Fishers of men must be courageous, enterprising, and persistent. Although there may seem to be little to catch, the nets must be persistently cast again and again. Although storms arise, the boat must be firmly steered and piloted safely. At sea, there is no place for cowardice or lack of commitment or laziness. Each hand must do his part. Each is important for success.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
13 January 2020
It’s Monday and we’re back in Ordinary Time. In our gospel reading from Mark (1:14-20) today, we hear about how the Lord Jesus Christ passed by the Sea of Galilee, calling Simon and Andrew, James and John to follow him and become “fishers of men.”
It’s interesting that our Lord chose these particular fishermen as his first apostles. It’s also interesting that he said they would become “fishers of men,” evoking images of catching men in nets and hauling them up out of the dark waters of the sea. However, when we think of “fishers of men,” we don’t usually think of catching people in nets. We think of the holy enterprise of evangelization, which can be simply defined as proclaiming the saving gospel of Christ. Yet there are a lot of connections between evangelizing others and the enterprise of fishing as it was in Jesus’ day.
Fishing On The Sea of Galilee
The Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberias, and Lake Gennesaret are all the same freshwater lake. It’s about 13 miles long, 7 miles wide and 150 ft. deep. Its waters are cool and clear. In NT times, it sustained a thriving, important, and respected fishing industry. The historian Josephus reports that there were about 230 fishing vessels on the lake. Most were about 23 ft long and 7 ft wide, manned by a crew of 5: four men to row and one to steer and watch for storms.
Luke 5:10 tells us that Simon and Andrew, James and John were partners in the fishing business. They probably worked together at times to string nets and haul in loads of fish. The fish they normally caught were tilapia, carp, and catfish. The type of tilapia they caught is today known as “St. Peter’s Fish.” The catfish caught in their nets were not eaten by the Jews since they had no scales and were deemed unclean, as taught in Deuteronomy 14:9-10. When catfish were hauled in, they were sold off at market to Gentiles.
When small fish were netted, they were killed and mixed in with the entrails of larger fish, salted, and stored in the sun to ferment, producing a solution called “garum” that was widely used as a staple of Roman cuisine.
Fishing was done at night, since the nets were made of linen and easily seen by fish. The men had to contend with storms producing lightening, wind and waves. During the day, the men cleaned sediment from the nets and mended any tears in them. All of this means that Simon and Andrew, James and John were hardworking, resilient, enterprising, dedicated, and courageous men. It was these men who Jesus called to himself to become “fishers of men” and engage in the most important fishing enterprise of all time.
Fishers of Men and Evangelization
There are lots of connections between fishing with nets and evangelizing. And there are lots of differences as well.
Fish caught in nets are captured against their will, and lose their freedom, so to speak. They’re hauled up out of the water into a boat, violently slaughtered, and eventually eaten.
Men, however, are not caught at night by surprise in the net of evangelization. They are captivated by the saving gospel. Instead of being hauled from their watery home against their will, they are lifted from the dark and churning waters of the sea and placed in the safe haven of the Barque of Peter, the Holy Ship of the Church, which has but one destination: the horizon of eternal life in Christ.
Fish are ripped from their natural element. Fishers of men, in the process of evangelization, lift others upward, inviting them to partake of the well-spring of life and share in God’s own supernatural life, that they may once and for all dwell in their true home.
When fish are caught in a net, death is their destination. When men are captivated by the net of the saving gospel and wrap themselves within it, they are hauled from the death and destruction the world offers, upward onto the deck of the ship of the Church, where they are nourished and healed with the words of truth and the sacraments of life.
Although there are other fishing vessels on the sea, the Church is the greatest of them all—grand, magnificent, and perfect, offering a kind of travel no others can. The other ships follow in her wake, all of them, albeit some wander off in different directions.
Evangelization, too, requires hardworking fishermen. Although there may seem to be little to catch, the nets must be persistently cast again and again. Although storms arise, the boat must be firmly steered and piloted safely. At sea, there is no place for cowardice or lack of commitment or laziness. Each hand must do his part. Each is important for success.
Some men view the Barque of Peter as a kind of freedom-limiting incarceration. They believe she will entrap them in her net, and thus prevent them from living the life of pleasure and ease they wish to live. Blinded by the dark waters of the sea, caught up in its currents and drunk on its evil toxins, these men fail to recognize the beauty, goodness, and truth of the ship of the Church and the fulfillment found in a life in Christ.
The saving gospel is, for them, falsely viewed as a restrictive net. It is despised as a source of burden, which nags at their conscience. Little do they know that they are themselves caught in a very different net, a dangerous net: the net of the world—a net which is pulled ever deeper by powerful, unseen undercurrents.
Far from being oppressing and burdensome, the great Barque of Peter offers safety, a new life and a new purpose. On her decks is light and hope and joy. She offers freedom in Christ, for the Lord himself said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32).
The Lord Calls You
Just as those first fishermen—Simon and Andrew, James and John—every Catholic is today called by the Lord Jesus to be “fishers of men.” All are called to the sacred enterprise of evangelization, to cast out the one great net of the saving gospel and invite others to be lifted up from the dark waters of the world onto the deck of the Barque of Peter, that they may journey safely, sheltered from the many storms of destruction, toward the horizon of everlasting life.
Photo: Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.