Job Opening with a Catch

 

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

I have always enjoyed seafood, long before I heard fish and shellfish contain essential nutrients for a healthy diet. And ordinarily, my seafood comes from the supermarket deli. But I have never enjoyed fishing, not for sustenance, not for sport, not for recreation. I did enjoy crabbing for a time at the Lynnhaven Inlet and Crab Creek because it was a family pastime, and Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs were abundant, and all you needed was a chicken leg and some nylon clothesline rope, and it didn’t take long for something to tug at your line. I tried fishing once when I worked summer camp in college. I didn’t see much of a point to the exercise since you didn’t get to keep anything you caught. Catch and release. I didn’t understand it then, I still don’t get it now. For starters, you have to use a hook, and unhooking a fish is not a pleasant experience, not for me, and I suppose not for the fish either. But I can grant that a lot of people may find much enjoyment in fishing. I’ve heard fishing can be quite a rewarding experience, whether for recreation or as a means of livelihood, although I know I would easily get impatient because I don’t like to wait. Besides, I don’t feel the need to fish just because I enjoy seafood. I mean, I like chicken, and I don’t have to raise them myself.

When Jesus came upon some fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he invited them to use their skills in a never-before-heard venture. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Jesus considered his life mission to establish the kingdom of God on earth. This kingdom would become a reality when women and men would live by the values of the gospel he himself taught and lived, a kingdom where people genuinely cared for the welfare of others, where they willingly extended compassion and forgiveness to one another, where they were passionate about truth and justice, where they built each other up in charity and fraternal support, where they worked hard at reconciliation and establishing a lasting peace. And he knew he would not accomplish his life’s mission without the help of close friends and collaborators. He would lay the foundation but others would have to take up his cause. These “fishers of men” would benefit much from some innate knowledge and skill that were second-nature to “fishers of fish.” For instance, they already knew that fish don’t come to you; you have to go to them. The work of building the kingdom of God would require some smarts, a lot of passion, and a willingness to get your hands dirty. It was not a 9-to-5 job, and it was not for the faint of heart. And then when it comes to bait, certain fish are more selective; while others will be happy with whatever you use. In short, know your fish. So in the work of building the kingdom of God, people will seek what they most need – forgiveness for their sins, healing for their hurts, food for the hungers of their spirit, meaning and purpose for their daily living, answers and assurance for their most pressing questions, confidence and strength for their journey, communion with God and their neighbor. And there will also be some who are only looking for a handout, not necessarily a lifelong commitment, just something to satisfy their immediate need. Those you catch and release; the others you might want to keep.

But like all analogies, this one only goes so far. When finding workers to help build the kingdom, they have to respond to the call willingly. It doesn’t work the same way for fish. The kingdom of God is not something imposed on anyone. To be truly effective, it must be freely and wholeheartedly embraced. And even after it is received, no one can be forced to stay against their will. Consequently, it is not a job or a way of life that is dependent on material compensation or earthly reward. Whatever Jesus promises is all we ourselves can offer. In the gospel of Matthew (19: 29), we are assured, “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.” When we give up anything for the sake of his name, it means essentially that nothing and no one in our life will be more important than him. And as unappealing as it sounds to some people, there are many who have left behind earthly wealth, power and prestige, and have given up their liberty, their possessions, their very lives, and there are many more who are willing to do likewise … all for the sake of his name. So it is essential to understand that a life dedicated to building the kingdom of God is not a 9-to-5 job, and it is definitely not for the faint of heart.

In light of this perspective, the passage we read from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes a little more sense. Written early in his ministry, it is set against the backdrop of Jesus’ imminent return. The early church sincerely believed that Jesus would indeed come back soon to take them to their eternal reward, soon as in next week, a couple of months at the latest, but not much more. This passage was not written to give people permission to abandon their relationships and responsibilities. So even after it becomes clear that Jesus was not returning quite yet, the significance of this passage is not diminished. It intends to help us focus on the more important reality – that the world and everything in it is passing away. Strive instead for the things that last, the things that will stand you in good stead in the life to come.

The prophet Jonah was hand-picked by God to proclaim a message of repentance to a specific people. But Jonah only reluctantly agreed, partly because God would not be persuaded otherwise. Despite his valiant efforts to get as far away as possible from God, Jonah found himself right where he started. Few among us or anyone in the history of God’s people are ever forced against our will to do God’s bidding. A more in-depth study of the book of Jonah might reveal some major differences between how God thinks and how human beings think. The passage we read today does not include how defiantly Jonah resisted God. It begins after the prophet resigns himself to his mission, more than likely half-heartedly. And it does not include Jonah’s reaction to God’s decision to repent of the evil he had threatened against the people of Nineveh. So there’s a lot more to that troubled relationship between Jonah and God, and I would love to talk about it more but we must set that aside for another day.

If we desire to follow him, Jesus also invites us to become “fishers of men.” Like I said earlier, the analogy has its limits. You can’t expect the fish you caught to help you catch more fish. But if we sincerely desire to follow him and live by his values, we must also accept his mission to proclaim the kingdom and call others to an experience of conversion. But we will convince no one unless we are also authentic witnesses to the awesome power of the gospel to transform. By the way, this job does in fact come with your baptism. But if you need to find out more, come talk to me.