The New York Times recently did a big spread called “I Quit.” It was 21 different personal essays about people quitting various things. Quitting dating, quitting cars, quitting smart phones, quitting a band. Each one was a fascinating little dive into someone saying “enough already.”
Of course, there was one about quitting a job. In it, the writer describe how very soon after arriving to work for a big nationally syndicated magazine, her boss—a white woman—told her “I don’t consider you a threat because a black woman will never have this job.”
Nevertheless, she toiled away at that magazine with that boss for years because she wanted to make it in the business and knew this was a hugely coveted experience and opportunity which she hoped would springboard her into something bigger down the line.
At the end of one summer, she and her husband and 5 year old daughter went on one last get-away over Labor Day weekend. They played at the beach for the whole weekend, and when it was time to go on Monday afternoon, she couldn’t leave. She just wanted to stay on the beach there. Not just because, hello, it is the beach on the last real day of summer, but because of how she dreaded returning to her job. She knew right then that either she had to muster the courage to quit or else it would wait another year or longer. They finally got on the road after dark and got home late. The next morning, she dropped her daughter off for her first day of kindergarten and went into work and told her boss she quit.
Of course, her boss being the type of person she was, refused to accept her resignation until it was a convenient time in their work calendar several weeks later. But she got out and could breathe again. She was free.
We do not often frame Jesus’ calling the disciples as them quitting, but I think the essay they would have written for this Times spread would be fascinating. “I quit fishing to follow the messiah but at the time I just thought he was a weird itinerant rabbi who clearly was not from around here.”
All the same, first Simon Peter and Andrew, then James and John all leave their fishing set ups to follow when Jesus calls. This is really astonishing. They just up and left their livelihood. Peter and Andrew left the nets they used to catch fish. James and John leave not only nets but also a boat and their own father, Zebedee.
What do you imagine was so compelling that they left that all behind? It is possible that there are circumstances about their lives which factored in. They were tired of fishing, they were destitute with nothing to lose perhaps (in Peter and Andrew’s case: notice they didn’t have a boat nor any family mentioned except for each other).
It is also possible they had heard of Jesus, though that seems less likely since this was really his the start of his ministry and it was a different region than where he’d met John the Baptist at the river Jordan. Clearly something drew these four fisherfolk out from their routines and onto the short to follow Jesus. The Spirit was whispering to them to go.
Now with this sort of story about Jesus, we always face an interpretive challenge. The disciples here could literally follow Jesus. They could go with him from town to town through out the whole course of his ministry. “Follow me,” he said, and while they did not know what they were in for, the instructions were simple enough. They could walk alongside him. Whereas for us, this idea of following has to take on a metaphoric quality, which means we have to interpret what this following means. Does it mean quitting your job, leaving some family behind? Certainly did for these fishers.
In addition to interpreting what following Jesus means for us today, both the newly recruited disciples AND us have to try to make some sense of this weird phrase: “I will make you fish for people.”
Let’s start with this: people are not fish. Nor are we to be caught with nets as fish are. This doesn’t seem to be what Jesus was suggesting, but still, it is such a striking and weird metaphor.
We know the evangelistic interpretation of this passage: fishing for people gets read as bringing them to Jesus, getting them to repent and be saved from their sins, commit unquestioningly to the church. While those who take this approach do so, most of the time in good faith I believe, they seem oblivious to the ways this effort comes across as insensitive, self-serving, and offensive to those whom they approach with evangelistic fervor.
What we see if we look beyond to the tail end of this passage and beyond this scene throughout the Gospels, is that the disciples accompanied Jesus in the journey, seeking healing, striving to tell the truth and share good news, and liberating people from the societal (often religious) chains that held them down.
This is what the disciples join up to do, really, is follow Jesus. I wonder if we might just leave the fish for people metaphor aside because if we seek to follow Jesus, it probably looks a lot more like walking alongside our neighbors in search of truth, healing, grace, and liberation, than it does in snaring, entangling, catching, and bringing aboard.
The key thing James and John and Andrew and Simon Peter did was witness Jesus doing miraculous things, being out among hurting and struggling people, standing up to the voice of power that put rules above people.
For many years at the church I served in Los Angeles, we had a church member who was an older immigrant woman, Katerina, I’ll call her. She had some mental health struggles, no family in the U.S., and bounced from homeless shelter to friend’s homes. This was all deeply complicated by the fact that she was a hoarder. She gathered and kept everything. For years, the church walked alongside her, occasionally offering her space in the church to store her things (and then just as occasionally having to draw hard lines about how much stuff could be stored there). We helped get her on a list for government funding housing, and waited year after year as nothing came of it. Church members and staff would drive her to self-store storage units to collect things she needed. We would help her clear out her stuff from storage when she inevitably defaulted on the monthly rent, only to rent a new unit. She was sometimes grateful, but also often cantankerous and easily frustrated. Her life was a very difficult one. Nevertheless, she found something at the church that she kept coming back.
Last year in the Spring, the current pastor there texted me to let me know that Katerina had just been given a small one bedroom home through the waiting list she’d signed up for year and years before. It was a huge milestone in the journey together. I read that text message over and over, astonished and so, so happy.
This is what it means to follow Jesus. To walk with one another in community. To seek out healing and truth together. It is not based on membership or a quid pro quo of “we’ll help you, but then you join our church.” What an appalling notion. Rather, discipleship and following Jesus is based upon the compelling call that we each have a part to play in the journey together. We each bring gifts to share with others. We each are called to rejoice in healing together, and weep together when the worst of life bowls us over. But if Jesus’ first followers were poor, smelly, tired fishers, there is a call to each of us in this misfit band of Jesus followers to be about the healing and liberating of all.