Epiphany 3a, January 22, 20

January 23, 2017

Catch and Release

Matthew 4:12-23


12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.


Most of us aren’t that familiar with Palestinian geography, so the reference to Jesus moving to the region around Capernaum doesn’t mean that much to most of us native Arkansans, but apparently it was not the area from which you would expect a Jewish messiah to come.  It was a multi-cultural region. Jews lived there alongside people of many other religions and traditions. Consequently, the Jews in that area were not highly respected by the Jews who lived in villages that were more purely Jewish.  Matthew refers to the imprisonment of John as one reason Jesus chose to move to that part of the country. It was a place where he could be more anonymous, but Matthew also found scriptural reasons to explain why Jesus would have chosen to live in an area that was outside of the region you might think of as the Hebrew Bible Belt.


Matthew used scripture to show that the messiah would come from that area, and it was his way of saying that Jesus had come for gentiles as well as the Jews.  Matthew wanted his Jewish readers to know that it was no accident that gentiles were brought into the fold.  It was God’s will for the messiah to launch his ministry from an area known more for it’s fishing than for it’s religious purity.


The fact that Jesus chose to live in a fishing village was an obstacle for some of the Jews. Many were expecting the messiah to emerge from the Temple, and they had some scripture to back up their expectations, but Matthew knew his scripture as well, and he provide some scripture to show that it was right for Jesus to begin his mission from an area that many believed to be spiritually corrupt.


But in addition to starting from a religiously questionable area, Jesus didn’t choose religiously trained personnel to join him on his mission. He didn’t select any religious authorities – he sought out some fishermen. Of course the fact that Jesus had an appreciation for fishermen is the thing that gives him the most credibility with some people, but that’s not the first move any of the religious experts would have predicted. It’s interesting the way Matthew portrays the authority of Jesus. He’s clear to show that it’s consistent with scripture, but the authority of Jesus wasn’t like anything anybody would have expected. Jesus was Jewish, but he was out of the box and off the chain.


Scribes and Pharisees didn’t get it, but fishermen dropped their nets and fell in behind him. No doubt, it wasn’t easy to be a fisherman in that part of the world. It would have been a job that required long hours, heavy lifting, endless repair-work, and meager pay, but it’s what you did if you were the son of a fisherman. I don’t think Simon and Andrew and James and John had settled on becoming fishermen after they dropped out of law-school or failed to get in to medical school. These men were expected to take up the nets that their fathers and grandfathers had been tending and repairing. It wasn’t the best job in the world, but before Jesus appeared it was probably the only job in their world-view.


But it’s probably not easy for us to put this fishing thing in it’s proper perspective. There are probably more people in our country who make pilgrimages to Bass Pro Shop than who attend worship on Easter morning. In this part of the world, fishing isn’t an occupation – for some it’s a reason for existence. We aren’t all infected with fishing fever, but we probably all know someone who is.


I’m not feverish about fishing, but I’ve come down with it every now and then. Sharla and I lived on the Little Red River for a couple of months during the summer prior to leaving for seminary in North Carolina. I caught a large trout on the first day that we were there, and I spent every available moment for the rest of that summer trying to catch another one.  I didn’t catch a tremendous amount of fish that summer, but I caught just enough to maintain my fishing affection.


So I’m not the kind of person who lives to fish, but I understand people who do. I understand how it can become an obsession. I don’t know how feverish the fishermen of Capernaum were inclined to be, but there’s something irresistible about hauling in large fish. It’s an overpowering experience. People who go after fish go after them with passion and ingenuity.  After living at Capernaum by the sea for a while, Jesus must have noticed this characteristic in the people who made their living fishing, and I think he saw that as a characteristic that would transfer well to the endeavor of Christian evangelism.


Jesus needed his disciples to be people who could give themselves to a pursuit with passion and ingenuity, and I think that’s why he first asked some fishermen to follow him.  And notice that he didn’t tell them that he wanted them to stop fishing and follow him, he told them that if they would follow him he would teach them how to catch people.


There are some significant differences between the fishing techniques that people used around Capernaum and the way that people fish around here, but I like to think that there’s no difference in the personality types of those who fished on the Sea of Galilee and those who go to the lakes and rivers around here. Jesus was looking for people who were wily, persistent, and undeterred, and that is often the case with people who like to fish. Of course people can get caught up in all kinds of pursuits, and I think it’s that capacity to get caught up in something that Jesus was looking for in his disciples.


But there are some clear parallels between fishing and Christian evangelism. In both cases you’ve got to understand what you have to work with and what it is you’re trying to do. Both of these endeavors require some strategic thinking and they both require an understanding of the mindset of others – whether those others are people or creatures. But probably the most essential characteristic of people who fish for fish or fish for people is persistence. Certainly not every outing gets results, but I think Jesus started with fishermen because they would have understood the value of hard work with little payoff. Even unsuccessful journeys onto the sea have benefits. Anytime you embark on an outing there is something valuable to be learned or experienced.


I may be making too much of the characteristics of fishermen. It may be that the most important characteristic we see displayed in this story is simple willingness. It was willingness that those first disciples showed when they were approached by Jesus.  They saw something in Jesus that motivated them to leave what they were doing and follow him.


Jesus was introducing people to something careful people didn’t talk about openly. The Kingdom of Heaven wasn’t the kingdom they knew to be the nearest. It was the empire of Rome that everyone knew to be in charge, and it was no small thing for Jesus to make mention of a more significant authority, so Jesus needed his disciples to be brave as well as willing. These first disciples wouldn’t have been unaware of the danger of this enterprise of discipleship, but they found Jesus’ call to be irresistible.


It’s not surprising that Jesus sought out people as resourceful as fishermen to join him in his mission to redeem the world, but he told them that they would be utilizing their fishing skills to catch people.


Now the thought of getting hooked isn’t a particularly appealing image, and I don’t think Jesus intended for his disciples to think of themselves as people who were to lure unsuspecting people in to hidden traps. The fishing for people metaphor breaks down at some point, but I think it’s fitting for disciples to engage in behavior that captures the attention of other people. It’s not a bad thing to lure people in to situations that would provide the opportunity for their lives to be transformed.


When I think of this fishing metaphor, I think we should engage in this practice of fishing known as “catch and release”. That’s when you catch the fish, but you don’t keep them – you let them go before they die. Certainly we followers of Christ aren’t to be in the business of roping people into irreversible confinement. We aren’t called to capture unwitting souls, but we are to function in such a way that we become captivating. And while we are to exhibit a way of living that is ethical and helpful, we aren’t called to dictate the way in which others are to define their lives. I believe that people find a radical form of freedom at the heart of Christian discipleship. Christians are guided by nothing but the love of Jesus Christ, and there’s nothing more liberating than the rule of love.


I believe our work as fishers of people is to utilize all of the resources we have to catch the attention of people who are hooked into bad situations, bad concepts of God, bad images of themselves, and bad ways of judging others and to point to the One who can redefine life.


The Kingdom of Heaven is still near, and we are invited to get caught up in it. Some people might not believe this, but there’s actually something better that having a giant bass on the line. The best thing that can happen to any of us is to get caught by the love of Jesus Christ and then to become released into the world as a new creature.


Jesus first found some fishermen to engage in this world-changing work, but he wasn’t just looking for some fishermen. He is looking for anyone who isn’t so caught up in their own business to be about his business, and that’s what makes us all available for that rich work of getting caught up in the Kingdom of God.


Thanks be to God!




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: