Have you ever been interrupted, in the midst of a pressing task, by a summons to something greater?
Did you regret the interruption? Or were you glad of the occasion to shift to a higher purpose? Something like this happens in our story today.
John is Arrested and the Kingdom of God is Near
We continue our reading of Chapter 1 of the Gospel of Mark. Verses 13-20. The scene opens by explaining what has just happened to John.
Just a few verses earlier, we were introduced to John, a prophetic figure at the edge of the Jordan River. Streams of pilgrims had been coming to a deserted place near the Jordan to listen to him. To be baptized by him. People were flooding to the desert as John bade them prepare their hearts to receive One mightier than he, One who was to come after him.
Now John has been arrested. This great prophet shares the fate of many great prophets. Which is to say, he stood in conflict with the values of earthly powers and those in power opposed him. King Herod throws John in prison.
This would have troubled and saddened John’s disciples. It would have seemed a tragic end, made more tragic still when John was put to death in prison.
In this silence, in this kind of winter after John’s arrest, Jesus comes to Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God. Proclaiming – there’s that word κηρύσσω (kerusso) which we discussed last week. Kerusso alerts us to the fact that Jesus’ words are a kind of solemn proclamation, imbued with authority from heaven. Full hearted and full throated, Jesus has come to Galilee, proclaiming:
‘The time is fulfilled. The Kingdom of God has come near. The Kingdom of God is close.’
Imagine hearing these words from Jesus. You’ve moved from distress over John’s arrest to wonder at this new, mightier figure. A man greater even than John.
This Jesus sees; what He sees, he proclaims. He is well acquainted with that of which He speaks. He understands the telos of time, the purpose of time. He knows what urgency is. He speaks in prophetic urgency. In the power of the prophetic presence. The fullness of Presence. The fullness of time – here, now. Time laden with spiritual weight.
Imagine the tone of his voice: a blend of tender whisper (as though he were announcing some great secret) yet also urgent summons. Jesus is trying to impart what his eyes see, what his heart knows to his hearers. Trying to get them to see, to know that the Kingdom of God, the purpose of human existence, is in sight. It is near.
“μετανοεῖτε” he says. Metanoyete. Let light fall upon your minds – this is the verb form of metanoia, the word we discussed last week. It’s an imperative. Jesus is saying, Let the light of heaven fall upon your minds. Open your minds to this light. Shift your state of mind from the earthly to the heavenly.
“καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ.” And believe in the Gospel. Believe in the evangelio.
These words may be mysterious-seeming to us. Maybe we can’t enter into the reality they denote.
I can’t help but think, here, of a great teacher before a classroom of sleepy high school students, eyes drifting out the window, thoughts distracted, thumbs scrolling a screen. The teacher, as seer, seeks to impart to his class an insight of history; a truth of higher calculus; a subtle meaning of a literary passage.
These examples hint at what’s happening here. Jesus sees. He knows what time is and what it’s for. He knows the fullness of time, the purpose for which time was created. He sees the Kingdom of God, manifest in a myriad of ways, though hidden to a merely earthly gaze. He declares here what he sees and knows. He proclaims it. His is a simple message laden with spiritual meaning.
Many fail to hear it. Though not all.
Jesus walks along the thoroughfare of Galilean life.
Along the seashore which, translated into today’s terms, would have been the equivalent of the mall or the stock market. This is a place of business for the Galilean worker. This is where men earn their living for their families. Men fish here. They are busy.
Yet here, in the midst of busy, professional lives, Jesus passes by. He stands along the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Here’s an interesting aside. The Sea of Galilee wasn’t actually a sea. It was actually the Lake of Galilee. But all Old Testament and New Testament writers call this body of water a “sea,” to denote that it was a large body of water, without making a distinction between sea and lake. Only Luke, in the New Testament, calls it a lake, referring to it by a Greek version of its name, “the Lake of Genessaret.” (Lk. 5:1)
It was, in any event, a large prominent body of water in the center of Galilee where many fishermen plied their trade and earned their living.
Along the shore of this vast lake, Jesus walks. He sees two fishermen. Simon and his brother Andrew. They were, the text says, casting their nets in the water. The word used here is a curious, technical fishing term – amphiballo – that denotes the technical, fishermanly act of casting, into the sea, the circular nets fisherman used. These rough nets with little weights attached at various points along their outer edge so the net would sink in the water when cast. Sink down and capture unsuspecting fish.
I love this detail. It’s the only place in the New Testament where this word, amphiballo, is used. It’s Mark speaking fishermen-speak. It’s probably a word Peter used when he described this moment to Mark. It’s a word fishermen would use to speak of their trade. It’s a word that lets us know something specific, detailed, workmanly is happening here.
It’s beautiful because it speaks to just how vivid this moment is: Jesus stepping down into the technical, day-to-day tasks of a laborer, a worker, a fisherman. He passes by in the midst of a working day and there he calls Simon and Andrew. They were fisherman – so he meets them in the midst of their fishing. He passes by, brushes up against their life, lets them see Him and hear Him. He calls them.
“Come, after me.”
“Come, after me.,” He says. Δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου.
It’s a lovely phrase. Δεῦτε – pronounced dyuteh – is just as I have translated it: come! It is at once a warm, friendly invitation that one could imagine being delivered with a smile. But it is also a summons, that might be delivered with all the solemnity and authority of a King to his subject.
An invitation from a friend. A summons by a King. Jesus is, of course, both and we need to hear both these dimensions – friend and King – in play when we hear this phrase.
Come, after me. We might also translate it as: Come follow me, for that is the meaning.
But there is more.
Here is the next phrase: “For I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mk. 1:17)
Come follow me. I will make you become fishers of men.
It is as though Jesus were saying: That which you have toiled and labored to develop, this skill of drawing fish into boats, knowing where they are, knowing when to lower your nets, knowing how to draw them in. This native knowledge of the sea, the skies, the seasons and their ways: this set of traits you exercise to further your human life on earth, I want to shape-shift it. I want to change its orientation. I want, from this moment, that you orient these skills toward the Kingdom I announce. I want you to draw people into my Kingdom with the same skill that you draw fish into your boat.
At once, the text says: Immediately, Simon and Andrew drop their nets and follow Jesus.
Do they just leave them in the water? Or do they haul them in and drop them in the boat? We can’t be sure. But Mark tells us that at once they left their nets and followed him.
The three of them walked a little ways ahead, along the shore. Jesus sees two more fishermen, James and John, both the sons of Zebedee. They were in their boats, putting their nets in order. They too were in the midst of a busy day’s work.
At once – ever the Markan sense of urgency. Mark uses this word euthys – which means at once, immediately – 41 times in his Gospel. By it, he conveys the power and dynamism of Jesus’ action, or of the response to Jesus. It is the immediacy and urgency and weight of Spirit entering matter.
“At once Jesus calls them,” Mark says. James and John were in the boat with their father and some hired help. Hearing this call, they leave the boat in the care of their father and follow Jesus.
So that’s the gist of this passage. But what is the heart of it? What is the distilled essence of what Jesus might be saying to us today through these words?
Jesus and The Work-a-Day World
I am drawn to the phrase:
“As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” At once, they abandoned their nets and followed him.” (Mk. 1:16-18)
Already we noted how Jesus is stepping right onto a busy factory floor, so to speak; right out in the middle of the trading floor of the stock market. It’s like he is poking his head in the midst of a sales call. It’s that kind of interruption. This is the work-a-day world. Jesus steps into it and Jesus enters it.
Eternity intersects with time and calls for a decision. A response.
Simon and Andrew are engaged in the technical aspect of their trade. Here – right here – Jesus enters their lives. He calls them to be his disciples.
Their sudden response tells us something. They already knew him. This wasn’t the first time they had come across Him. We know from John’s Gospel that Andrew was originally a disciple of John the Baptist. At one point, John sees the spirit descend upon Jesus, understands that he is the one they have been waiting for. He turns to his disciples – whom we know to be Andrew and John – and tells them that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.
Andrew was one of these disciples. He approaches Jesus that day and spends hours in his presence. He later seeks out Simon, his brother and introduces him to Jesus as the Messiah. (See Jn 1:35-41)
This was over a month ago. Then Jesus was driven into the desert for 40 days, tested by Satan.
Now he head north to Galilee. John has been arrested and is no longer on the scene. Jesus walks along the shore of the great Lake of Galilee. He sees Andrew and Simon in their boat, hard at work. He calls them.
Calls them to what?
To follow him – this means, in the biblical context, to become his disciples. It is the same kind of moment as the scene we witness when Elijah calls Elisha; when he comes upon him while plowing the fields and throw his cloak over him (see 1 Kings 19:19-21). It is a master calling a student to become a disciple. This is an honor beyond all honors. Yet it’s also a challenging summons.
To be called by Elijah to be a disciple; to be called by Jesus to follow him: would that we might one day have such an honor!
One more detail: Jesus says he will make Simon and Andrew ‘become’ fishers of men. ‘Become’ – some translations omit this critical detail, but there’s a verb in here: I will make you become fishers of men. Jesus is saying the transformation will not be immediate. There will be a required period of formation. A kind of novitiate or graduate school or internship. A kind of tutelage. A time of formation.
In time, over time, Jesus will take the skills these men have developed in their trade and transfer them to a higher register. He will make them become fishers of men and women.
Jesus will form his disciples to draw men and women from the dark waters of a world where only natural lights shine. To draw them into the warm rays of heavenly light. To gather them into the communion of the Church he would build on earth.
Is This a Call Only for the Professionally Religious?
What do I make of this story? What questions does it give rise to? What passages come to mind to cast this story in a deeper, clearer light?
These questions strike me most deeply. Did Simon and Andrew abandon their boats and their nets? Did they renounce their work as fishermen to become full time disciples and eventually teachers and pastors? Is that the Christian path? Is that the message I should draw from this story? Is this passage only deeply relevant for the professionally religious?
No. And No. No. No. And no. In other words, no to each of those questions.
Let’s explore them.
We know Andrew and Simon didn’t abandon their boats and nets. We know this because in John 21, after Jesus’ resurrection, Simon summons all the disciples to go fishing. They went in their boats. See Jn 21:3.
We also know this because James and John explicitly left their boat in the care of their father, Zebedee, and the hired helpers. We can assume Peter and Andrew did the same that day with the men who were likely helping them.
Perhaps they took a pause from their fishing labors. Perhaps for a time they stepped away. But nothing tells us they didn’t return later. Return with a deeper perspective and a newer life balance.
We know this because Paul lived the same trajectory as they did and he was quite explicit about it. Luke tells us in Acts 18 that Paul was a tentmaker by trade. That he continued to be a tentmaker, even while actively engaged in proclaiming the Gospel from city to city. He spent, for example, an extended period of time in Rome, building up the Christian community there, living with Priscilla and Aquila, who were also tentmakers. They worked together, making tents to support themselves while also proclaiming the Gospel to a pulsing metropolis (See Acts 18:1-3).
So Peter was a fisherman. Paul was a tentmaker. They were also evangelists. There was no conflict between the two. Both modes were seamlessly woven into a single witness of Christian discipleship. In those days, Pastors could be working professionals as well.
A little later, in Acts, Paul makes clear that he worked, as everyone must work, to provide for his material needs. He makes clear that he engaged in preaching free of charge, not for silver or gold. (See Acts 20:33-35).
It is a marvelous, challenging, inspiring form of Christian professional labor and witness. A way of being in the world that respects the ebb and flow of human living, while ordering that reality to the higher reality of the Gospel.
Nature and Grace
There need not be, in short, a disjointed conflict between the world of labor and the world of Spirit. Between professional life and the spiritual life. Between the realm of nature and that of grace.
Indeed, Jesus steps into our world of labor, He passes by our seas of Galilee, He sees people there, He draws close to people there, He calls people there to hear. The work-a-day world is, to Jesus, a place where the encounter of human souls with divine light happens. It is a world that can be made transparent to grace. Mediative of the Kingdom of God. Our work-a-day world can be a place where souls come in contact with the Kingdom of God just as surely as Jesus could draw analogies to the Kingdom from stories of agriculture, fishing and trade.
Let us keep our eyes open for the ways in which He passes by our professional shores. Let us be willing to pause from our labor when he does. To follow Him when He calls.
The Full Gospel Text
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
“The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is near. Repent – μετανοεῖτε – and believe in the gospel.”
As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen.
Jesus said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”
At once they abandoned their nets and followed him.
He walked along a little farther and saw James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They too were in a boat putting their nets in order.
At once he called them. And they left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.
Mark 1: 14-20
Jesus you enter my work-a-day world. You step right into the midst of my professional life and call me to follow you. To use the skills I have learned to make things of the world generate a return; to use those same skills in the service of the Kingdom. In the service of mercy, toward the furtherance of love, in the communication of who you are. Today, right now, in this moment of the heart, I drop my nets, I turn to you, I decide: I will follow you and place what I do beneath your loving gaze. I will orient my life a little more nearly toward the Kingdom of God. Amen.