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Friday, January 24, 2020

"They Were Fishermen" - 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

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.


Did you ever notice that Christianity has a thing with fishing? There are some pretty vivid examples in the Old Testament. The prophets, for instance, often threaten Israel’s enemies by insisting God will “put hooks in their jaws… and draw them up out of the midst of their streams… and cast them forth into the wilderness” (Ez 29:4-5). In the Book of Tobit, there’s a wild story about Sarah’s cousin who reels in a massive fish that, at the same time, is trying to swallow him whole, all while the Archangel Raphael cheers him on (Tob 6:1-5). They can’t all be winners, of course. Jonah was bested by a fish, gulped up by some mysterious creature of the sea (Jnh 1:17).
The Christian scriptures, too, are chock-full of references to fish and fishing. “What father among you,” Jesus said, “if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent” (Lk 11:11)? We should not be surprised, then, to find Peter and Andrew in today’s Gospel “casting a net into the sea” (Mt 4:18) and their friends James and John in a boat nearby. This is the Judeo-Christian thing. And Jesus stuck with the fishing metaphors throughout his ministry. He compared the kingdom of heaven to “a net thrown into the sea gathering fish of every kind” (Mt 13:47). He even told Peter once that he’d find a shekel for the Temple tax in the mouth of his first catch of the day (Mt 17:27). Clearly fishing was important to these people.

In his novel The River Why, David James Duncan joked about how the apostle John ― a fisherman by trade ― insists on telling us in his Gospel the precise number of fish the apostles caught the day they spotted Jesus, risen again from the dead, by the Sea of Tiberias: “Peter went and hauled the net full of fish ashore. There were one hundred and fifty three of them” (Jn 21:11). Mind you, he doesn’t say “a boatload” of fish, or “more than a hundred,” or “nearly a gross.” It’s precisely one hundred and fifty three fish. As Duncan jokes, in spite of all their excitement over Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles were not about to let their catch go uncounted: “one, two, three, four…” ― tossing fish from one pile to the next — all the way up to one hundred and fifty three. [1] This number must have been logged somewhere or so seared into John’s memory that ― some forty years later ― he could pull it out without problem for the composition of his Gospel: “One-hundred. Fifty. Three. Fish.” This statistic was that important to them. Today’s Gospel summarizes it perfectly: “they were fishermen” (Mt 4:18), plain and simple.

But think about that for a moment: the risen and glorified Jesus ― Lord of the Universe ― is standing on the shore with the apostles having just conquered death. And what are the apostles doing? They’re counting fish. “Seventy-six, seventy-seven, seventy-eight.” The point is this: I don’t think Jesus was offended by it. In fact, I strongly suspect he helped them count. Today’s Gospel reveals that Jesus first called these men when they were out fishing. Indeed, Jesus draws near to people in their particular identities. God kneels down to count fish with men. 

This was the very sea where these apostles first heard their identities being called in a new direction. This is where Jesus told them “I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). And it’s here, on this exact same shore, that Jesus, now resurrected, is bringing this call to fulfillment. It’s here, tossing fish into wriggling piles, that he sends them again. 

“One hundred fifty two! One hundred fifty three!!” Did they all smile at each other, amazed? I’ve often wondered what Jesus said next. Perhaps he said it again? “Peter, Andrew, James, John. Now, you must be fishers of men.”



[1] David James Duncan, The River Why (New York: Back Way Books, 2016), 19-20.


~Anthony Rosselli (PhD cand., theology, University of Dayton) writes out of St. Luke and Ascension Parishes in Franklin County, Vermont. His columns are archived here.