Musings on Mark: Fishers of Men

καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς· δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου, καὶ ποιήσω ὑμᾶς γενέσθαι ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων.
Mark 1:17

I do not care for fishing. While some find it to be a relaxing hobby, I find it to be boring and tedious. Maybe it’s because my dad never took me fishing or maybe it’s because I prefer to have my nose in a book. Whatever the reason, fishing is not for me. And hunting even less so!

Yet much of the world depends on fish and other seafood to sustain its growing population. In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, scientist and author Jared Diamond notes,

While seafood consumption is high and rising in the First World, it is even higher and rising faster elsewhere, e.g., having doubled in China within the last decade. Fish now account for 40% of all protein (of both plant and animal origin) consumed in the Third World and are the main animal protein source for over a billion Asians….As a result of our dependence on seafood, the sea provides jobs and income for 200,000,000 people around the world, and fishing is the most important basis of the economies of Iceland, Chile, and some other countries. (Diamond, 2005, 479)

Throughout much of human history, fishing has been an important task. If you lived near a body of water then you got much of your food supply from it. This is true today and it was true in first century Palestine.

With Him All the Way

The Gospel of Mark has a very simple structure. In broad terms, there are three major sections: a prologue or introduction (1:1-15), the public ministry of Jesus (1:16-8:26), and the journey to the cross (8:27-16:8). Within the first section we can see three major divisions: the authority of Jesus (1:16-3:12), the teachings of Jesus (3:13-6:6), and the mission of Jesus (6:7-8:26). Each division begins with a pericope concerning the disciples. Why is this?

To put it simply, one of Mark’s goals in writing his Gospel is to turn readers who may know about Jesus into disciples of Jesus. So in his Gospel the disciples are far from minor characters on the stage that is Jesus’ life. Rather, they are there from the beginning and are vital to the story. And by including them so early in the narrative, Mark is emphasizing that the disciples had been with Jesus all the way. [1]

“Left their father Zebedee”

But the pericope in Mark 1:16-20 is also intended to demonstrate that the proper response to Jesus’ call is immediate and unwavering commitment. When Jesus sees Simon and Andrew casting their nets into the sea, he calls to them and says, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (1:17) And what is their response? καὶ εὐθὺς ἀφέντες τὰ δίκτυα ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ – “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (1:18) If this isn’t surprising, it should be. Mark’s audience would have recognized that in dropping their nets to follow Jesus, Simon and Andrew were leaving behind their livelihood, their source of life. Yet they drop their nets and at the call of Jesus follow him.

But Simon and Andrew are not the only ones who abandon fishing to follow Jesus. As he goes a little farther, Jesus sees James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in their boats repairing their nets. The text says, “And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.” (1:20) This is surprising not only because fishing was their source of food but also because apparently Zebedee’s fishing business was doing well enough that he could afford to have τῶν μισθωτῶν, “hired servants.” Furthermore, James and John left their own father behind to follow this man from Galilee. This is astonishing.

Mark is highlighting for his readers that discipleship is costly. You may have to abandon your source of food. You may not have incredible financial success. You may have to leave behind family. But the one you are following is one who teaches with authority and casts out demons (1:21-28), who can heal those who have been sick with leprosy or paralyzed for life (1:40-2:12), and who is even able to raise the dead to life again. (5:35-43) Sure, along the way you may be lumped in with “tax collectors and sinners” (2:15-16) but Jesus said he wasn’t where the healthy were but where the sick were.

“I will make you become fishers of men,” Jesus told Simon and Andrew. And that is one of the purposes of Mark’s Gospel: to make his readers fishers of men.

End Notes

[1] Though as Jesus faces his own death they scatter. This turn of events is intended to emphasize a theme in Mark’s Gospel that no one really understands who Jesus is, not even his disciples. They may have expected a triumphant king but got a crucified prophet.

Print Bibliography 

Jared Diamond. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005.

7 Comments

  1. Many years ago, so many that I have now forgotten the name of the author and of the relevant text, I read a comment by a feminist commentator, who observed that this dropping everything and going on the road with Jesus struck her as a fundamentally male model of discipleship. If we think of women doing the same thing, we will have to think of them not as leaving their self-reliant father in the boat with the hired workers, but leaving their aged parents who require nursing, their husbands, and their minor children. Presumably in the care of others, but even so, it seems for some reason a lot harder to feel OK about a woman’s abandoning her kids, even for Jesus, than to feel OK about the 12 leaving whatever it was they left.. We seem not to have quite the same sense that the 12 were actively breaking their social obligations in a way we would consider wrong (though perhaps they were).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is an interesting perspective. Obviously, the Gospel narratives are rooted in a world dominated by patriarchy, but there are (as you know) examples of women who do follow Jesus. For the most part, we don’t know much about their background and if they had to abandon their “social obligations” to follow him. In the case of James and John, breaking from the family business may have been social suicide but I’m not sure. We know so little of these men though they play a vital role in the Gospel narratives.

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  2. Interesting. From a Christian perspective, I am not shocked they dropped their nets to follow Jesus. But as you note they fled just after He was crucified. What happened next is the most important part of the story. Had Jesus not appeared to them, they would have remained in hiding and gone back to fishing. But they preached illegally and risked their lives for Him. Why? They saw the risen Jesus. That’s key.

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    1. I’m not convinced that “[h]ad Jesus not appeared to them, they would have remained in hiding and gone back to fishing.” Rather, had they not coe to *believe* that he had risen, that would have likely been the case. I reject the notion that the disciples were lying, that is that they were consciously speaking and promoting things that were not true. I think they truly believed he rose. But a sincerely held belief is no indicator of whether that belief is true.

      What is interesting about Mark’s Gospel is that the narrative ends BEFORE anyone else is told of the Resurrection. The women are commanded to tell the disciples that Jesus will be in Galilee and yet “they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had sezied them, and they said nothing to anyone [καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπον], for they were afraid.” (16:8) Then it ends. No one sees Jesus alive.

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  3. As a church we are currently studying Mark corporately. I have done my own studies on Mark and feel I understand the intent of the writer as it is given to the original audience and beyond. That being said, how do we deliver the text as written in Mark 16 verses 9ff ? It does appear to be some of the most “disputed” texts in the Bible let along the NT. It is odd that Mark would end the Gospel in verse 8 with the women being afraid to tell others they saw and spoke to Jesus. Of course my pastor (who also disputes the text being original) must still relay this to the congregation otherwise he would not be bringing and honest discussion to the forefront. If we tell people that this particular text is “disputable” how do we reconcile the rest of Biblical text and tell them it is trustworthy? My answer is that the other 3 Gospels do in fact point to a resurrected Christ witnessed by the disciples and others. I know there will be some discussion concerning this when the time comes. I wonder how many people with NIV or ESV versions knew they had “incomplete” Bibles???

    I enjoy your perspective my friend. We can disagree on some points but I wish Christians were willing to dig into the texts as you do.

    Jim

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    1. The other day I was thinking about the very odd and likely original ending of Mark at verse 8 while getting ready to shower. (I know, TMI.) One idea I toyed around with is that in Mark there is some emphasis on who Jesus is being a secret or at least that people don’t get him. Even his disciples can’t get a grip on who he is and what he has come for. The only crowd that seems to understand are the demons. I haven’t had a chance to consult any commentaries on this but maybe Mark intended the text to end in an air of mystery and that the readers, aware of the fact that the Christian movement has obviously expanded, are to infer something about what happened rather than being told outright.

      Years ago when I was finishing my B.S., one of my capstone projects was to write an analysis of the textual data behind the ending of Mark. I wish I had a copy of it so I could consult it but I don’t. And I sold a bunch of my textual criticism works and am currently buying back what I used to have. Frustrating!

      Thank you again for the kind words. I always appreciate your input.

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  4. I am trying to comment from my new page but it seems it occasionally posts as my old one instead of Engage the Gospel…ugh

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