Wednesday, 22 January 2014

What Does 'Fishers of Men' Mean?

Many of us as children learned the chorus "I will make you fishers of men".  As we sang it, the movements we made were of angling with a rod and line. But of course, in its context among the fishermen of Galilee it didn’t mean that at all. They went out on the sea fishing with nets, gathering in scores or even hundreds of fish at a time.

And this is what Jesus was talking about – not making one convert at a time by holding out the bait and patiently waiting for something to bite, but pulling them in en masse!

If Jesus invited the fishermen of Galilee to become fishers of people, how would they have understood that invitation? They would surely have heard it through its associations in the Hebrew Scriptures. But the interesting thing is that “fishing” in the Scriptures is almost always an image of aggression, misfortune and punishment.

Ecclesiastes 9,12 says: "For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity when it suddenly falls upon them."

In the Psalms, the oppressor is often represented as laying a net to trap the innocent.

The nearest Old Test­ament reference to "fishers of men" is in Jeremiah 16,16:

"I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord,  and they shall catch them... For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight."

This casting out of the net to bring in the fish for judgment was one the signs of the “end time”, the coming of the kingdom of God. So if the disciples understood Jesus’ invitation at all, they probably thought they were being called to be God's instruments of the final judgement.

But what did Jesus go on to do? His ministry was all about reaching out to the outcasts of society and gathering them in. He told the story of a host sending his servants out into the highways and byways to invite the poor and the disabled to his feast.  He befriended Zacchaeus, a despised tax collector, and said “he too is a son of Abraham”. His healing of lepers meant that they were brought back into the community.

He admired the faith of a Roman army officer, and said that many would come from east and west to join the feast of the kingdom. John tells the story of a miraculous catch of fish Jesus caused after his resurrection. The number 153 probably represented all the nations of the world.

So it looks as if Jesus took this scriptural image of the fishing net and turned it on its head, making it not the inescapability of judgment and wrath but the inescapability of acceptance and inclusion.
If we are to take this "fishing" as a model for evangelism, it surely means that, rather than angling a  few people out of this world into a minority "kingdom" we should be reaching out to all and sundry and saying "God says you belong!"