The Gospels: Mark 1:16-20 – A Lesson About Fishing

When I was a small boy growing up in northern Louisiana, I went fishing every chance I got. By age six, though, we had moved to Southern California, and between the rigors of big city life and my family not having a lot of money, chances for fishing were dramatically fewer. Still, there were the occasional trips to the Malibu pier with a friend, and a couple of times a year my uncle took me out on one of the off-shore barges that local fishing enthusiasts flocked to. Between sessions of untangling lines with the elbow-to-elbow crowd on board, we usually managed to hook a couple of bonita, several mackerel and if we were really lucky, a small halibut.

We fished the Kern River a couple of times, as well as Lake Isabella and Lake Piru. As a boy, I had a clear definition of the difference between freshwater and saltwater fishing: Freshwater fishing is usually more relaxing, but the fish are smaller and you’re less likely to catch one.

The kind of fishing the Zebedee boys were doing in Jesus’ day was nothing like the hook, line and sinker kind I enjoy. What they did was work, hard work. They would have thought I was crazy if I had suggested: “Hey guys, let’s take a break and go fishing. We all need some rest.”

They had huge, heavy nets to cast out, draw in, unload, clean, dry and mend. They had hundreds of fish to process and sell. They had the boat to clean and repair. Fishing was not a sport or a break. It was their livelihood, and in many ways it was their life.

We are not told whether James and John liked their part in their dad’s fishing business. All we know is that when Jesus called them, they left it and followed him. Presumably, Jesus said the same thing to them that he said to Simon and Andrew, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.”

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

What did Jesus have in mind when he said, “fish for people”?

Most of us Bible types are quick to run analogies into the ground. Jesus, being a good bit smarter than we are and knowing a little something about analogies, probably was thinking more about the obvious parallels than the picky details that sometimes fill sermon time and Bible study sessions. Instead of casting nets to draw in fish for breakfast tables, these disciples would now be casting the gospel to draw in people for the kingdom of God.

In Mark’s previous paragraph, he described Jesus as preaching, “Repent and believe the good news” (v. 15). It’s a rather indiscriminate message. Like a net, it falls wherever it falls and, like fish, some people get caught in it while others swim obliviously by.

We count the fish who, by time and chance, escape the net, as lucky fellows who will grow a little bigger for the next time the net comes their way. We count the people who run from or dismiss the gospel as missing out on the best thing that could ever happen to them, and we pray that they might get caught next time the gospel splashes down around them.

However, as Jesus mentioned once in a parable, the fishing net gathers up a whole lot of stuff besides good-eatin’ fish (Matthew 13:47-48). The net does not discriminate; it picks up every kind of fish out there, good and bad alike. At the end of the day the worthless ones have to be separated out and discarded.

Likewise, the gospel does not discriminate; it applies to the whole world (John 3:16; 1 John 2:1-2). But the only ones who can join the great celebration of the kingdom of God are the ones who believe that they really are in God’s gracious net. If they won’t trust God’s word of love and grace for them, then the gospel of their salvation is meaningless to them, and they cannot even understand the kingdom of God, much less desire to be part of it. They prefer their own kingdom, the shriveled, selfish one they think is so grand. So they have to be tossed out of God’s banquet room, where he had places set for everybody.

The kingdom of God is not a matter of choice; it’s a matter of trust. Peter, Andrew, James and John trusted Jesus, which is why they followed him. It wasn’t that they sized things up and chose, like choosing ice cream over spoiled milk. It was that they trusted this person who called them. He wasn’t calling them to a finer and grander life; he was calling them to persecution and deprivation — and eventually to getting murdered.

If it was a choice issue, then only a foolish son would run off after an itinerant preacher instead of maintaining the family business and ensuring the care and security of his parents and siblings. But it was a trust issue — they trusted Jesus. Only in the light of trust can we see clearly that there really is no choice at all but to follow him.


Articles about the Gospel of Mark

For articles about Matthew, Luke, or John see

But let’s face it, sometimes we doubt. We sin, and we doubt our standing with God. Our plans and hopes are frustrated, and we might doubt whether God cares. Bad things happen to us, and we might even doubt there is a God. Doubt is always just a downturn away, ready to move in on our often fragile faith.

But those ups and downs in the strength of our faith are all part of learning to trust Jesus Christ. God accepted his faith in our place and on our behalf, so it isn’t a matter of how strong or weak our faith is — Jesus’ faith before God on our behalf is what matters. Again, we rely on him, not on our faith.

Likewise, our success in overcoming is not what we should use as a measure of our standing with God. God accepted Jesus’ righteousness in our place and on our behalf, so it isn’t a matter of how much progress we make in overcoming — Jesus’ righteousness on our behalf is what matters. That’s why we rely on him, not on the level or steadiness of our success in overcoming. Indeed, the Spirit leads us into right behavior, but right behavior is no measure of our standing with God. We stand right with God for one reason only — God loved us so much that his Son took humanity into himself and through his life, death and resurrection made humanity righteous in his righteousness. That is the substance, the reality, of our righteous standing before God.

In spite of our sins

A friend who grew up as a foster child who was shuffled from home to home expressed how he had trouble trusting new foster parents. In the back of his mind, he believed that once the new parents discovered the extent of his faults and problems, they would reject him and send him on. He would try very hard to please the new family, desperately trying to measure up, but eventually he would have to pack up and move again.

Sometimes, we can feel a bit like that in our relationship with God. We want to believe his good word for us, but in the back of our mind, there is the nagging doubt that God won’t really accept us in spite of our sins. So we make up all kinds of ways to keep ourselves on the straight and narrow, desperately trying to measure up to some semblance of a person decent enough for God to accept. And all the while, deep inside, we believe we are sunk, because in our most honest moments we know our sins are dark and many.

If we could only believe the gospel, we would believe that Christ died for us because we are sinners, and that in spite of our sins, he has determined not to be without us. He wants us to trust him to love us in spite of all we are, all the mess we’ve made of life, all the problems we’ve caused, people we’ve hurt, things we’ve said and places we’ve been. He wants us to trust him to be our righteousness, trust him to clean up our lives, and above all, to trust him to love us unconditionally and to never leave us nor forsake us.

The gospel is good news for bad people, and unlike fishing nets, it doesn’t need washing and mending. It’s perfect just the way it is.

For Reflection:

When have you felt as though God couldn’t really love a person like you? Have you talked to him about it?

Author: J. Michael Feazell, 2003, 2012

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