Fishers of Men
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
February 4, 2007
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
“Do not fear; from now on you shall be catching human beings…” –Luke 5:10
To describe the work of a Christian Apostle as catching human beings, as if they were fish, might cause offence. We are not witless creatures to be ensnared in nets and hauled ashore to be eaten, or, more metaphorically, to be entrapped in the network of the church’s dogma and it propaganda, to be dragged here and there and exploited. I find such an idea unacceptable and so I can do one of two things: Either I can say that since the idea seems to me to clash with what I know of Jesus from the Gospel witness as a whole, it must be the idea of the later “church development” bureaucracy put into the mouth of Jesus to give it cache, or, I can say that Jesus must have meant something less offensive by it. I think the latter is the case and ask you to think along with me about what Jesus might have meant.
The context makes the saying more palatable: Peter is stunned by what he has seen and, vividly aware of the difference between himself and Jesus, asks Jesus to go away and leave him to his comfortable, ordinary life as a fisherman. Jesus reaches into the symbolism of such a life and promises Peter a career more satisfying that catching fish, a career catching human beings. Jesus takes the image of fishing from Peter’s old life and uses it to promise a new life. I don’t think it is required to take the metaphor “literalistically” ( of course one cannot take it literally) as if it were an allegory. Peter’s new career will involve him generally in reaching out to people to invite them into the Kingdom of Christ, and all the evidence we have tells us that that invitation in the name of Jesus could not be a trap sprung on us but is a transparent opportunity to be freely taken or refused.
There is an element of coercion in the metaphor, of which we must take account. Just as in the metaphor Peter uses a net, so in actual experience there is an element like being netted. In this item I think the metaphor serves the recognition that because sin has blinded and bound us we are not simply free to accept or reject the offer of the Kingdom; God has to act on us first. As Jesus says to Peter, “I will make you fisher of human beings” to make clear that Peter is not empowering himself and appointing himself, so the idea of being caught hints at the dimension of coercion we feel in every approach of God to us, the sense that God is tugging on our net and dragging us out of the dark depths of the sea towards the light of new life. In dealing with God I have always to acknowledge first that no matter how autonomous I feel, and how self-initiated my movements feel, I am a creature before its creator, and the creator has absolute right and power over me.
I believe that Peter’s fear before Jesus is an instance of that creaturely recognition, and the request, “Depart from me, because I am a sinful man,” shows that Peter did not want to confront his own dependency, and, by the same token, his own possibility. He would rather remain a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee than become the premier Apostle of the Kingdom of God and the foundation stone of Christ’s church. Nevertheless, like a fish in a net, he is in the hands of one who has over him the power of life and death, that is, his creator commands him to give up his present life and embark on another.
I am breaking off here because we want to end early today. Had we more time I would have asked you to think again about the assumption so easily accepted, that the chief goal of a Christian life is to “catch” human beings by proselytizing. “What is the chief characteristic of a life lived according to this or that religion?” is a legitimate question. The answer for Evangelical Christians, for example, is that “fishing for men,” that is, proselytizing is the prime directive. (Remember the old “Star Trek” prime directive was not to interfere in the cultures they encountered.) An unflattering comparison with this situation is the notorious Ponzi scheme in which one sells not so much a product (Christ) as the opportunity to sell the product to others, and builds a pyramid of hope and disappointment. What is the real product of the Christian life? I ask. Surely it is not primarily the right and obligation to make others Christian! (I recommend, Chris Hedges, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, New York: Free Press, 2006 as an update on this Ponzi Christianity).
For today it is enough to remember that God does lay hold of us as if we were fish in a net, but in a way so subtle and gentle that there is no violence, no deception and no force. So, to return to my opening alternative, this saying properly understood need not have been attributed to Jesus by the later church; it could have come from him himself. It is up to us to work out where he is dragging us today.