Message for Epiphany 3 on Matthew 4:12-23 given on January 22, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Churchin Richardson, Texas
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” What a great line. Of all the recruiting lines there have ever been—this has got to be one of the best.
For us, it’s a lovely picture— even poetic and pastoral—evoking images of Psalm 23 and being led by still waters, a fly-fishing-River-Runs-Through-It sort of "call" story to join Jesus in catching souls for the kingdom. We think of this as the great call to evangelism—to grow the church—to pass out invitations to worship and to our free breakfast, to start a bring-a-friend Sunday, and maybe a fish fry for Lent.
But Matthew hints that something more is going on—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.
Just what is this darkness and shadow, and why does he bring it up right after mentioning that Jesus had made his home in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee? Perhaps we have completely misunderstood Jesus’ call to “fish for people,” and we need both a little history, and then a little Bible to bust open this passage beyond our bucolic expectations.
First, a little history—when Jesus was a teenager in the year 14 CE, Caesar August died and Tiberius became the Emperor of Rome. Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee, hoping to curry favor with the new Emperor, built a royal palace and military center in the city, called of course, Tiberias, south of Capernaum. From there he began controlling the fishing industry in the Sea of Galilee. Locals could not fish without a lease, which cost money; leases were only given to family groups, like Peter and Andrew or James and John with their father; fish was processed for export to feed the elite class, and everything was now taxed, including tolls for transport. This economic hierarchy pushed local people to the margins, impoverished them and made it difficult, if not impossible to remain self-sufficient eating a dietary staple that was now being regulated and exported right out from under them. As a carpenter, Jesus may have left Nazareth, come down for the building work, moving up the coast, harbor to harbor, an eyewitness to the economic exploitation and effect of Roman oppression on the people.
Now for a little Bible background on images related to fishing—all of which Peter and Andrew, James and John would be familiar:
1. Jeremiah 16:16 the prophet proclaims judgment upon the people of Israel who are not faithful to God:
• They worshipped idols and other gods
• Jeremiah says God will send fishermen to catch these evil people –to hook them and cast them out
2. Ezekiel 29:4 is another passage of God’s judgment
• This time against the Pharaoh of Egypt for his oppression of the people of Israel.
• Through Ezekiel, God says to Pharaoh, I will put hooks in your jaws and I will fling you into the wilderness
3. Amos 4:2 Third time the image of the fisherman is used for catching, hooking and dispensing with evil:
• This time it is against the wealthy who oppress the poor and crush the needy.
• The time is surely coming, says Amos, When they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks… and you shall be flung out.
Far from saving souls and bringing people INTO the kingdom, the biblical image of fishing is one of getting evil and oppression OUT of the kingdom.
A final passage from Habakkuk 1:14, 17 voices the lament of those oppressed by those who exploit them:
You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler...The enemy* brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net…17Is the enemy then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy?”
NOW stand with Peter and Andrew, James and John in their fishing boats, and understand that their families are barely making it, that some of their friends are probably not, that their whole way of life has been changed, exploited and shifted away from what was at least a sustainable if already difficult life by the sea. And they remember in the back of their minds, when God calls for justice to root out evil, God uses fish hooks to do it, and sometimes they feel like the fish squirming in the bottom of the net, as if their way of life is ruined: How will it change, and when will it change, and what can they do against Herod Antipas and the Roman soldiers?
And then that preacher comes by the shore—the one they had heard about—the one who was at the Jordan River with everyone being baptized, the one with a fire in his belly and hope in his eyes, who talks about the kingdom of heaven coming near. And this Jesus says to them, Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.
This is a call for the transformation of society—it was time, in the words of theologian, Ched Myers “to catch some big fish and restore God’s justice for the poor.”
This is the work of uplifting those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death and bringing them the light—the light of hope, healing, and unmerited love.
Simon and Andrew, James and John heard Jesus’ call to change the world. They drop their nets and follow Jesus—not because their families do not matter, but because they do—it is the only way they have any hope of doing anything for them! The kingdom of God is at hand—if their situation is going to change or to have any hope—it was through this Messiah.
So the word for “left”—as in they “left” their nets is “to be released from debt, to be set free from bondage.” It’s a Jubilee word, when the debts of the poor are forgiven!
These first disciples want to participate in a movement that will bring their community back to mutual aid and cooperation. It is no surprise then, that in Acts 2, we read that the Christian community held everything in common. Social and economic redistribution was a form of healing in the early Christian community after the abuse of poverty, and economic exploitation.
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” It’s a call to justice that does save souls for the kingdom of God—it saves them by naming sin, and what is contrary to God’s love, with the courage to work for people. I will make you fish FOR people—not for systems that oppress, not for governments that invade and exploit, not for the powers that pillage. Perhaps FOR is the most important word in this phrase!
“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Jesus invited the disciples to join him in changing the world—and they did!
We are here today, 2000 years later, because they had the courage to live in a way that was different from the dominant culture and in a community that lived FOR people.
• They shared Jesus love and healing and power—eventually Rome fell, but there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world today! It’s not always a popular to be Christian in our culture—I had somebody get mad at me recently because I said I would pray for them—me a minister! It's my job and I have dedicated my whole life to this--not to mention it's one of the most powerful things to do for someone. But don’t let anyone take away your faith in Jesus because it’s the most powerful thing you have. Look at the history books. Governments and nations rise and fall, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever! Jesus saved us for this work of love and justice. His light is in us for this ministry. Jesus power never fails us for the kingdom!
• And the first disciples knew it—because they dropped everything immediately to follow him to change the world.
• In the face of oppression and opposition, they preached and healed and offered forgiveness and built community and reached out to the poor and oppressed, offering wholeness and dignity and a new way of life to those who were in need.
Today, Jesus calls us fish for people—to follow him in changing the world. To be FOR people—for life, for hope, for opportunity, for freedom from systems that oppress.
We may not be Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day, or Cezar Chavez, but all of us can advocate for justice in our circles of influence, and we can be FOR people, paying attention to those at the margins. Does our workplace have just parental leave for all genders, the most equitable reproductive health care legally possible, and sexual harassment policies in place?
Is there an active diversity and inclusion office that promotes anti-racism and gender inclusivity training? Is there a vulnerable person who needs someone with more power than they do to help advocate for them?
Faith in Texasis working on reducing mass incarceration of black, brown and impoverished people in Dallas. Our member, Emily Hoffman is involved in these efforts. If you are interested in getting involved with this justice issue, you can talk with Emily.
Our Global Mission Team is advocating for refugees—you can talk with Caitlin Curry about joining our team. If you like hands-on service, you can join our Free Community Breakfast Team—talk to me to get on the volunteer email list. Find one justice issue to advocate FOR People.
Our denomination has an Advocacy office in Washington DC and a very active website—you can google ELCA Advocacy to find all the links to our Action Center to find policies and ways to use your influence to communicate with representatives to help enact just legislation here and abroad. The research is done for you, you can if fill out a form letter—advocacy made easy! If we cannot physically do advocacy we can write letters and make phone calls.
Finally, we can all be FOR people in our daily life. The happiness study by Harvard University that came out at the beginning of the year talked about the importance of talking with strangers with an openness to learning something new. How often do we strike up a conversation with someone who is really different from us—a different race, class or religion—or even all 3? How can we pay attention to those who are living closer to the margin than we are and learn from their experience? If we have the means, can we tip 22 or 25% to our barista or waiter? How can we be as generous as possible to those working for minimum wage, just spread light and joy and let them know that as a follower of Jesus, we are FOR people, whoever they are.
To follow Jesus in fishing for people in daily life is to do as John Wesley said:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”
For when people encounter the Jesus in us; when people experience the Jesus at St. Luke’s, they too, can know that good does overcome evil, and that in Jesus Christ, the light has dawned.