Who is a "fisher of people"? What do they do? How?

5th Sunday Ordinary Time, year C | Lk 5:1-11

Since I grew up loving to fish, the Gospel today, in which Jesus invites the fishers Peter, James and John to leave their literal nets behind, follow him and become “fishers of people”, has always appealed to me. The phrase “fishers of people” has always puzzled me. Wha, did Jesus mean by it? What project was he actually inviting Peter, James and John to be a part of? The readings today help us to answer the following questions. Who is a “fisher of people”? What do they do? How do they do it?

First, who is a “fisher of people”? Often we understand that a fisher of people is someone who is sent out beyond the confines of the Church in order to get people to believe what we believe. In other words, a fisher of people is someone who catches converts. Although this is part of the picture, when we understand the connotation that “fishers of people” had in the Old Testament, we can develop a richer view of what Jesus meant by the phrase. In the book of Jeremiah (16:16-18) the imagery of “fishers of people” is used in the context of God’s judgement against his own people, Israel. “Fishers of people” were sent out to haul people in so that God could judge them. Fishers of people are agents of judgement. They call people to make a choice. Will they choose to follow God’s path or not? Will they follow God’s commandment or not. So, who is a fisher of people? This is someone who, by their words and very way of life, reminds people that because judgement is coming soon, all must make a simple yet urgent choice: will they follow God’s way or not?

Second, what do fishers of people specifically do? What is the message they tell people? Paul give a clear answer to this question in the second reading. Fishers of people are to invite people to respond to the simple message that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. This is the great action that God has worked in the world and to which we are all called to respond. If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, then are lives are supposed to change. We are liberated from the slavery of sin and selfishness to live a life of service and love to those around us. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus is, of course, not an easy thing to do. How can we believe that a man rose from the dead? Certainly there is no video footage of the resurrection to look at and prove this event! When I have doubts in the resurrection I find it helpful to remind myself that the resurrection seems to be the best possible way to explain two pieces of historical data. The first is that after the death of Jesus, his followers were scattered and terrified. We read this embarrassing piece of information in all the Gospels. We find that Peter, the leader of the disciples, was so afraid that He denied Jesus. The second piece of historical data is that days later these once terrified disciples are boldly preaching that they have seen Jesus risen from the dead. The disciples are so certain of this message that they stand by it in the face of persecution and even death. We need to ask ourselves: what can account for this dramatic change in the disciple? What happened that changed the disciples people fearful for their own lives, locked up in a dark room to avoid the authorities into fearless individuals, preaching a message for which they were willing to die for? To my mind, the best explanation for this dramatic shift is the one the disciples themselves gave: Jesus, who was dead has risen. This is the message that we are called to believe. Believing this message should change our lives. This is what fishers of people are called to proclaim.

Third, how are fishers of people supposed to carry out their mission? That Jesus called those who made a living as fishermen to be “fishers of people” is significant because it suggests that there is a certain continuity between their past life and the mission that they are called to. Specifically, it would seem that Jesus expected Peter, James and John to apply all the skills and talents they employed in their previous profession to the new mission they were taking up. At times, a certain narrative can be offered that emphasises that those called by Jesus were “simply” fishermen. In other words, they had no special skills. The message this conveys is that you need no special training or abilities to be a part of Jesus’ mission. Although it is true that all are called to be a part in Jesus mission irrespective of education or skills, Peter, James and John, were not “simple” people in the sense that they were unskilled and lacking in training and accomplishments. When people visit the sea of Galilee today, they are often struck by the tranquility and simplicity of the scene. Now there are few boats and settlements along the coastline. Reading the Gospel of today, people may be tempted to picture Peter, James and John as hobbyists out for a relaxing afternoon of fishing. Archaeological findings around the sea of Galilee, including a network of docks along the seashore, however, have shown that the fishing industry in which Peter, James and John worked, was a sophisticated enterprise. Capernaum, the city in which Peter was situated, was at the boundary of two provinces, which meant that it was a prime location for trade. The men Jesus called, therefore, had a great deal of skill. Essentially, they were small-business owners. The parallel account in Mark makes it clear that they had employees working beneath them (Mk 1:20). Peter, James and John, therefore, would have known how to run a business and were accustomed to leading others and interacting with a wide range of people as they sold their products. When those called by Jesus “left everything behind” to follow him, it does not mean that they left these skills and talents behind. Quite the contrary. Jesus would have expected them to apply all their abilities in the service of their new mission as “fishers of people”.

Today, we are invited to hear anew Jesus’ call to be a “fisher of people”, inviting people to respond to what God has done in the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps a good starting in doing this is by asking ourselves a couple questions. Do I really believe that Jesus has died for me and risen from the dead? Does this belief make a difference in the way I live? If I do belief this message is it not something that I should be using all my talents and skills to share with those around me?