For they were fishermen.
Thirty years ago to the day I was ordained a priest by Bishop Terwilliger in the Parish Church of St. James, Texarkana. I thought at the time and have thought many times since that the Church and ultimately God had made a big mistake. But every time I try to pursue that line of thought I run into the fact that Jesus seems to have made a habit of making mistakes like that. If it was a mistake, a miscalculation of character, a failure in all the vetting which the Church engages in, it was at least not without precedent.
Jesus’ call of the apostles by the Sea of Galilee seems to be a miscalculation from beginning to end.
First of all, Jesus is looking for the right people in the wrong place. After the arrest of John, Jesus prudently withdraws from the south and heads north to Galilee, to Nazareth and then to Capernaum after his rejection in Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” was likely proverbial. It is in the south, not the north, --all the partisans of the lost cause take note—in Judea and in Jerusalem where you could find the best sort of Jews: biblically literate, the home of the Pharisees, zealous for the law, expectant and certain that the Messiah, God’s salvation, can only happen in their backyard.
Galilee, on the hand, was always spiritually dark, half-Gentile, always accommodating to Gentile ways, and the first to fall to foreign domination. Yet it is here that the prophet had said “the people who walked in darkness will see a great light”. That Jesus himself came from this half-Jewish, half-Gentile region and began his ministry there is prophetic. It points back and forward to the truth that "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth." Here in the wrong place “the light of the world” begins to shine.
We at least should know this because we know where the light is shining now, not in the secularized West but in Africa and Asia. The right place turns out to be the wrong place and the wrong place turns out to be the right place. Although we should say it only in fear and trembling, we might even say that of St. Francis. Certainly for me, even if I am the wrong person, I have ended up in the right place.
But leaving aside the venue the subsequent record does little to commend the choice of the fishermen. Misunderstanding, ambition, betrayal and denial – that is what follows in those whom Jesus calls to follow Him. La Trahison des clercs, as the French say, “the treason of the clergy” is a venerable tradition, as old as the apostles themselves.
Still Jesus does not want to act alone. God-Man that he is, as Man he humbles himself to need help. In fact this is also the will of his Divinity, 'Working together' St. Paul says "coworkers with Christ." The Salvation of Man requires that men also act and the Divine Will cannot wait for men to be qualified. For if that were the case there would be no need to save mankind in the first place. As it is He not only dies for us, but asks us to take up our cross.
Jesus says “I will make you fishers of men.” Fishers of men are not self-made men. “I will make.” “For consider your call, brethren” St. Paul tells us “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
It is absolutely necessary for Jesus to call us to that of which we are not capable just so that it will be seen by all that this God alone has done. We are all called and we are all unqualified. “I can’t bring others to Christ.” “I cannot share the faith with others,” “I am not much of an evangelist.” “I cannot be generous with my money and my time.” “Confession is not for me.” “A daily Mass is out of the question for me.” “I cannot find time to pray.” Of course it is true. You can’t any more than those fishermen could. But God can and he will. With God those thoroughly unqualified men turned the world upside down and with Him you can too.
Why fishermen? What is it about fishermen that might make them well suited to preaching the Gospel? For one thing, fishing is less akin to farming than to hunting. The farmer sows seed and awaits the return upon his investment. The hunter or the fisher must, to a certain extent, take what comes. Fishermen know that they have to keep setting out on the dark, dangerous and unpredictable sea, even though they may well catch nothing. So it was us: we have to keep setting out, never mind our lack of qualifications, the ever present possibility of failure, knowing that what we are to do, what we are to say, what we are to be, will be given to us. Thirty years as a priest may not have taught me much but it has taught that much.
For they were fishermen.
Thanks, as always, to Fr. von Balthasar (Light of the World Ignatius 1993) and to “Marginalia” (http://irenist.blogspot.com) for the comparison between fishing and farming.