The way I read the Bible has changed over time and with exposure to great teachers. I can remember well the moment when, as a young college student, I first entertained the possibility that divine inspiration might actually make more sense if some books of the Bible (not all of them) might have had more than one inspired human author. I remember in seminary the period of time when I faced and eventually embraced the possibility that the Bible is a plurality of voices not because of some defect but precisely by divine intention. And I remember, in the years after seminary, as I caught up with the New Testament scholarship that I’d neglected while pursuing my seminary degree in Old Testament, learning the discipline of reading the New Testament against the background of imperial occupation and seeing the claims of the lordship of Jesus as genuinely political claims. In all of these moments I changed as a reader, and the Bible made different sorts of sense to me. I don’t know where the next big change is coming from, but I don’t doubt that it’s coming.
Another change that happened early in my career as a Bible reader was the realization that, for the New Testament, the Old Testament constitutes a world in its own right, that the text itself is sacred. Certainly before I had a conception that the events “behind” the Old Testament’s stories were important, but shifting the focus to the text itself helped me to see that, for the gospel-writers, to fulfill the Scriptures really did mean to fulfill what is written, paying attention to the structure of the written Hebrew (and translated Greek) phrase in ways that astronomers pay attention to mathematical equations: the idea is not to impose the text (or the equation) on the world by force of will but to discover that the text (or the equation) was there all along, waiting on someone to discover the connection. I have to think that such an ethos of discovery was part of what Nietzsche hated so much about the Christian (and the Jewish) ways of existing in the world.
In this week’s reading, the Old Testament echo is a subtle one, so much so that I considered “I will make you fish for men” a New-Testament innovation, something that Jesus made up on the spot. Certainly such phrases exist in the canonical gospels, but this happens not to be one of them. The image of hooking human beings has prophetic roots: in both Amos and Ezekiel, the oracles of God promise that the world powers that oppress Israel will be led out of their places of power on fish hooks, a grisly image that some speculate has roots in the brutality of the Assyrian empire. In the oracles of judgment against Egypt and other empires, those who hear Jesus no doubt would have remembered the strong connection between men-as-fish and national liberation, and when they set out to follow Jesus, they well might have thought of themselves as a sort of avant-garde in the grand Messianic struggle for national liberation.
But for those who remember Jonah along with Amos and Ezekiel, perhaps later, in the shadow of the cross, the true nature of fishing for men might have become clear. Jonah, like Amos and Ezekiel, went out to prophesy judgment, but much to his own disappointment, Jonah is never one who drags Israel’s enemies through the streets on hooks. Instead, God shows Jonah what will be the ultimate results of man-fishing. Nineveh repents.
In the years to come, after Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, these disciples, like Jonah, will learn what it means for God to make fishers of men. Jerusalem, the city that crucifies Jesus, is also the first site where the Holy Spirit proclaims the forgiveness extended to all, even those who called for the crucifixion of the Son of God. One of the most significant early converts will himself be a centurion, an officer in the army that should have been on the hooks. And the book of Acts itself ends with Paul in Rome, the Nineveh of his own day, not cleaning his sword after a rousing military rout but in prison yet proclaiming the gospel unhindered. Such is the way of fishing for men.
May we remember the scandal of God’s grace and rejoice not in ignorance but in humble awareness.