This is more of a confession than a sermon. Earlier this week I received an email from a good friend whom I met in seminary. He’s a pastor in Maryland. He was writing to catch up a little and ask about some theological resources. I tried to address his needs, but then in the end, I too realized that I needed a little help. Here’s what I wrote:
“I’m really struggling in my preaching (did you know that I’m supplying a little church here?). When I read the gospel, it just seems so radical to me. The way I read it, only people like Jesus, Francis of Assisi, etc. are really true to what is being said. I’m not really ready to respond in full obedience and I don’t think the people of my church are either. Really, I think most of us are neither as desperate as the Galileans were, nor as corrupt as the Herodians and Temple Priests were. We need a gospel for the people in between. But I’m not sure what that looks like – especially when we read this radical gospel every Sunday. Any suggestions?”
Now you may be wondering why I had this crisis this week. We’ve wrestled with some fairly tough texts over the last six months. Why did this familiar text about Jesus calling his first disciples throw me into a tizzy? Well, the fact is that I’ve been having this struggle all along, so it’s not really new. But the other part of it is that this text is not nearly as benign as it appears at first blush. Let me share with you just three features of this passage that make it extremely radical.
First, the setting: The story takes place after John the Baptist was arrested. Pause there a second. John, the great prophet, a hopeful figure of a new day and new way, has been arrested. And he’s not just going to spend a few days in jail. Like so many before him, before long he will be killed by the people in power for the truth that he spoke. So the time is after John is arrested and the place is the Galilee. Now in many ways to say that the story takes place in the Galilee is to say that the story takes place in Nowheresville. Nobody important lives in the Galilee and nothing important ever happens there. It’s far from Jerusalem. It’s even farther from Rome. It’s not important geographically, economically, religiously or otherwise.
But in another way to say that Jesus came to the Galilee is to say that Jesus went straight to the heart of the heartache. The Galileans were sorely oppressed. They’re economic and social lives were being upended by Roman imperialism and local rule. Herod Antipas who ruled the Galilee for Rome was a horrible ruler and drunk on taxes. In addition to the Roman taxes, Galileans were paying taxes to Herod so that he could build two cities from the ground up. They were attempts to impress the Roman occupiers, so they included Roman style buildings and stadia and other things that the Galileans simply could not afford. The poor economy and high taxes were driving Galileans out of their villages and off their farms to take part in the imperial economy in the cities and by the Sea of Galilee.
This leads us to the second feature of this passage that is more difficult than we usually think. Often we have romantic notions about these scenes of fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee. This is no doubt due to the beautiful bucolic paintings that we’ve seen in illustrated Bibles or on Sunday School walls. And the truth is that not long before Jesus’ time, fishing may have been a rather wholesome, communal endeavor. It probably was the case that before Roman rule, fishing was done predominantly by farmers who would band together and fish for a season to augment the food supplied by the fields. But by the time that Jesus called out to his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee, the imperial economy had changed all of that.
Bible scholars, Horsley and Silberman, explain that recent archaeological evidence shows that fishing had become a huge production. The Roman occupiers brought with them techniques for salting and pickling fish. They established salting and packing plants near the Sea of Galilee so that large quantities of sardines and carp could be processed into sauces called garum and chopped pieces called salsamentum. These were then shipped all over the Roman Empire. Horsley and Silberman write, “And anyone who thinks that fishermen on the Sea of Galilee in the time of Jesus were just picturesque peasants in rowboats does not appreciate the sheer weight of fish flesh that had to be hauled in ever day and transported to [the] processing centers to be salted, pressed, fermented, and refined to produce even a modest output of garum and salsamentum.”
So when Jesus asks Simon and Andrew and then James and John to drop their nets and follow him, he is not only asking them to leave behind their livelihood and home, but also to stop participating in the imperial economy. Their rejection of the job is a rejection of Roman occupation and therefore a prophetic political act.
And this leads me to the third and final point I want to make about the radical nature of this text. The line, “I will make you fishers of men,” or “I will make you fish for people” as the NRSV has it, has always been a favorite of American Evangelical Christianity. It’s been something of a motto for our evangelizing efforts and we’ve even made it into a catchy children’s song. But we may have missed its full meaning by quite a bit. The phrase really can’t be reduced to telling people about Jesus or inviting them to church. The phrase has prophetic overtones and the original Jewish hearers of the phrase may well have thought of a text like Jeremiah 16:16 ff:
I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Holy One, 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 my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight. And 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.
So when Jesus calls the disciples to follow him and become fishers for people, he is calling them to a prophetic vocation. Like John the Baptist, they will leave everything behind and risk everything in order to speak truth to power. Yes, they will share good news with the Galileans, but the Galileans’ good news will be a threat to the Romans and the Herodians and the Judean religious elite. Jesus’ call to be fishers for people is a call to leave everything and take up the cross.
So, do you see now, why I was troubled by this text? As I said in my note to my friend, the problem is that we are neither in the situation of the oppressed Galileans nor condemnable as their oppressors. We’re somewhere in between. Now perhaps we do contribute in some ways to the poverty of others or the oppression of others in as much as we participate in a materialistic and militaristic culture. But are we, you and me, really called to drop our nets, drop everything and take up the prophetic way of the cross? Well, I don’t know about you, but even if I’m called to do so, I’m far from ready.
So what do we do? What is the gospel for the people in between? Well, I’m thinking that perhaps we can take just a little license with Jesus’ proclamation in verse 15. Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” The kingdom of God has come near. What does the “near” mean? Well even Bible scholars are divided on the issue. Some say it means that the kingdom of God has come in Jesus but is not yet wholly fulfilled. Others say it would be better to read it as “the kingdom of God is at hand” suggesting that the word is about the kingdom’s immanence – it’s right here, near at hand.
I’d like to suggest that maybe the “near” gives us a little latitude. Maybe we don’t have to drop everything and live completely in the kingdom. Maybe we can allow the kingdom to come near. If nothing else, perhaps coming nearer to the kingdom will allow us to be better prepared to eventually answer the kingdom call more fully. In any case, for my part, I think I might be ready to draw a little nearer, even if I’m not ready to drop my nets completely.
So, I’ve thought this week about what I’m willing to do and what I might be able to invite you to do with me. And I’ve come up with three suggestions. We’ll keep the list short and simple so that we actually have a chance of accomplishing it.
First, I suggest that we try not to smooth over the radical nature of the Gospel. I will commit to conveying to you what I think is the best Biblical scholarship and trying to tell you what the text really says – radical or not. You will have to commit to listen with patient ears and an open mind. We may often find that the text doesn’t speak to us as directly as we had hoped or that the text offers more challenge than inspiration. I will still try to be hopeful and inspiring in my sermons, but let’s not smooth over the rough nature of these texts merely to satisfy our own comfort. When the Gospel is radical, let it be radical. And we will work together to figure out what we do with that radical Gospel, even if we’re not fully ready to heed it.
Second, let’s get our hands dirty. I was glad to hear that you were thinking similarly when I mentioned this at our recent congregational meeting. Let’s do some things together. If we’re not poor and oppressed like the Galileans, maybe we can understand the Gospel a little better if we get to know some folks who are. Maybe we’re not ready to drop our nets and become prophets, but we can at least do some more to serve the least and to ease suffering and pain.
So, I will commit to organizing a couple of opportunities for volunteer work over the next couple of months. We’ll go to the Jameson Center or to the Armory and help out a little. I also think that Linda’s idea of a garden to grow vegetables for people who can’t easily afford them is fantastic. When the weather breaks, let’s get to it. That’s getting your hands dirty.
Finally, let’s put our money where our mouth is. Now I know that whenever the preacher starts talking about money, some people get very nervous. But, rest assured, I am not necessarily asking you to give more to the church. From what I’ve seen, our church finances are pretty well in order and if folks continue to give as they have been we should be just fine. What I’m asking of you and committing myself to do, is to look at your spending and giving and consider if you might be able to make some changes that would allow you to reallocate your money to better promote justice and peace.
Actually, in some ways I think we could learn something from our Muslim sisters and brothers when it comes to stewardship. One of the five pillars of Islam is zakat or almsgiving. But zakat is different from offerings and tithes in the Christian tradition. Zakat is a requirement that every Muslim give 2.5% of their total worth to the poor each year. They give it to the poor – not to the mosque. The mosque is run like any other non-profit organization. The mosque does fund drives and the like to pay for its building, staff, etc., but this has nothing to do with zakat. Alms are given to the poor and oppressed.
Now of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give money to the church, nor am I discouraging you from giving more money to the church. But I am encouraging to think again about your finances and see if there’s a little more that can be put to better use. Maybe you give a little more to the church. Maybe you give a little more on mission Sunday. Maybe you give to the Presbyterian peacemaking program or hunger program. Maybe you give directly to a local agency or some other benevolent society. Maybe I’m preaching just to myself and you’re doing all you can.
What I’ve tried to do with these three suggestions, though, is to think about how we can let the Gospel be the Gospel and let the kingdom of God come near – at least near. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” What will we, the people in between, do with this good news?
 Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), p. 25.