In this week’s lectionary text from Luke 5, we find the familiar story of Jesus inviting Simon (Peter), and brothers James and John to follow him in order to “fish for people.“
As the story goes, Jesus is preaching to people on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Gennesaret) when he spots the three fishermen’s empty boats and uses Simon’s craft as a stage so folks can see and hear him better.
Seeing that the anglers have no fish to show for their night’s work (and thus no fish to sell), Jesus instructs Simon to drop his nets (which he has just finished cleaning!), and so many fish are caught that it takes both boats to bring them in.
The fishermen are understandably amazed, and Jesus invites them to follow him with the phrase, “Do not be afraid…from now on you’ll be catching people.” (Luke 5:10)
Most of us have heard this story through the lens of evangelism and discipleship. The point, we’re told, is that Jesus performed a miracle that led Simon, James, and John to drop everything and become Jesus’ disciples so that they can convert others.
But what if there’s another layer to the story that we’re missing?
The fishing economy of first century Galilee was not the capitalist/entrepreneurial model with which 21st Century Americans are so familiar(1). Yes, these fishermen did what they did so that they could feed their families and sell their goods, but a big reason they did so was to pay the taxes required of them by Herod Antipas, the local ruler appointed by Caesar to enforce the will of the Roman Empire.
So when a fishless night is redeemed by a miraculous haul, we’d expect not only amazement from the fishermen, but some level of relief. Their wages for the day and their ability to meet their tax obligations had just been met, and then some.
So when Jesus invites them to follow him, he’s not just inviting them into some kind of spiritualized alternative lifestyle. He’s inviting them to abandon an exploitative economic system, to walk away from a single day’s catch that might have not only made them incredibly wealthy but also elevate their standing in the economic structure.
Are we missing something when we focus on Jesus’ miracle instead of the real-world response of the fishermen?
This week at New Wineskins, we’ll dig into the implications of what it meant for Simon Peter, James, and John to walk away from their business and follow Jesus as an act of resistance to the exploitation of the Empire…and what that might mean for us today.
Join us this Sunday, Feb. 6, in our New Wineskins Virtual Theology Pub for what promises to be a fascinating discussion of Jesus’ role as a first-century organizer and how that idea may or may not fit into our call to be a liberationist community.
6:00pm EST: Happy Half-Hour (informal meet & greet time)
6:30pm EST: Presentation & conversation begin
(1)See The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition by K. C. Hanson
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