‘Fishers of men’ means we gather others into new lifeFor many years, “fishing for people” seemed to me an odd and dangerous way to describe the apostolic mission.
Jan 20, 2017
3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year A)
Readings: Isaiah 8:23b — 9:3
1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23
For many years, “fishing for people” seemed to me an odd and dangerous way to describe the apostolic mission. First, fishing is a predator-prey activity, perfectly legitimate in the larger scheme of things in which humans use fish to feed their need for protein, but clearly bad news for the fish. And then there are those phrases in our language that link fishing imagery with devious human activity. We speak disapprovingly, for example, of someone “fishing” for a compliment. Or we refer to the sinister work of drug pushers as getting people “hooked.” The work of another kind of hooker is sometimes described as “luring.” How does an image that has such negative connotations fit the ministry to which Jesus calls his followers?
For starters, the connotations that fishing imagery has in current English are not necessarily the associations people would have made in first-century Palestine. While archaeologists have indeed found what appear to be ancient fishhooks around the Sea of Galilee, the Gospel references to fishing envision the net technique, as with the nets used by Peter and Andrew and the brothers Zebedee in today’s Gospel. Already we have moved from hooking to gathering. Further, some have found in the ancient world a use of the fishing image to refer to bringing people to a new level of consciousness, analogous to moving from underwater existence to open-air existence (fatal to gill-breathers, of course, but a positive move for humans).
More pertinent perhaps, because more biblical, is the possible background of Jeremiah 16:16 — “I will send many fishermen, says the Lord, to catch them.” How is this to be taken? If the statement goes with what follows that verse, hunting out evildoers, the fishing is a kind of “search and destroy” action. If however, the verse goes with what precedes it (“I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors”) then the fishing image refers to the ingathering of restoration after exile. If that is the meaning of “fishers of men” in Jesus’ saying, the phrase integrates powerfully with his preaching about the coming of the kingdom of God. For the coming of the reign of God means the end of the spiritual exile that the people of Israel felt they had been experiencing for centuries.
Understood this way, the call to fish for people was an invitation to join Jesus in his preaching and enactment of the coming reign of God (or “kingdom of heaven,” in Matthew’s preferred phrase).
If we wonder how this mission applies to Church life today, our first thoughts might very rightly run to our ongoing mission of evangelisation. But the Second Reading, from Paul to the Corinthians, suggests another kind of unfinished apostolic business — healing divisions within the Church. The Corinthians are indulging in rivalries that threaten the unity of the body of Christ. Having been unified by baptism and faith, they are now allowing factions to pull them apart. The gathered people are allowing themselves to be scattered. Paul answers by reminding them that this motley crowd were first gathered into unity by their discovery of the power and wisdom of God in Christ crucified and in the life of mutual service to which that discovery drew them.
We need not look far to find analogies to Paul’s Corinthian community in our Church today. Our Church knows increasing polarisation that can be described in a multitude of ways: e.g., between those who are attracted by the late Cardinal Bernardin’s call for Catholics to recover our “common ground,” and those who find such talk a threat to orthodoxy; between those who like their Gospel served on The Eternal Word Network and those who do not; between those who find the word of God in revelations at Medjugorje and those who are content with the mainstream tradition and magisterium; between those who find a kinship with the “Christian right” and those who find in that alignment a serious neglect of the common good.
Each of us could compose our own list, finding our emotional heat rising with each entry. The Church has always carried, and probably always will carry, creative and painful tension in its body. But as Paul and Matthew remind us, what we have in common is that, like the Corinthians, we have found Jesus to be light in darkness; we have dropped the nets of the world’s business-as-usual. We, who have been summoned to gather others into new life, are called to work out our own differences in ways that serve the body of the Church and enable that body to serve the world. -- By Prof Fr Dennis Hamm, SJ