January 24, 2021


Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Mark 1:14-20

“The Miracle of Call and Response”

Continuing the theme from the last couple of Sundays, today’s readings are about people being called by God. We heard about Jonah getting called a second time to go to Ninevah with a message from God. The first time Jonah was called, he didn’t respond very well. He ran in the opposite direction, hopped on a ship, got caught in a storm, swallowed by a big fish, and spewed up on the beach. This time, I don’t think he’s too convinced that this mission is something that he wants to do, but reluctantly he goes and does it, at God’s command.

In contrast, the Gospel of Mark gives us the story of the calling of some of the first disciples – the fishermen disciples who respond immediately, drop what they are doing, and follow Jesus on the Way.

One commentator notes that in Mark’s Gospel, “Jesus’ first demonstration of authority is not a miracle, but the calling of two sets of brothers who immediately respond by following him.” But I wonder if what happens here is just as great a miracle as changing water into wine or walking on the water.

Barbara Brown Taylor has famously called this episode in Mark a “miracle on the beach,” and I think she may be right. These fishermen have never met Jesus, and yet after hearing just two words from him, they “immediately” leave everything behind – family,  friends, livelihood – and follow him.

In our Bible study this week, some of us wondered what else may have happened between the fishermen and Jesus. What isn’t Mark telling us about? Did the fishermen attend some of Jesus’ sermons and get inspired to join his mission? Did Jesus explain to them what following him would entail? And what else was going on in their lives in Galilee that prompted them to consider such a radical change of life, making them so ready and willing to hear Jesus’ invitation, drop everything, and go.

On the surface, it looks like the miracle on the beach is about what these men are willing to give up. I’ve always thought of the act of dropping their nets, leaving their families and the stability and security of their occupations as the great sacrifice for the sake of the mission of Jesus. The miracle is the amazing faith that they demonstrate when they respond so quickly and positively.

But what if leaving everything behind was not so much a sacrifice as an opportunity? In a very detailed and informative post, Ched Myers makes the case that fishermen on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ day were caught up in an elaborate, exploitative caste system, and that’s why they’re good and ready to move on.

I must admit that I’ve always assumed that the fishermen enjoyed a good livelihood and that they were feeding their families and selling fish to others in the local community where they lived. I didn’t realize that in the first century the fishing industry was being steadily restructured for export, so that the majority of fish were salt preserved or made into a fish sauce and shipped to distant markets throughout the empire. All fishing had become state-regulated for the benefit of the urban elite – either Greeks or Romans who had settled in Palestine following military conquest or Jews connected with the Herodian family.

These privileged classes profited from the fishing industry in two ways. First, they controlled the sale of fishing leases, without which locals could not fish. Second, they taxed the fish product and its processing, and levied tolls on product transport. This transformation of the local economy was made possible by the development of roads, harbours and processing factories carried out by the Herodians, and it functioned to marginalize and impoverish formerly self-sufficient native fishing families. Leases, taxes and tolls were exorbitant, while the fish upon which local people depended as a dietary staple was extracted for export.

In these circumstances, fishing came to be considered the lowest of the low professions, and so Jesus’ invitation was to join him in ushering in a whole new way of living, economically and otherwise.

I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t a “miracle on the beach.” It’s just that the miracle might not have been the sudden and surprising faith of these fishermen to sacrifice their stable and predictable lives and livelihoods. Instead, the miracle is that when regular folks are suffering and struggling under oppressive systems, God shows up in Jesus and invites them to enter a new life altogether and to participate in making that new life available to others too.

“Follow me,” Jesus says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” But what does he mean by that? What do the fishermen think they’re getting into when they drop their nets and follow Jesus?

It has certainly become a beloved phrase for Christians, often expressed in the non-inclusive language of becoming “fishers of men” and traditionally interpreted to indicate the vocation of “saving souls.”

But if we pay attention to the social context of the time, we might guess that these fishermen were likely not seriously concerned about their souls or others’ souls either. They were more likely concerned with the drudgery and struggle of their daily lives, the hunger and need of their families, and the sense of unfairness and hopelessness of their situation.

And if we pay attention to the roots of this metaphor about “fishing for people” in the Hebrew Bible, it might help us to understand what Jesus was calling them to and why they jumped at the invitation.

The prophet Jeremiah envisions YHWH “sending for many fishermen” in order to catch the wayward people of Israel, specifically “those who have polluted the land with idols” (Jer. 16:16-28).

The prophet Amos targets the elite classes of Israel, warning that YHWH will haul them away like sardines to judgment: “The time is surely coming upon you [who oppress the poor and crush the needy] when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Am. 4:1f).

And the most clearly anti-imperial version is found in Ezekiel’s rant against Pharaoh, denouncing the empire’s delusion that it “owns” the Nile. God vows to yank the “dragon” of Egypt right out of the River, “hook, line and sinker,” along with all the fish that it claims exclusive rights to (Ez. 29:3f).

I don’t know if Simon, Andrew, and the others would have known these references to fishing for people in which catching people on hooks is all about confronting them with their sin and stopping those in power from oppressing the poor by such things as stealing their fish.

But I expect that many of those who later read the story in the Gospel of Mark would recognize the metaphor and catch on to its meaning. These men are called to rise up from their low position in society and to work with Jesus in turning everything upside down, very much like in Mary’s Magnificat in which God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty.

I have to say that this reading of the Gospel story probably makes it even harder for me to relate to the experience of those early disciples. First of all, it is hard for me to imagine giving up my job, my home, and my family to travel the country with an itinerant preacher, relying on the kindness and hospitality of strangers, and never quite knowing where I will be or what I will be doing the next day.

But as I think about this new information about their context, I am deeply aware of the privilege that I enjoy. I have a home and a full time job. I have money in the bank and investments growing for retirement. I don’t have to carefully calculate what I put in my basket at the grocery store because I know my credit card will cover it every time. And in recent months, I’ve become more and more aware of how my identity as a white, straight, middle-aged woman in Canada privileges me more than I ever imagined.

So, I want to go back to Jonah’s story again because I can relate to him a little more. We don’t know a lot about Jonah and his situation. Indeed, we can deduce from the strange details in the story like getting swallowed by a fish that Jonah’s story is not exactly historical. But we do know that Jonah was called by God to proclaim a message to some people. I’m called by God too, as a preacher. And you’re called by God also, just by virtue of your Baptism.

I think the problem for Jonah is that the message is not great fun to proclaim. I mean, if God had told him to go to some big city and walk around telling all the folks that God loves them and is so very proud of them, maybe he would have done it. Instead, the word of the Lord came to Jonah saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” And that’s when Jonah starts running in the opposite direction, avoiding the call, and trying to get away from God.

Maybe if Jonah himself was being affected by the wickedness of the Ninevites he would have been more willing. Perhaps his personal outrage or his frustration at the oppression and evil would have spurred him on to respond to God’s call. But I think in his case, he’d be perfectly happy to just ignore the situation and stay away from the whole mess.

But after the saga of his journey in the wrong direction, his time of prayer and complaint in the belly of the fish, and God’s second calling to him, Jonah reluctantly goes to Nineveh. He walks around the city crying out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And shockingly (perhaps miraculously) the people of Nineveh believe God; they proclaim a fast, and everyone, great and small, puts on sackcloth – a sign of their repentance and desire to change. They turn from their evil ways, and God forgives them.

The story prompts us to marvel at the power of the words God gives Jonah to proclaim. What a miracle that he speaks, and the people listen, and their society is radically transformed! Even as a preacher who loves words, who uses words, who is called to give voice to God’s message in words, I often don’t trust that our words can make a difference.

In the role of Moderator, I get to sign a lot of letters and statements on behalf of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. And a large number of those letters are kind of like the message Jonah had to proclaim to Nineveh. I mean, they’re calls to our government, leaders, and all those in positions of power and influence to change policies and practices towards justice and righteousness for the poor and the oppressed and indeed, for all people.

We join our voice, as a church, in solidarity with those who are deeply impacted by injustice – those who are sharing their personal experiences of racism, colonialism, or discrimination, and who are helping us to discern what God is calling us also to say and to do.

We don’t exactly say, “In forty days this government will be overthrown!” but we do try to use our words to call our leaders (and our whole society) to be transformed towards love.

We speak out on issues related to social and economic justice, ecology, Indigenous relations, racism, xenophobia, sexuality and inclusion, and more. And the letters, statements, study documents, and other resources related to all these topics have been recently gathered together and organized on the “Social Action Hub” page of the PCC website.

They’re not just posted there for interest’s sake or for historical purposes. But they’re there to inspire all of us both to hear God’s call and to respond to it with courage and conviction, following Jesus on the Way, learning to fish for people, and speaking out for justice and righteousness for all. I can’t wait to see what miracles God is going to perform through us when we hear God’s call and respond in faith and courage.