Deconstructing Mark 1.16-20
Walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls out to some working fishermen, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1.16-17). My faith tradition assumed “fishers of men” are people saving souls for a heavenly afterlife. Perhaps your faith tradition taught you something similar and equally vague.
However, Ched Meyers suggests that we look to the Old Testament to interpret this phrase so odd to our ears. In the book of Jeremiah, Yahweh says He will send fishermen and hunters to catch corrupt people. If reading Scripture makes your brain freeze, hang with me please! Just note, that fishermen catching fish is a metaphor for God’s messengers catching people who will experience consequences for their “iniquity,” “sin,” and “abominations.”
“Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares 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. For my eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes. But first I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” (Jeremiah 16.16-18) emphasis mine
In the book of Amos, to be captured with a fishhook is a condemnation of the rich and powerful whose consumption and greed “oppress the poor” and “crush the needy.”
“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks.” (Amos 4.1.2) emphasis mine
Finally, in Ezekiel, fishing is a creative metaphor describing how God will hook the powerful of Egypt, pulling them from their comfortable, privileged place and cast them into the wilderness to be devoured by beasts and birds.
“Behold, I am against you,
Pharaoh king of Egypt,
the great dragon that lies
in the midst of his streams,
that says, ‘My Nile is my own;
I made it for myself.’
4 I will put hooks in your jaws,
and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales;
and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams,
with all the fish of your streams
that stick to your scales.
5 And I will cast you out into the wilderness,
you and all the fish of your streams;
you shall fall on the open field,
and not be brought together or gathered.
To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the heavens
I give you as food. (Ezekiel 29.3b-6) emphasis mine
The Jewish culture of the first century had a strong oral tradition, one that told the stories of its people and prophets over and over. This retelling of its history was necessary for Jewish identity to survive generations of being conquered, living in exile and among non-Jewish peoples.
Considering that tradition, it is reasonable to think that most Jews would be familiar with the prophets Jeremiah, Amos and Ezekiel, would be familiar with their metaphors for fishing and hooking the corrupt, rich and powerful. And they would hear their echo in Jesus’ invitation.
If so, these first followers of Jesus were expecting to be part of a revolution. Meyers suggests that they heard Jesus’ invitation as an urging “to overturn the existing order of power and privilege” (Meyers).
Further study reveals that a revolution is exactly what Jesus had in mind. However, he challenged their ideals about how this revolution is to be fought and who it is against. It was easy to assume that Rome was the sole lion to be slaughtered, but Jesus also challenged the power structure within their own community. In fact, Jesus spent more time directly challenging his own people than the Empire.
The revolution needed to start much closer to home. It needed to start with their own ideologies and expectations. We will get into this further in later posts.
Though Jesus is speaking specifically to these people at this time, we should ask ourselves is this meant as an example for us to follow today? Are we also meant to “hook fish”? To invert systems that uphold the power and greed of a few privileged whose status can only be maintained by the suffering of others?
I invite you to read Mark 1.16-20 for yourself.
Bible Quotations taken from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Also quoted Ched Meyers, from Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 2008.