This phrase: "Fishers of Men," or "Fishers for People," may well be the second best known image in the New Testament...right after that of the Good Shepherd. And they have some things in common. The shepherd who goes out after the lost sheep may have to travel into the dangerous wilderness; often alone. The work is hard, the way is hard, the land is dangerous; and even when the sheep is found it may have to be carried back to the sheep fold because it is paralyzed with fear.
The image of the sea, where fishermen like Peter and company made their living, was seen as a terrifying place. It was a symbol for chaos and demons lived beneath the surface.
The notion of fishing for humans was common in both Greek in Jewish culture. To be caught in the net of the Gods was a symbol of Salvation. Since evil spirits were also believed to be fishing for people, it was important to put oneself in a position to be caught by the benevolence spiritual powers.
This picture of "fishing for people on God's behalf" is also a counterpoint to the Psalm 10:9 that speaks of the wicked who "seize the poor and drag them off in their net." This is the image of the village raid casting a net over a fleeing enemy and dragging them off to be sold into slavery.
Any of us who know anything about addiction, payday loans, or the sub prime mortgage crisis know that this process is alive and well in our day. There are all kinds of forces out there "fishing for people."
One of the points I want to make here, though, is that when while we are called to "fish for people," we ARE NOT CALLED to sort the fish. On a regular fishing boat, when the nets are pulled up, the fish are sorted and those that are "good catch" go down into the hold while the others are thrown back or cut up to use as chum. But this is God's "boat," and we don't get to sort the fish. That's God's job.
One biblical character who wanted to argue that with God was Jonah. That was the whole crux of the matter with ordering him to go to Nineveh. This was the capital of Assyria. A nation that had romped and stomped it's way across the known world with a reputation for cruelty unmatched in it's day. Jonah wanted know part in delivering a message of judgement to this people. He admitted that he knew that God was "a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." (a quote, by the way, from Psalm 103). He knew, said Jonah, that God would be looking for a way to give Nineveh a second chance; and that's why he had run away in the first place.
When I look at these two stories, I see myself in them both. I am the disciples-ready to drop everything to follow this Jesus who I have come to love. But, if I am honest, I am also Jonah, wanting to define the terms of Grace. To say who is in and who is out. Jonah's nationalistic faith had him excluding the possibilities of Grace for Nineveh. I have to ask myself who would it offend me so badly to be called to share the Gospel with that I would want to run in the opposite direction?
Jonah's story also reminds me that when we sign on with God, God will sometimes let us sit in the belly of the beast until we're willing to obey; then dump us back where we originally ran from to start over.
We are called to the edges of what we know. To engage the evil and the chaos in Jesus name. To seek to rescue the drowning, perishing world-catching them up in the net of the Gospel. But we don't get to sort the fish.
And why not? Well God actually answered that question too. God asks Jonah, "should I not pity Nineveh.....where there are 120,000 who do not know their right hand from their left?" Jonah was willing to let these folks, who were unable to make informed decisions, who were, many of them, children, to be chalked up as "collateral damage" when judgement rained down on Nineveh. God was not.
What happens when we apply the truth of these stories to our national discussions about Dreamers, or recipients of Temporary Protected Status. To medical care for children and the elderly. To decisions about electricity in Puerto Rico or clean water in Flint, Michigan. Or when we bring it closer to home and are making decisions about who our church benevolence budget should assist.
I don't know the answers to all of this. I do know that we're called to fish for people. I do know that Jonah is right and that God is looking for the opportunity to give people a second chance. And I am sure (as much as I fight against it in my own heart) that we don't get to sort the fish.