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Politics of Scripture

Leave Your Nets: The Politics of Matthew 4:12-23

In the context of Roman rule in Galilee in the first century CE, the abandonment of fishing was an act with political connotations. When the first disciples left their nets they were ceasing to fund the empire and serving a new kingdom.

Matthew 4:12-23
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

I always think of fishing as quite leisurely. To be certain, commercial fisheries are very active, but in our everyday thought we tend to associate fishing with a sedate and bucolic scene. We imagine young men in a row boat in the middle of a still lake with a rod and a reel and not a care in the world, figures who look like they meandered off a Norman Rockwell canvas.

That is not how folks in Jesus’ time saw fishing. Fishing was exhausting work that presented almost no opportunity for economic success. Rome claimed full and exclusive rights to all waters and any resources collected from them. This meant that Galilean fisherman, like Jesus’ first disciples, would have had to pay for the right to fish. These taxes were often paid in kind as a portion of the day’s catch, but would be collected whether the fishing had been successful or not.[1] This heavy taxation, along with the capital costs of fishing boats and nets, rendered Galilean fishermen quite vulnerable and barely able to subsist.

It was precisely this sort of taxation that generated resentment toward empire in Galilee, throwing into sharp relief the challenge of foreign rule. Often the best weapons that the peasantry had were to abandon their work in protest at taxation and imperial domination, so as not to make economic contributions to their own subjugation. In 37CE, the emperor Gaius ordered his image to be placed in the temple. Knowing the turmoil such acts had caused in the past, he positioned a legion from Syria to be prepared to enact the offense by force.[2] The rural population resisted; they walked off their fields. Understanding that their surplus fed the Roman legions, peasants organized a strike and refused to plant their crops.

[They] left off the tilling of their ground, and that while the season of the year required them to sow it. Thus they continued firm in their resolution, and proposed to themselves to die willingly, rather than to see the dedication of the statue.[3]

Local Roman authorities became worried, Josephus reports, that where fields were devoid of crops “banditry would grow.” The crop strike brought widespread attention to a greater socio-theological concern about imperial domination and the strike quickly spread. It grew to include mass mobilizations of people in the streets of Jerusalem and in cities and towns around Galilee.

This is the political context of Jesus’ call to the first disciples to leave their nets behind. A context where walking away from labor that sustained empire was a familiar form of protest. Jesus is inviting Simon and Andrew to take a profound economic risk and he is calling them away from the business of feeding empire and toward the work of healing, teaching, and loving ordinary people. The young men’s eagerness to follow Jesus is striking: they walk away briskly from the life they had knew, even abandoning family. This is a response to Jesus’ charisma to be sure, but it also bears witness to a smoldering sense of dissatisfaction in the brothers, a sense that they were ready to leave behind the tasks of a dominated people and seek new freedom with this leader.

Jesus’ earliest followers were those who needed an alternative to Caesar’s kingdom and these first followers jump at the invitation to stop working for the empire. There are risks and costs associated with such a leap, and the text does not mask the costs of discipleship. The brothers leave behind their nets and their father. They leave behind their best chance at livelihood and the very communities that formed them for the sake of seeking after this new vision. When Jesus calls them to work for him from that point on, these two have the wisdom to leave ordinary work and pursue something extraordinary.

[1] K.C. Hanson, “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 27 (1997), 99-111.
[2] Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 48.
[3] Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.269.

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