The next episode we read about is the calling of the disciples (vv. 16-20). This is fascinating because in Jesus’ day a Rabbi (or Teacher) didn’t’ choose disciples; they chose him. Already we are being introduced to someone who has a different kind of authority. Might he be up to something different than the teachers, instructors, Rabbi’s of his day as well? Time will tell.
The men he chooses to follow him are fisherman at work at that moment. A simple call from Jesus though, and these men drop everything to follow him. Before you jump to a conclusion that this was an opportunity they had been waiting for, keep in mind how small family businesses tend to work in more tribal societies. It is not uncommon for a business to stay in the family for generations, even perhaps centuries. There is no telling how long these men had been fisherman. We are more safe in assuming that this was more than a 9-5 job; this was their way of like. It was what they knew. It was where they excelled. It was what had been handed down to them from generation, to generation, to generation.
But there’s more. Fishermen were actually considered to be fairly wealthy and had some level of political or at least popular authority. We know from ancient souces that:
[F]ishermen were usually wealthy, and the high price of fish was a common source of material in Greek comedy, and is noted, for example, in IG II2 (1913; repr. 1974) 1103. Fishing guilds wielded much political power, and even where the fishing industry was not large enough to warrant such a guild, fishing co-operatives were formed. (Dr. A. Nyland, Mark: The Source New Testament with Extensive Notes on Greek Word Meaning)
This was more than just a familiar and comfortable way of life; it was also fairly lucrative. There weren’t government incentives to stimulate the economy through small businesses. If you or your family had a trade that provided a good or service to the community such as fishing, you had resources at your disposal.
But it doesn’t end there. We are told that James and John actually left their father. This seems cold and heartless at first glance. Who could do such a thing, or call for such a thing? And that’s the question we should be asking.
The truth is that Jesus is calling them to do such a thing because he is the king and the king demands complete, and total allegiance. The disciples never left their family or their career or their income out of spite; they did so because the king called for their whole-hearted allegiance to himself. The call to them was to give up the “old family business” in order to pursue a new one. One wonders how the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day received this message, or the Roman authorities for that matter. Instead of being about religious worship sites (like the Temple) or practices (like circumcision, hand-washing, purity codes in the Jewish religious tradition), or even about securing world peace by being the world’s super-power (Pax Romana) or placating any and every god imaginable, including the people en mass (in the pantheon or coliseum tradition of the Roman empire), Jesus is calling others to follow him into a new vocation. This entails full-bodied, whole-hearted commitment. The gospel is not about choosing or selecting the right pathway to life; it’s about following the king who claims absolute authority over every area of our life.
What is this king about? He answers briefly that what these fisherman are to do now is similar, but different; they are to be fishers of men. This phrase for some may be synonymous with “evangelism” and entail a strict element of “conversion.” Those elements are there, but before we load them with the negative connotations they have come to take on in our day, we would do well to think about what it means to fish – it means bringing a fish from one realm into another.
Now if this crossing over from one realm to another were a bad thing, then the negative connotation is warranted. But if its not just a good thing, but the very best thing, then that’s a different story. Fishermen, essentially, take a fish from living in a realm of water, to a realm where they die (land). Jesus comes and reverses that. He calls them to become fishers of men who are already in a ream of darkness and chaos – what the typical Jewish connotation was for “sea” or other large bodies of water (cf. (cf. Genesis 1:1-2. See also Jeremiah 16:16, Ezekiel 29:4ff.; Amos 4:2) and bring them into a realm of light and life. The apostle Paul would say something similar to this in his letter to the Colossians: “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”
Jesus’ aim is to bring people into this kingdom, and he calls for us to follow him and participate in this with him.