan scene to the final chapter of John.  In John 21, Peter declares that he intends to go fishing, and the other disciples follow him. After a night with no luck, a man on the shore appears and tells them to put out their net, and they catch a great haul of fish. Only then do they realize that the man on the shore is Jesus.

"Fishers of Men," Adriaen Van de Venne, 1614. Rijksmusem, Amsterdam. Van de Venne's painting is a humorous comment on the competition for souls between Reformed and Catholic clergy in the Netherlands.

But it is only in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark that Jesus coins the term fishers of men  (ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων – haleis anthropon).  The writers of Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus expoits the imagery and symbolism of their careers.  Peter and Andrew are fishermen.  Jesus implicitly tells them, forget about the fish, I need disciples to assist me in my ministry.  

“Fishers of Men” in Mark and Matthew

Matthew the Evangelist is a crackerjack scholar of the Old Testament. He may have been a tax collector, but he was also a good Jew who studied the Tanakh and referred to it liberally in his own Gospel.  Anyone who has read this blog knows that I have been insisting that Mark’s Gospel is theologically dependent on Matthew.  In other words, Matthew wrote his Gospel first, and then Mark consulted with Peter as to the creation of a second Gospel based on Matthew’s.  If this is so, what is the Old Testament imagery that jumped out at Matthew?  If Matthew had heard the story from Peter or Jesus that Jesus said, come after me, and I will make you fishers of men, did this statement ring true in his very Jewish ears as fulfilling a prophecy?

The Parallel with the Prophet Ezekiel

The answer is, very possibly.  On the one hand, there are very few references to fishermen in the Old Testament. Yet fishermen figure in Ezekiel’s eschatological vision of the New Jerusalem. When Ezekiel describes his vision of the New Jerusalem, he tells us that fishermen will line the banks of the river that flows out from the Holy City.  Oh, and by the way, the Sea of Galilee (where the Apostles were called) empties into the River Jordan (from whence the Messiah is to come), which is the river that runs closest to the historic city of Jerusalem.

In Ezekiel 47:5-10, we are told that a stream of water that flows from the Temple in Jerusalem will eventually become a great river.  This river is a source of life, and those fisherman who fish these waters will prosper:

Again he measured a thousand (cubits), and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. And he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?” Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. And he said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the stagnant waters of the sea, the water will become fresh. 

And wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live, and there will be very many fish; for this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes.  Fishermen will stand beside the sea; from En-ge’di to En-eg’laim it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. 

In Matthew and Mark’s account of the call of the first Apostles, we can see that Jesus is saying, “yes you will be fishermen,” and “yes, you will be successful in your vocation,” and “yes, the source of your success will be the waters that flow from the side of the Temple.”

But the waters in which the Apostles are called to work are not the waters of the Sea of Galilee:

After John had been arrested,

Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.”

As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea;
they were fishermen.
Jesus said to them,
“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.
He walked along a little farther
and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John.
They too were in a boat mending their nets.
Then he called them.
So they left their father Zebedee in the boat
along with the hired men and followed him.

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