Lessons for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, Year B: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Jonah shouts in the streets of Nineveh: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” its a terrifying countdown. Paul tells the Corinthians that “the appointed time has grown short” and “the present form of this world is passing away.” They should, therefore, make swift and serious changes in their lifestyle. Jesus arrives in Galilee with the message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” There is an urgency to Jesus’ message!
Is this something we believe? Is our faith urgent? Does our faith make a claim on us that insists on immediacy in response? Recently, precipitated by the January 6th attack on the U.S Capitol Building, I have been shaken and left wondering by a version of Christianity that is seen on display in the furtherance of nationalism, racism, and bigotry. It’s a version that sees no contradiction in claiming discipleship of Jesus with violence and hatred. Of course, this is nothing new! The gospel and the Church have long been misused as a justification to oppress – to rationalize slavery, to countenance the minimizing of native cultures, and as a pretext for war. But this, I will maintain, is far from the good news of faith, hope, and love, of peace and compassion, and of the kingdom of the God that Jesus proclaimed.
Indeed, Mark tells us, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” There is an urgency to the good news, an urgency to the message of the kingdom that speaks to the times!
Jesus invites four fishermen to leave their boats and follow him. Jesus wants to make them “fish for people.” I don’t have a particularly personal connection to Jesus’s fishing metaphor. I’m not a huge fan of fishing. My father was not a fisherman, and (like him) I find fishing to be an utterly boring pursuit. However, I do like to eat fish (fried, grilled, and blackened, as sushi and in tacos, and can anything beat a classic Florida grouper sandwich when you’re at the beach). I can appreciate the metaphor and recognize the value and hard work of the fishermen in the narrative.
But evangelism might also be a cause of dismay for many, particularly in light of the penchant to conflate the message of “Jesus Saves” with intolerance and judgment, and the violence of past and present. So, maybe its time for an honest reckoning with the truth and scope of the Christian story in the public square! We need to learn to preach the gospel, I think, with the urgency that it requires but also in ways that are hospitable, generative, and nourishing. We need to preach, in other words, as Jesus did, not as condemnation or supersessionism, but as good news.
How do we do that? There are, In the narrative from today, two insights that might prove instructive. First, Jesus’s invitation is specific and particular. Jesus’ invasion is rooted in a culture and a vocation that was known to Andrew and Simon, and James and John. Those four men knew the nuances of the fishing metaphor and could understand from years of hard-won experience the patience, resilience, and craft required. They knew the tools of the trade, their own limitations, and, most of all, they knew the water; they knew how to pay attention to their environment; and, they respected the reciprocity at the heart of their enterprise.
When Jesus calls these fishermen to follow him, the metaphor he uses is one they would have understood – an understanding that Jesus certainly wants them to bring with them. The disciples are not asked to abandon their experience, but rather to bring the best of their experience with them for the sake of the world and for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Like the apostles, we are not invited to evangelize in abstraction or in a vacuum. Instead, we are invited to pay attention to the world around us in ways that are respectful and life-giving. If we are to follow Jesus, we are invited to do it in the specific and particular interests of our lives, and communities. We are invited to pay attention to culture and language, and to the vocations, we find ourselves in. Indeed, God values us – our intellect, experiences, skills, memories, and backgrounds. Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you…” This is a promise to cultivate, not to sever.
Barbara Brown Taylor calls the gospel narrative we heard this morning (Mark 1:14–20) a miracle story. Four fishermen “immediately” follow, without hesitation or questions. Did they have a prophetic foreknowledge or insight? No! They are ordinary men who become fallible disciples who doubt, deny, and abandon Jesus. Barbara Brown Taylor writes,
“This is not a story about us. It is a story about God, and about God’s ability not only to call us but also to create us as people who are able to follow — able to follow because we cannot take our eyes off the one who calls us, because he interests us more than anything else in our lives, because he seems to know what we hunger for and because he seems to be food.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Miracle on the Beach,” 40)
Second, it is helpful to understand that the four fishermen in Mark’s story aren’t individual workers in a free enterprise system. In first-century Palestine, the fishing industry (like all industries) was fully under the control of the Roman Empire, owned entirely by the Emperor and regulated for the benefit of the wealthy, urban elite. This often left local communities impoverished and hungry, depriving them of necessary dietary staples. Moreover, the Roman system was exploitative, with exorbitant taxes and levies collected on each fish sold.
It was in this context that Jesus invited Andrew and Simon, James and John to leave their nets and “fish for people.” Ched Myers, in Binding the Strong Man, argues that interpreting this text as a narrow invitation to evangelize and convert distorts Jesus’ message. Myers points out that in the Old Testament the metaphor of fishing is used as a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Amos 4:2) and the powerful (Ezekiel 29:4). So, when Jesus asks the four fishermen to become fishers of people, there is a nuanced call for them to cast aside the existing social order of power and exploitation in favor of God’s kingdom where justice for the poor, mercy for the oppressed, and abundance for all reigns. For Myers, Jesus is inviting these common fishermen “to a fundamental reordering of socio-economic relationships.”
In the end, Jesus’s proclamation is Evangelion, “good news.” Is our proclamation “good news” to those who are caught in the nets of exploitation, corruption, and poverty? Is our preaching life-giving to those trapped by the nets of war and violence? Is our evangelism hospitable to those experiencing racism, misogyny, and bigotry? How might we bring good news to people ensnared by brokenness and oppression? And let us not forget that there is an urgency to these questions! The four fishermen left their nets “immediately” and followed Jesus. Do we share the urgency of Jesus’ invitation? We cannot shy away from sharing the good news any longer. Do you cherish the Good News enough to share it?