Fishers of Men

ON THE FIRST Sunday that occurs during the Apostles’ Fast our Church regularly reminds us of the call of the leaders of these apostles by the Lord. The Gospel passage read at the Divine Liturgy is Matthew 4:18-23, the call of the fishermen. Mark and Luke also tell of this incident, at the effective beginning of Christ’s public ministry.

The call of these disciples seems unusually abrupt to many readers. Jesus approaches some fishermen and says “Follow me,” and they do. In the Gospel of John we read of a previous encounter that may make this prompt response a bit less jarring.

Meeting Jesus at the Jordan

John describes both Jesus and some of those who would become His followers among those around John the Baptist at the Jordan. While Jesus and the apostles mentioned in John were from Galilee, they may have first met in Judea, where John was baptizing. John the Baptist had acquired a reputation for radical holiness and had drawn people from even farther away than Galilee (cf., Mark 3:8). It is not unreasonable than religious Galileans like Jesus and His future followers would have traveled to Judea as well.

In John we read: “Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, ‘What do you seek?’ They said to Him, ‘Rabbi’ (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), ‘where are You staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour).  One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus” (John 1:35-42).

The disciples’ question, “Where are you staying?” implies that Jesus was not at home; He was a visitor in lodgings. His fellow Galileans were thus doubly attracted to Him. He had John’s endorsement and He was from their own native region. It is also in light of this passage that the Byzantine Churches call Andrew the First-Called of the apostles.

Next called of the apostles, according to John, would be Philip and Nathaniel. As John tells it, “The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow Me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’  And Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see’” (John 1:43-46).

Back in Galilee

The Gospels do not dwell on Jesus’ return from the Jordan. Matthew outlines it in a few words: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum… From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Matthew 4:12,13,17). This was the same message that John was spreading around Judea (cf., Matthew 3:1) – it is as if Jesus was continuing John’s work in Galilee.

The Gospel of John reports how, soon after returning to Galilee, Jesus “and His disciples” (John 2:2) attended a wedding at Cana. This is the first we hear that Jesus has disciples. When did they begin to follow Him? Once Jesus began His own ministry He quickly surrounded Himself with local followers, some of whom had been attracted to John the Baptist.

When Jesus approached Andrew and Peter as they were fishing, He invited them to follow Him, but with a promise. “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:20). This image becomes clearer at the end of Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus tells His eleven foremost disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19). Ultimately these former fishermen would be catching their fish in Asia Minor and Europe.

The Kingdom of God

All through Jesus’ ministry the preaching of Jesus was filled with “kingdom talk.” The Lord’s Prayer, the parables, and even His final word to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), all use this term drawn from Jewish experience and expectation.

In Jewish history the kingdom of God was a worldly entity, the kingdom of David. This kingdom was short-lived. It was divided on the death of David’s son, Solomon, and then destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC. From then until the coming of Christ the Jews largely lived under foreign rule, but always looked for the restoration of “God’s kingdom,” meaning their independence.

By announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand the Lord was dismissing the ideas that the kingdom was a matter of political independence and therefore something in the material future. For Jesus the “kingdom” was something of the spirit. With the incarnation it is “at hand.” With the spread of Christ’s public ministry through the ministry of the apostles it “has come near to you” (Luke 10:9) because the kingdom of God is inner communion with Him. It was already realized in Christ and would become possible for anyone with His death and resurrection which occasioned the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. As St Paul writes, “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” (Colossians 1:19,20).

Thus the kingdom of God is life in and with God, which is now ours mystically through our sharing in the life of the Church and in the ways we make Christ’s teachings the basis of our life. The kingdom will come in power at the end of the age when “Christ who is our life appears” and those who are in Him will share in His glory (cf., Colossians 3:1-4).

Jesus’ “Good News”

The message preached by both Jesus and the Forerunner was that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. In Mark’s Gospel a comment is added: “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:14,15).

We associate the term “gospel” with the four New Testament texts which speak of the life and message of Christ. In the Roman Empire a “gospel” was an imperial proclamation heralded with fanfare – “good news,” as it is often translated. By adopting that word the apostles were saying that Jesus was the “real news” in our world.

“The kingdom of heaven has no price tag on it: it is worth as much as you have. For Zacchaeus it was worth half of what he owned, because the other half that he had unjustly pocketed he promised to restore fourfold. For Peter and Andrew it was worth the nets and vessel they had left behind; for the widow it was worth two copper coins; for another it was worth a cup of cold water. So, as we said, the kingdom of heaven is worth as much as you have.”

St Gregory the Great, Forty Gospel Homilies, 5.2