Jesus said, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.”
“Fishers of people” – in older translations of the Bible, “fishers of men” – is one of those phrases in the Gospels that I have noticed myself avoiding over the years in my meditation with scripture or when it surfaces in the lectionary. I don’t have much first-hand knowledge of fishing, but that’s not the source of the disconnect, because I don’t have first-hand knowledge of most activities and objects that were common in first century Palestine. When I hear the phrase “fishers of men,” I have mostly tended to think of a certain strategy of Christian mission legitimated by the imperative to “spread our nets” throughout the known world and “catch souls for Jesus” by any means possible. In other words, I think of mission malpractice, tightly interwoven with the history of British and American imperialism. So I have to sink deeper to hear these words from another angle, an angle that will yield the Life and Light I seek in these sacred pages. Thinking of myself or other people as fish is also challenging: fish out of water, hooked, confused, gasping for air and wondering how on earth they got from point A to point B.
But here I realize I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I do, in fact, have some personal acquaintance with fishing, lured up into my conscious mind by the words of today’s gospel reading. For your consideration, I offer you two brief stories from the “gospel of Keith.”
On a hot day in July of 1988 – I was about six years old – my father took me deep sea fishing off the coast of Ocean City, New Jersey. After acquiring my sea legs and learning how to attach squishy white scraps of squid to a fishhook, there came that first exhilarating tug on the fishing line. A couple of hours later, I had caught only a handful of “sea robins” – small, lean, reddish brown fish with wing-like fins. I had thrown them back to sea as I was told to, apologizing to them for their trouble and wondering what secret law determined which fish were edible and which were not and wondering if it was the same law that distinguished weeds from flowers. Just when the cool ocean breeze began to fail and a sultry, disappointing boredom began to take hold, something big erupted from below: a flapping tail, a flashing white underbelly, a sudden commotion of fellow fishermen. A flounder the size of my torso wriggled at the end of my father’s fishing line. Upon inspection, it turned out to be the largest flounder caught on that boat that summer. I proudly watched as my father was invited to record the catch in a very official-looking book in the boat’s cabin. Without saying a word and with only the slightest, conspiratorial wink, my father wrote “Keith Robert Nelson” – my name instead of his own. It was a quiet but very legible expression of his love. I did indeed feel loved – but I also felt confused. He had clearly caught the fish. It was clearly attached to his fishing line. But he had just as clearly written my name! Why? It was like a Zen koan, like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” I chewed on that mystery the whole day, even as I chewed on that delicious flounder for supper that evening.
For the second story, I fast-forward about twenty-eight years. I am sitting in the American Repertory Theater over on Brattle Street with a good friend, just before a performance of a play called Nice Fish, co-written by Mark Rylance and the poet Louis Jenkins. My friend and I are each poised on the brink of a significant life event. He and his wife are about to have a baby. While he’s overjoyed, he’s riddled with anxiety that he’s not prepared to be a father. I am a couple months away from making my initial vows in monastic life. While I am overjoyed, I too have some anxiety that I’m not ready for this vowed commitment to God and community. We settle into the darkness mulling these thoughts, and are swept into a weird and wonderful kaleidoscope of parallel stories centered upon two men who go ice-fishing on frozen Lake Michigan. The surreal, poetic dialogue points, slowly and urgently, to unconscious motives and primal forces at work: these men are waiting for much more than fish and are hungry for something they can’t catch with their hands. The hole in the ice takes on a symbolic weight and emits a mysterious green glow. As the play comically and poignantly cartwheels through all of life’s major existential questions, thunderous cracks gradually break the ice apart, along with all narrative logic. In the final scene, the two men shed their heavy ice-fishing apparel to become an elderly husband and wife in pajamas. A gigantic fishing lure descends from the ceiling, and the pair gleefully grab hold and ascend into the darkness. My friend and I exit the theater slightly dazed. While we had connected with the play differently, we both walk away with the same impression of that last scene, and with similar versions of its intended message: We can spend a whole life waiting on the ice to catch life on our terms, but maybe what we think we’re fishing for is actually fishing for us – and the only real option, realized sooner or later, is to let ourselves be caught.
Jesus said, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of people.”
Reading the gospel of Christ alongside the gospel of my own life, here are some things I notice about Matthew’s fishing story. Jesus deliberately relocates from Judea to a place where people go fishing, to Capernaum, by the sea, a hub for fisher-folk. He goes out walking by the sea, perhaps a daily habit. He carefully observes two different pairs of fishing partners – the brothers Simon and Andrew, and the brothers James and John. The call of Jesus on the shore seems intensely magnetic, practically irresistible. It is phrased as an imperative rather than as a question or a request. But it is also completely free from compulsion. I hear a voice filled with the direct and unselfconscious authority of genuine love. These first apostles offer their immediate consent. Unlike this scene in Luke’s gospel, which is preceded by a teaching session and a miraculous catch of fish, the motive in the brothers’ consent to Jesus’s call is unexplained.
The call of these two pairs of fishermen is as mysterious and unexpected as that moment in the boat cabin when my father recorded my name instead of his, or that moment at the conclusion of the play when the ice fishermen become the fish. Mystery and paradox lurk in the deep, and erupt to the surface in creativity, in love, in worship. Fishing seems to tap into the collective unconscious of our species and, even deeper, into the soul. The endeavor of sustained waiting at the threshold between two worlds to bring home a hidden creature for supper has inspired all manner of myths and folk stories,sacred scriptures intoned in church and tall tales told in pick-up trucks and around kitchen tables.
But to these brothers in first century Palestine, all that mystery is probably subliminal, and the work of fishing is both commonplace and back-breaking. So Jesus frames his inexplicable call in terms of this familiar activity and meets them where they are. In a sense, Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John remain fishermen, as they have always been. The difference they will discover in their new vocation is that their labors and their love, their strength, their struggle and their waiting now take as their guiding motives the kingdom of heaven and the children of God, rather than the catching and selling of fish and the elaborate and unjust economy of Roman occupation. If they had any clue how utterly different this new path would be, it seems unlikely that they would have swallowed the bait.
Unlike fishing, which involves a certain measure of trickery for the sake of procuring food, there is no duplicity in Jesus. Jesus is the Fisherman who himself became a fish, and has swallowed the hook of death forever for our sake. Jesus is the Fisherman in whose fishing we come to participate by first consenting to be fish – to abandon ourselves to the haul of the net or the piercing hook of our own conversion of life, and to be powerlessly pulled into a new reality. Entrusting ourselves to that net, we might pray with newfound meaning the words of the Psalmist: “My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you, as in a barren and dry land where there is no water.”[i] What, in the end, is the alternative? In the sea of this life, we are bound to be captured sooner or later. The waters are full of other nets, bristling with other hooks. If we don’t give our consent to be caught by Christ, something else will encircle our freedom and determine our choices. We need our attention and more, our affections to be captured by one who longs for our transformation and wholeness, and can meet us right on the seashore. The one who came in the flesh for our sake can do this. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “I think this is the principle reason why the invisible God willed to be seen in the flesh and to converse with men as a man. He wanted to re-capture the affections of carnal men who were unable to love in any other way, by first drawing them to the salutary love of his own humanity, and then gradually to raise them to a spiritual love.”[ii] Like the arrow through the heart that we have come to associate with romantic love, a painful wound that opens a whole new reality, our consent to the God made flesh in Jesus can feel like the laceration of a fishnet or the sharp puncture of a hook in the soul. But this is a pain we can trust, because through it we are being given hearts of flesh in place of hearts of stone. We are fish on the sure path to becoming fishers of people.
On a hot July day last year, I signed the name “Keith Robert Nelson” in another logbook of sorts, and in the presence of a different crew of fishermen. I signed the Profession book which every brother signs when he takes vows in this community. Rather than “Keith Robert Nelson, Twelve-pound flounder,” I wrote for the first time “Keith Robert Nelson, SSJE.” Robert is my father’s name. When he signed my name in that fishing logbook, I fancifully imagined I had become a fisherman. But on the day I signed my name – and his – in our Profession book, I now realize I became a fish: caught hook, line, and sinker by the love of Jesus.
[i] Psalm 63.
[ii] St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Sermons on the Song of Songs I.