“As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’” At once they left their nets and followed him.” Matthew 4:18-20
Fishers of people? What in the world is Jesus talking about here? So often when I hear this passage preached, the emphasis is on how God calls the disciples and how they respond. How they seem there and then to stop what they’re doing and follow, because they can’t do otherwise. Jesus is enough.
And while this is all good and true, it has always stopped short of unpacking the expression, “fishers of people.” What does Jesus really mean when he employs it? If there were a job description for a fisher of people, what would it be? The image can bring to mind unsavory associations, like loud street evangelists with bull horns calling the world to repentance, or politicians who in fishing for votes wear their Christian faith on their sleeve.
But what does it really mean to fish for people?
I have never liked fishing. It demands way too much patience. For that reason, I tend to place fishing in the same category as golf. They’re occupations that if I had all the time in the world I might try some day; but because I don’t have all the time in the world, I prefer to spend it doing things I find more, well, adventuresome and exhilarating, like paragliding in the Alps, for instance.
But maybe that is precisely why discipleship is so hard, too. It demands a whole lot of the patience I don’t have. You have to have just the right bait for the fish so they come swimming to it, but you also have to wait for them to bite first. If they don’t bite, you’re out of luck. There’s no sense forcing those tasty morsels down their throats. They eat when they are hungry. They come when their stomachs feel empty, or when they see a worm that looks especially appetizing. And in the sea there are lots of distractions competing for the fishes’ attention. So fisher people have to be patient. They have to be willing to hold their line out for a while until they feel a tug, and then they need to be careful when they pull their catch in.
Because I don’t fish, it is disingenuous to feign knowledge about fishing as a sport or livelihood. But I am married to a man who comes from a long line of North Sea fishermen (and in this case they all are men) who make their living on the deep seas catching big fish. These men are tough, hard-working, no-nonsense sorts of people who have been weathered by many a storm. They risk their lives doing what they do. Many a spouse or sibling has watched them go off to work never to return.
I suspect that this suspense-laden existence is closer to the reality of fishing in Jesus’ time. Simon Peter and Andrew weren’t regularly shooting the breeze on a sunny day over a couple of beers while waiting blissfully for their lunch to turn up. They were living on dinghies, watching the skies and the currents for the next big catch to reel in so that they could pay the bills. Sometimes business was good; other days it wasn’t.
So when Jesus uses the expression “fisher of people,” I imagine he has in mind a certain set of qualifications: he is looking for strong, patient, risk-taking people with both a penchant for adventure and a tolerance for the tedious. Not just anyone can be a fisher of people then- in the same way that not just anyone can fish for tuna.
In reality, nobody starts out as a fisher of people. The occupation takes time following Jesus first. Peter and Andrew, when they first throw down their nets and follow Jesus are not fishers of people. It is in the process of following Jesus that they become fishers of people.
The good news is that for starters any one of us can be a disciple, because anyone of us can follow Jesus. If you’re unsure as to whether you qualify, just check out this list of twelve characteristics of disciples (the first eight characteristics come compliments of Don Miller, and the last four are my additions):
1. You think Jesus wants to take over the government so you cut off a soldier’s ear in order to get the fighting started. (The neo cons are definitely disciples!)
2. You keep pestering Jesus about who he will give more power to in heaven.
3. You have no theological training but own a small fishing business which somehow makes you qualified because you “get it.”
4. The Holy Spirit crashes into one of your mini sermons so everybody can speak different languages and outsiders think you’re drunk.
5. People ask you if you know Jesus and you freak out and say “no” and run away.
6. You hear they killed Jesus on a cross and you figure the whole thing was a wash and you got duped.
7. You choose other disciples by playing rock, paper, scissors.
8. You teach bad theology and have to have somebody else come over and correct you.
9. You’re “undomesticated,” in that you find children a bit annoying, get stressed out when in charge of dinner for large crowds and only visit your mother when she’s sick.
10. You think you can walk on water even when you can’t.
11. You find it hard to say “no” to good wine, especially when there’s lots of it.
12. You would have no trouble quitting your day job if Someone gave you an offer you couldn’t refuse.
If you see yourself in here, then you’ve got a future following Jesus. And the fishing of people? That will come along the way, so relax.