On the surface of it, they were most definitely a motley crew: fishermen struggling to make ends meet in the face of an economic and political system that worked against them. Not exactly the elite of society. Not the educated rabbinical elite one might expect a messiah to choose as leaders for a new movement.
So why did Jesus pick people such as these to become his first disciples? And why did he spend much of his ministry in the company of others from the margins of society?
Biblical scholar Ched Myers told a diocesan outreach conference years ago how fishermen were near the bottom of the economic hierarchy in Jesus’ time. Elites looked down on them, even as they depended upon their labour. “The fisher,” attests an ancient Egyptian papyrus, “is more miserable than any other profession.”
The remnants of a first-century fishing boat, discovered in 1985 at Ginosar on the Sea of Galilee, symbolizes the hard life of peasant fishermen. The 27 x 7 ft. boat had been rebuilt at least five times from seven different kinds of wood. Indeed, all reusable material had been removed from this boat before it was jettisoned into the sea. This remarkable artifact, possibly from the time of Jesus, indicates the marginal existence of fishermen. Discovery of “the Jesus boat,” as it has been called, fascinates me because in 1974 I lived for three months at Kibbutz Ginosar in Galilee, near where the boat was found, and a fishing fleet helped sustain our kibbutz. (A kibbutz is a cooperative community in Israel.)
With rigid state control of their livelihood and the oppressive economics of an export-oriented fishing industry, it is hardly surprising that in Mark’s gospel account, fishermen are the first converts to Jesus’ message about an alternative social vision and are open to building a movement of resistance. Low-income fishermen had little to lose and much to gain by joining a movement to overturn the status quo. Yet joining the Jesus movement was also risky, as it involved loss of economic security and a break with one’s place in society.
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’” (Mark 1:17). This famous phrase has been traditionally interpreted to connote the vocation of “saving souls.” But we miss the point if we remove this text from its social context.
Meanwhile in our time, elites hold power of various kinds – economic elites and political elites, as well as elite athletes and the cream of the entertainment world. We focus our attention on these people, aided by media that cater to our insatiable hunger for news about political, economic and entertainment leaders. Meanwhile, efforts by “ordinary people” to refashion our inequitable society and lift up “the least of these” receive short shrift by the media or the rest of society.
As Lent approaches, what might we learn from reflection on the radical roots of our faith? Lent is a time of repentance and personal devotion, but can we expand on this concept? What are we being individually and collectively called to repent from – and turn toward – here and now? How do we follow Jesus’ example of encouraging a movement of transformation, renewal and shared healing?
These are not simply questions to be wrestled with in the quiet solitude of personal devotion. Instead, Lent can also become a time to turn toward each other and affirm the humanity of the people around us.
In an era when the humanity of some is thrown into question, Lent is a call to resistance. It is an insistence that collective renewal will only come when we are all allowed to be human, to express our particular needs and deepest desires, and to witness together how the image of God is uniquely revealed in each of us. This defiant act of resistance will force us to confront the power structures of our society, defying the systems that seek to benefit from the suppression of humanity. It’s far from an easy task. However, drawing strength from the example set by the founders of our faith and how they found new strength in themselves, can help us realize the strength we have when we work together. Ordinary people can indeed achieve extraordinary things.