By the Sea: Reflections on Matthew

#scripture #unpacking #sacredstories #contemporary #relevance #fishersofmen #kindom #ecotheology - Part of a series exploring ecotheology in 2020, following the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A. Today: 'becoming fishers of men'.

The lectionary for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany draws from Isaiah, Psalm 27, I Corinthians and Matthew 4:12. Isaiah is a beautiful passage (its Isaiah, so of course it is beautiful) about " The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined." The psalmist is passionate in his love and deep dependence upon God: "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" And the letter to the Corinthians encourages unity amongst the people. I could go into some depth on Corinthians, as this is one of many passages that inspired what is often known as "Quaker process" - the idea that it is not only possible but entirely doable for groups to govern themselves based on Unity which is a gift of the Spirit. But in accordance with this series, I would like to focus on the main gospel text: Jesus invites the fishermen to follow him.

First, the text begins by recounting that John the Baptist has been jailed.

Let us pause here. John has been put into jail. If you think jails in America are bad - and they are - we cannot but imagine how horrible the jails of the Roman Empire were. Three meals a day? Nope. a blanket? Not necessarily. An hour outside? No way. And he was put into jail for preaching the coming of the Messiah, the Annointed One. Because of personal salvation? No. Or at least, not very likely. Because the Roman Empire knew how dangerous this Annointed one might be. The gospel that John was preaching was a revolutionary gospel. It would be odd to put people in jail because they are helping individuals; far more likely that John was jailed because it was perceived that he might be (or actively was) disrupting the prevailing social order.

Jesus, in response to his friends' imprisonment, goes to hide the Sea of Galilee, which is where the great River of Jordan empties. Some surmise that as a carpenter, he had probably worked in several villages along the sea, perhaps even repairing the boats of fishermen; he might have known that area quite well. Here is a dark skinned man whose dark-skinned friend had just been put in jail, and he goes to the great waters, the largest body of water in his vacinity. He might have found comfort in the smell of salt water, the sound of the waves, the taste of the fish in the air itself, the sand beneath his feet. Maybe he walked along its shore and talked to the waves about what his friend was going through - for him. Did he feel guilty? Sad? Or did he know it was part of a grand plan? Did he doubt the way things were going? Did he wonder when the day would come when the prisoners, who now included his friend, would be set free, as prophesized?

This is one of many moments when Jesus seeks refuge in nature. To listen to Jesus here is to listen to our need to let the sea, the waters, give our souls as well as our physical being refuge.

What did the sea tell him? What did his relationship with the Holy of Holies tell him? Maybe he picked up a shell and stroked it; maybe he experienced a sense of condolence. Did Jesus experience the Sea as feminine? Maybe he saw the interconnected web of all of life, and felt connected to John, to the beginning of life itself in the mixture of water and earth and breath.

The text doesn't tell us. All we are told is that he retreated, he moved homes to a particular location which fulfilled the prophecies, and upon seeing certain fisherfolk, said he would make them fishers of men; that his ministries of prophesy and kingdom-coming and healing began.

Which suggests that Jesus saw more than shell fish by the ocean. He saw the economic conditions of the fishermen who lived there. Or rather, in the great interconnection of all beings from sea to sky, he saw the social and economic structures that created livelihoods that led to suffering.

Now to fully appreciate this moment - what Jesus saw and then how he acted - we have to understand a bit more about the particularity of that location and of that livelihood - and the meaning of what Jesus meant when he used the phrase, "fishers of men."

To be a fishermen was amongst the lowest of low. I would say that we give far more respect to fishermen today than we did then. And, further, the entire fishing industry was being restructured for export. Most fish would have been salted and sent elsewhere. Most fisherfolk were not fishing for their own families. They would have been employed at very low wages. Fishing had become state-regulated for the benefit of the urban elite. Local elite profited from both the sales, the production, the processing and the transportation of the fish. Whereas the fishermen would have once been organized along kinship structures and made enough to support their families, during this time, the local economy was shifting and the burden would have fallen increasingly onto the fishermen. So in asking them to turn away from their nets, he is not asking them only to leave a traditional livelihood; he is asking them to leave a livelihood that has become corrupted and distorted by an increasingly international economic system that did not support them. We could actually consider this a form of a strike; except Jesus was not organizing against the fishermen. He had, well, bigger fish to fry.

In the Hebrew Bible, we find several significant instances where to "fish" for men was associated with God's way of "hooking" the "big fish" - the elite who did not attend to God's command to treat his people justly. As Ched Myers writes:

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 16:16-18). The prophet Amos targets the elite classes of Israel, whom he calls “cows of Bashan,” 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). 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).

To his Jewish listeners, Jesus' phrase most likely would have illicited these images - not those of the modern missionary who seeks to create livelihoods out of "fishing souls for Jesus." It is a call to a different economic system. He is saying, hey. This isn't necessary. You don't have to keep doing this. Come, there is another way. You don't have to have your livelihood so very much controlled by the state structures. You have power. You have agency over your work, your life, your future. You have skills and abilities you right now are not using, and we can, together, turn to a much bigger game than that of bare survival. We can live up to the prophecies that have been given to us. We do not have to fear economic oppression, for "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light."

Nor does Jesus take them to the house of the local elite and storm it and demand a fair wage. No, he is going after something far bigger something that is, in many ways, far more indirect, and far more powerful. For the question is not only one of their local economy. Far more is at stake here than their own livelihoods; it is a confluence of the shape of the structure of an Empire, the possibilities of a community that had often been outcasted and nomadic; the redirection of a people who had lost their way; and the possibility of the development of the human soul while walking by the side of the sea.

This is not to say that the personal dimension is missing here. These passages can always be read on both a socio-ecological as well as personal dimension. The system and its parts both matter.

Jesus says he "will make" them. They are not already fully formed. They do not already have to know everything it takes to overcome the challenges before them; they will be tutored, guided, and supported. They will join with others. They will not be alone on the journey. There is a deep pastoral care here that is as personal as it is economic; as promising of transformation of the individual as it is a transformation of society - all of which have implications for the ecology. Can we have social change without personal change? Of course not!

And yet even as he says he will make them, I don't think they left their nets because of their hopes to become "great" anything. Maybe they had their own variation of "being sick and tired of being sick and tired." And maybe they felt something, when he beheld them: that compelling presence that made his words ring with Truth, not just a hope. Perhaps they followed for the presence that he embodied. Nor does he have them immediately go out and save others yet their presence matters. Their embodied knowledge as fisherfolk matters. Their understanding of sea, of people, of hooks and lines and nets and knots - all matters for this great movement that Jesus is starting. Yes, they will learn and be made and in their learning they will also teach others. And there is something that they already know as well, some knowledge that they carry in their being that people who work with their hands so often carry, and which is so hard to teach. Yet another reason Jesus might have asked them first. Not only were they the bottom of the barrel on the social strata of their time, and thus inherently interested in social change. But they already carried an understanding that would serve them later - perhaps he was already planning for the time when he would no longer be with them.

And let us not forget the actual fish! Was the Sea of Galilee becoming over-fished? Maybe - there are some passages where the fishermen say that sometimes they go out and don't catch anything. It is not so clear. But certainly turning an eco-system into an export market with little counter balances to protect the local fish population does not bode well in terms of long term sustainability - regardless of what epoch we are discussing.

And then the miracles begin.

Matthew mentions them casually, so casually it is as if he assumes his reader already knows about the many healings that occurred. As someone who does healing myself, and about whom other people say really great things about their experiences with me, I find myself smiling. I rather like the idea of a world where healings just keep happening, part of the daily life of those who are on a spiritual journey, barely worth mentioning. Daily miracles. And maybe there are. Maybe our personal healings are all just part of daily miracles. Our willingness to leave what really doesn't work for either us or for our families or for our environment in order to go into the unknown - a disruption of our own lives to be sure - maybe that is part of the bigger miracle here promised and here experienced.

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