14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Many Christians read Jesus’s call to discipleship as though he were a representative of some heavenly Fish and Game Commission, inviting us into a lifetime of sport-fishing for lost souls, scooping up people like mackerel and tossing them into the ice chest of salvation. Yet Jesus was not a bass pro, and the gospel is not a competitive sport. Jesus has something far more profound in mind.
Mark 1:16-20 tells the story of Jesus calling his first disciples, two sets of brothers named Simon and Andrew, James and John. The four are fishermen, hard at work earning their livings when Jesus calls them to be his followers. It is surely no accident that Jesus calls his disciples while they are working, forcing them to make a choice between their economic productivity and becoming his disciples. Following Jesus does not square well with the economics of the Empire.
Indeed, fishing was one of the major economic activities in the Galilee during Jesus’s time. As such, the Roman Empire tightly controlled the fishing industry through a series of high taxes and licensing fees, which together functioned to extract wealth from the laboring classes and transfer it to the imperial elites.
Within this system of economic exploitation, Jesus’s first disciples seem to have been of some relative means, being neither economic elites nor the poorest of laborers. Mark 1:20 depicts James and John as working alongside their father Zebedee and a number of day laborers (misthotos) hired by the family. James and John must then have had at least enough economic status to hire day laborers rather than being day laborers. While the language of “middle class” is anachronistic to the ancient world, Jesus’s first disciples seem to have occupied a social status we might recognize as roughly middle class. They belonged to a class of merchants and artisans—far from economically elite, but with some measure of security within the economic structures of the Empire.
When Jesus first approaches Simon and Andrew on their fishing boat, he calls to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (1:17). These words are so familiar to us that the meaning may seem obvious. However, set within the economic structures I have just described, they take on a more profound significance than is sometimes recognized.
It’s worth noting that the NRSV’s “I will make you fish for people” obscures a crucial aspect of Jesus’ invitation. In Greek, Jesus does not say, “I will make you fish for people,” using “fish” as a verb. Rather, he repeats the noun “fishermen” (alieis) that the narrator had previously used to identify Simon and Andrew as “fishermen” (alieis; 1:16). More literally, Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fishermen of people (alieis anthropon).”
The implication is that following Jesus will transform Simon and Andrew’s economic lives. No longer will they be “fishermen of fish,” participating in the exploitative Roman fishing trade. Instead they will become “fishermen of people,” participating in God’s economy of abundant life for all humankind. Rather than supporting an imperial economy that devalues some people in order to profit others, they will become stewards of a way of life that brings healing and wholeness to all, as the ministry of Jesus throughout the Gospel of Mark clearly attests.
When Jesus calls James and John (1:19-20), they are likewise on their boat mending their nets. When they leave to follow after Jesus, Mark tells us that their father Zebedee was left in the boat “with the hired men” (1:20). In this case, James and John seem not only to be leaving behind their jobs but actually walking away from their family business.
Since Zebedee has hired workers in his employ, it would seem that he has a fishing operation of some size. Yet when James and John follow after Jesus, Zebedee is left with only the hired workers, suggesting that he has no more sons working with him. James and John thus not only walk away from their own jobs but also imperil the family business their father has built. The call to discipleship of James and John is again a repudiation of the economics of the Empire.
By following Jesus, the four men have committed to turning their backs on being fishermen in the business sense to being “fishermen of people” in the gospel sense. But what does it mean to fish for people?
The meaning of the metaphor can be difficult for modern readers to grasp. We tend to think of fishing as casting a line in hopes of hauling in a particularly desirable fish such as a trout or marlin. If we catch some other kind of fish—particularly a small or ordinary one—we are disappointed.
But Jesus has something else in mind. When Jesus first encounters Simon and Andrew, they are “casting a net” into the sea. The verb Mark uses (amphiballo) refers to throwing a particular type of net, called an amphiblesteron (Louw-Nida, Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament). With weights around its outer edge, the net would be thrown into the sea and drawn back out, hauling in whatever fish were in its path. Fishing with such a net was not a precision operation. Rather, it was a general gathering in of whatever fish were in the area, whether “desirable” or not.
So, too, with the kingdom of heaven. For Jesus to call his disciples “fishermen of people” suggests a similarly broad casting operation to gather people into the kingdom of God. The gospel is a broad net. It is good news for everyone, from the greatest to the least. From the imperial centers to the backwater regions like Galilee. Everyone is invited into the beloved community. The disciples are to cast their nets wide and to welcome whoever may be brought in.
For those of us who wish to follow in the way of Jesus, the implications of this passage are clear. As with the disciples, Jesus calls us away from our service to the exploitative economic structures of our own time and into the business of gathering people into the abundant life that God intends for all. We are to reorient ourselves away from the economics of the Empire—in which some lives have more value than others—and into to the economics of God’s kingdom, in which every human being is a person of intrinsic worth.
Robert Williamson Jr. is Margaret Berry Hutton Odyssey Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. (USA) and the pastor of Mercy Community Church of Little Rock, which provides a place of welcome especially for those living on the streets.