March 8, 2018
To be frank, the image of fishing in the Bible has always been one of my least favorite. For one thing, I don’t find fishing to be terribly exciting. For another, I find all seafood to be vile, and I’m still wrestling with how the Lord himself could have eaten it. Friday in Lent? Cheese pizza, please.
All this has made it difficult for me to stomach the “fishers of men” expression that has become one of the standard ways of describing the call to discipleship (see Mark 1:17). During our recent weeklong retreat, as I walked along the Sea of Galilee—the very place where Jesus called his first disciples—I pondered why the Lord couldn’t have used a phrase more congenial to my own tastes. The answer didn’t immediately come to me.
Fast forward a few weeks. We were sitting in our class on the Prophets, discussing the oft- passed-over book of Habakkuk. Our professor drew our attention to Habakkuk 2:14-15:
You have made mortals like the fish in the sea,
like creeping things without a leader.
He brings them all up with a hook,
and hauls them away with his net;
He gathers them in his fishing net,
and then rejoices and exults.
The prophet Habakkuk was complaining to God that Judah’s enemies were about to attack and drag its inhabitants away into exile, as if they were helpless little fish. This was a stark warning for the people of God who had forgotten the God who saved them time after time. It was Habakkuk’s way of describing what divine judgment on that fateful “day of the Lord” would look like. It’s no surprise, then, that Habakkuk’s image would become a popular apocalyptic image for future generations up to the time of Jesus: when people are being “fished out” of the sea, the end—the day of the Lord—is at hand!
Having this in mind, it makes the call of the first disciples even more interesting. Jesus promises to make his first disciples fishers of men as a sign that the end—the “day of the Lord” or “the kingdom of God”—is at hand (see Mark 1:15). Yet the day of the Lord need not be a moment of fear and calamity or doom and gloom. Jesus is turning this image on its head. The day of the Lord can be one where people witness that God himself is in their midst in the person of Jesus Christ, the one who came not to condemn or destroy, but to save and gather all the lost for eternal life. The day of the Lord should in fact be a day for rejoicing and exultation, a day when we accept our call not only to be disciples, but also to make disciples for the kingdom.
I’ll admit that coming to see the “fishers of men” language in a new light hasn’t made me dislike eating fish any less than I already do. But it has helped me to appreciate how important and thrilling it is to cast our nets into Scripture, even into less-chartered waters like Habakkuk, every day. Only then will we be able to fish out the Good News and help others to do the same.
To all those who have made it possible for us to fish for greater understanding of this Good News, especially here in the Holy Land, thank you!
By Ryan McMillan, Archdiocese of Chicago
Photos by Declan McNicholas, Diocese of Gary, and Peter Pedrasa, Diocese of Tucson