This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to discuss a passage which the English Standard Version translation of the Bible breaks into two parts. It supplies the first part with the heading: “Jesus begins his ministry” and the second part with the heading “Jesus calls the first disciples.” The text is in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 1, verses 14-20 (Mark 1).
In the first part, Mark tells us how Jesus responded when he got news that John Baptist had been arrested: Jesus’ response was to begin his public ministry. Jesus began by making an announcement. He proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand.
Mark, just like the other three gospel writers, tells us Jesus used the word “kingdom” often. Kingdom was central to Jesus’ thinking. The model prayer he taught us has at its heart the words “Your kingdom come.”
Kingdoms have kings, supreme rulers. The supreme ruler of Judea was Herod the Tetrarch. He was one of the sons of Herod the Great, whom historians agree was paranoid, violent, unjust. I discussed him in my column titled “Just how bad was Herod the Great?”
Mark begins his gospel, his account of the good news of Jesus, by telling us Jesus did a very dangerous thing: Jesus announced that a new kingdom had come.
He announced it publicly. He announced it in response to Herod’s arrest of John. John, whom Jesus, the first disciples, and thousands more, honoured as a prophet, a man sent by God.
John became Herod’s victim because he dared to question the morality or goodness of Herod. He criticized Herod for marrying the wife of his own brother, Philip.
Many today are disappointed that Jesus didn’t respond by declaring that he was behind John. They’re disappointed that Jesus didn’t join John and condemn Herod.
Many others today are delighted that Jesus didn’t respond by declaring that he was behind John. They use his alleged silence as the reason for their silence about abuses of power by bankers, developers, industrialists, police, politicians – and the list goes on.
But Jesus did respond. In the second part of the reading, Mark tells us how Jesus responded.
Jesus responded by gathering people around him. He responded by assembling a band of followers to accompany him as he began his public ministry.
Mark doesn’t give us details, like John does. For example, as I said in my column titled What did Jesus see under the fig tree, Andrew and John approached Jesus after John Baptist identified him as the Lamb of God. And Andrew went to find Simon Peter. And the next day Jesus called Philip. And Philip brought sceptical Nathanael, who immediately joined them because Jesus told him he’d “seen him under the fig tree.”
Mark stresses immediacy in his account of Jesus. 35 times he uses the word “immediately.” Compare this with 28 times, which is the number of times the word is used by the three other gospel writers combined.
Mark also stresses the power of Jesus’ words. He tells us Jesus issued the order “follow me!” to Simon and Andrew. He tells us Jesus “called” James and John.
Jesus’ words had such pulling power that the four men immediately left their nets and their boat, left their families and co-workers, and followed him.
Mark, and the other gospel writers, always stress the power of Jesus’ words. They repeatedly use the word “authority.”
They want us to recall the first words in the Bible. In the book of Genesis: God spoke and chaos become order; God spoke and man was created. They want us to see the same power in Jesus: Jesus spoke, and things happened.
In passages which the lectionary will invite us to ponder in the coming weeks, we will read what Mark tells us happened immediately after the first four men became Jesus’ followers.
Jesus spoke. A man with an unclean spirit was healed.
Jesus spoke. A woman bed-ridden with fever was healed.
Jesus spoke. Many more, too numerous to list, were healed.
Jesus spoke. A despised leper was cleansed and restored to the community.
All this in the first 42 verses of Mark’s gospel. This is only the beginning.
But notice this: the first four disciples didn’t become followers in response to the signs and wonders which Jesus did. They became followers because they heard his words, his voice, his call.
But why did Jesus choose and call fishermen?
The most obvious answer is that fishing was the most common occupation of the people who lived around the sea of Galilee. But there’s something more to it.
The something more lies in the images conjured up by what Jesus’ spoke to the first disciples. He didn’t say he would make them shepherds of men. He said he would make them fishers of men.
What happens to fish when they’re pulled out of the water? They die.
In those days – about 2,000 years ago – there were no novels, newspapers, or comics to read; no sitcoms, movies, or documentaries to watch; no YouTube, no podcasts, no recorded songs.
Jewish people constantly heard preaching from the Old Testament. They thought in images. The image of fishing conjured up thoughts of judgment.
The prophet Jeremiah said God would send many fishermen and hunters to catch and kill those who worshipped idols. You can read it in Jeremiah chapter 16.
The prophet Ezekiel said God would use fishing hooks and pull out – like a crocodile from water – and punish the ruler of the day. And his hangers on, like the fishes which attached themselves to the skin of the crocodile. You can read it in Ezekiel chapter 29.
The prophet Amos said those who don’t obey God’s commandments, yet – hypocritically – offer tithes and offerings, would be taken with hooks and cast out. You can read it in Amos chapter 4.
So, what does it mean to be appointed fishers of men?
It means to speak of judgment. It means to speak of the rights of God. It means to speak of the responsibility of men; of obedience and disobedience; and of consequences.
Jesus did respond to the abuse of state power which resulted in John’s arrest, imprisonment, and execution.
Jesus warned the ruling king. He warned him by proclaiming that a new king was in town. Later, he will show that the ways of the new king would be unlike the ways of kings approved by Caesar, the mighty king of Rome.
You can click the links to read the Bible passages which tell of these things. The voice of King Jesus still rings out as an irresistible command, “Follow me!”
Have you heard? Have you obeyed? Have you become a fisherman?
Peace be with you.