Matthew 4: 18-25
Parallel Mark 1: 16-20, Luke 5: 1-11; John 1: 35-51
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. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
The kingdom of heaven may have established a foothold in Capernaum, but now that kingdom and its representative will begin its infiltration of the surrounding region of Galilee. Jesus will go out and actively begin selecting those who will participate in fishing for people and begin to drive out the forces of sickness and demonic possession that have kept the people in the darkness. Matthew condenses the call of his first disciples and the initial acts of healing and casting out of demons into a short space to bring us to Jesus’ teaching on the mountain but this scene is necessary to set the scene for this extended teaching and the crowds that are coming to hear him.
Capernaum is on the north bank of the Sea of Galilee, so Jesus would not have to move far to find fishermen along the bank of the sea. Even though Jesus may not need to move far in seeking these first followers the action of a teacher going and seeking students is unusual in a culture where a Rabbi would set up a school and disciples would seek out the teacher. Yet, the initiative will rest with Jesus in the call, and when others seek Jesus out as potential disciples (Matthew 8: 19-22) they will learn this is a difficult, if not impossible task. We do not know how long Jesus has been in Capernaum proclaiming the kingdom of heaven or if the four fishermen knew him prior to being called but these fishermen will serve as a model of responding faithfully to Jesus’ call. There is resonance with the call that Jesus extends to the disciples and the call of Abram in Genesis 12 where God calls Abram to leave their kindred, their fathers house and go to a land that God will show them. Yet, initially, the disciples will not leave their country, but they will leave behind their vocations and family.
The fishermen are often portrayed as ‘poor fishermen’ but there is no indication that they were poor or that what they were leaving behind was not a stable and sustainable existence. Probably the closest analogy to our time would be small business owners who have enough invested in their business to have a boat and nets, food to eat and homes to live in, money to pay the taxes on the fish they catch and the ability to transport (and process) caught fish for sale. This was a family enterprise that relied upon family members upholding their part of the work of fishing, mending nets, maintaining boats, and selling their catch and the removal of sons from their positions in the family business would have presented a challenge for the remaining family members. Yet, Peter and Andrew and James and John all go when called, leaving their families, their business and their way of life behind. The boats may still be there, and they may still at times fish, but their primary fishing will be kingdom related rather than profit related.
Against the background of the use of fishing metaphors in the scriptures we see the imagery of fishing being used for the regathering of Israel.
Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors.
I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. Jeremiah 16: 14-16
How one reads this portion of Jeremiah can be tricky. It can be read, as Richard B. Hays reads it by pulling on the verses that immediately follow what I have quoted above, “the “fishermen” whom God is summoning are agents of judgment, hauling people in so that God can “repay their iniquity and their sin.”” (Hays, 2016, p. 24). Jeremiah 16 is about a new beginning, but only after judgment and exile. I read this portion of Jeremiah 16 as an ingathering of the people after the prophesied judgment. Fishing imagery can be used in terms of judgment (see for example Amos 4: 1-2) but I do believe the theme of gathering in the dispersed people is behind the scriptural resonance here.
The disciples leave their boat and follow, they respond faithfully and these ‘little faith ones’ will become models of what being a disciple of Jesus is for future generations of followers. Jesus has shown the initiative, issued the call and these four men have responded. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say in Discipleship, “Discipleship is not a human offer. The call alone justifies it.” (DBWE 4: 63) Jesus, for Matthew and the disciple, is no ordinary rabbi or teacher. Although these four disciples probably do not recognize the significance of the one calling them, Matthew has been trying to get us to hear through his various uses of scriptural quotation and resonance the that Jesus is more than just a herald of the kingdom of heaven. The disciples in Jesus’ time and of all times will have to puzzle about the identity and significance of Jesus during their following but like the ‘little faith ones’ called from their fishing boats we are also called to look for the inbreaking signs of the kingdom of heaven as we travel through the world.
Jesus moves, teaches and acts as Matthew prepares us for the first concentrated block of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Mark’s gospel will focus on what Jesus does, but Matthew wants those who are disciples to gather with the crowd to hear Jesus teach. Yet, Jesus and the kingdom of heaven are also known by what Jesus does. His fame spreads by his teaching and his healing and exorcisms. The inbreaking kingdom of heaven casts out sickness, disease, pain, the demon possessed, and those broken in mind or body. Jesus’ power overcomes all these barriers to the people realizing the wholeness and healing of the kingdom of heaven. His fame is said to spread throughout Syria, one of the reasons some interpreters believe Matthew’s gospel was written in Syria, but it may also be the shining of the light in Galilee to the nations, the Gentiles. It may also be a part of the theme of the ingathering of Israel which is already occurring from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and beyond the Jordan and this may be the early catch of God’s fishermen beginning to gather the dispersed people out of the land of the north.
Authority and power rest with Jesus: authority to heal and make whole and the authority to teach in the synagogues and soon on the mountain. The crowds are beginning to gather, the initial fishers of humanity have been called and the kingdom of heaven has been announced and embodied. Matthew has set the groundwork for us to hear the Sermon on the Mount, for Jesus to teach us what being it will mean to be a covenant to the people and a light to the nations. Perhaps we, like the fishermen have been snared. Perhaps we, like the sick, diseased, broken or possessed have been healed and seen the kingdom of heaven’s work in our lives. We are now prepared to go up with the disciples to listen as Jesus talks both to us and the rest of the crowd.
Good reflections on Jeremiah 16. It’s a difficult passage but I think you’re right that Matthew is using it as part of a return from exile motif. Sometimes the NT authors interpret scripture in ways significantly different from what the prophet intended. Paul’s use of Hosea 13:14-16 comes to mind – although the Septuagint translators may have already done much of the work of reinterpretation.
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