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Fishers of men

30 November, 1999

This second article by Philip Fogarty SJ on the Gospel of Mark shows how the call of the disciples, his teaching with authority, heaing on the sabbath and forgiving sins brings up the question: Who is this man?

Jesus is walking one day by the Sea of Galilee. He sees Simon and his brother Andrew, who are fishermen, casting a net into the lake. He asks them to follow him so that he can make them into ‘fishers’ of men (and women). At once Simon and Andrew leave their nets and follow him (1:16-20). By being ‘fishers’, these men will share in Jesus’ role of gaining disciples by teaching and healing.

James and John
Jesus goes on a little further and sees James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They are also in boats, mending their nets. He calls them and they too, leave their father and go after him. We have to presume that the first disciples already knew Jesus or at least, had heard good things about him. Otherwise it is unlikely that they would pack up a thriving business simply to follow some unknown preacher.

Jesus now begins to train the disciples, by word and example, on how to be ‘fishers’ of men and women. He and his new followers set out for Capernaum which by now has become Jesus’ home base. They go to the synagogue on the Sabbath and Jesus begins to teach there. Anyone of sufficient learning could be invited to teach in the synagogue. Jesus’ teaching makes a deep impression on his listeners because, Mark tells us, ‘unlike the scribes, he teaches with authority’ (1:21-22).

In the Gospels the scribes are depicted as interpreters and teachers of Jewish Law. They appealed to Scripture and the ‘tradition of the elders’. The elders were the rabbis of earlier generations, whose opinions on the Law were regarded by the Pharisees as of equal authority with the Law itself. Jesus refuses to be bound by such traditions.

Demons and illness
Mark tells us that in the synagogue there was a man possessed by an unclean spirit. The spirit cries out, ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know you are the Holy One of God’. But Jesus says sharply, ‘Be quiet! Come out of him! And the unclean spirit threw the man into convulsions and with a loud cry went out of him’ (1:23-28).

Mental or psychosomatic illnesses were often seen as forms of demonic possession in Jesus’ time. So, in healing the troubled man in the synagogue, whatever the nature of the miracle, it was quite natural for Mark to speak of it in terms of the casting out of an evil spirit, an exorcism.

Having the spirit cry out ‘You are the Holy One of God’ may simply be Mark’s way, using literary licence, of expressing who and what Jesus is. The people are all amazed and ask one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ So Jesus’ fame spreads throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Mark then tells the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-inlaw and of people bringing the sick and possessed to be cured (1:29-32). The following morning, while it is still dark, Jesus gets up and goes to a lonely place to pray, to commune with his Father. However, he is not left alone for long; Simon and his companions come looking for him.

‘Everybody is looking for you,’ they say. Their pursuit of Jesus probably stemmed from the conviction that Jesus was missing a great opportunity for more miracles in Capernaum. But Jesus answers, ‘Let us go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came’.

Jesus goes all through Galilee, preaching the kingdom of God in the synagogues and curing many. He cleanses a leper (1:40ff) and a paralytic (2:1ff) and even forgives the latter’s sins. (In the Old Testament the one who forgives sins is God alone. According to the reasoning of the scribes, Jesus, by implicitly claiming divine authority, is guilty of blasphemy.)

Company of sinners
Reaching the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus sees Levi, a tax collector, sitting by the customs house. ‘Follow me,’ he says and Levi gets up and follows him (2:13-17). The importance of this story lies in the fact that Levi was a tax collector. Such people were generally regarded with suspicion because they were in the service of Herod Antipas, Rome’s puppet ruler, and were suspected of financial disloyalty as well as disloyalty to the Jewish cause.
Jesus then goes to dinner in Levi’s house. A number of tax collectors and sinners sit at table with Jesus and his disciples. ‘Sinners’ were those whose occupations or lifestyles prevented them from full observance of the Jewish Law. When the scribes of the Pharisees see Jesus eating with people whose religious and moral backgrounds are suspect, they ask his disciples why he eats with such people.

When Jesus hears this, he says, ‘It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick. I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners’. Jesus’ reference to the scribes as ‘virtuous’ is, of course, ironic. They consider themselves virtuous but fail to acknowledge God as the genuine source of virtue, looking instead to the ‘tradition of the elders’.

Metaphorical analogies
One day, when John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees are fasting, some people ask Jesus, ‘Why is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’ Jesus replies, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants would never think of fasting while the bridegroom is still with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they could not think of fasting. But the time will come for the bridegroom to be taken away from them, and then, on that day, they will fast.

‘No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak; if he does, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear gets worse. And nobody puts new wine into old wineskins, if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins too. No! New wine, fresh skins’ (2:18-22).

Break with tradition
Jesus is the bridegroom and he claims that his ministry is unique. He hints at his future death when he says that ‘the bridegroom will be taken away’. When he speaks of old and new cloth and old and new wine, Jesus is referring to old and new forms of religious practice: the old ways of the scribes and Pharisees, which were largely dependent on strict interpretations of Jewish Law and the so-called ‘traditions of the elders’, and the new ways that Jesus proposes. The Pharisees believe that their traditions come from God. Jesus refutes this seeing himself as the recipient of divine authority.

There follows a discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus’ disciples pick corn while walking through the cornfields on the Sabbath. The Pharisees object that they are doing something that is forbidden. Jesus replies with an extraordinarily radical statement: ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is master even of the Sabbath’ (2:27-28).

Jesus is presented as one who, on the basis of his own higher authority, does not fit into the religious expectations of his contemporaries. Perhaps he does not always fit the expectations of contemporary Christians either!

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits. 


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