THE ASCENT: FROM THE RIVER JORDAN
TO THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION
. BY THE SEA OF GALILEE
. THE FINAL CALL OF THE FIRST DISCIPLES,
AND THE MIRACULOUS DRAUGHT OF FISHES
(St. Matthew 4:18-22; St. Mark 1:16-20; St. Luke 5:1-11.)
We are once again out of the stifling spiritual atmosphere of the great City, and by the glorious Lake of Galilee. They were other men, these honest, simple, earnest, impulsive Galileans, than that self-seeking, sophistical, heartless assemblage of Rabbis, whose first active persecution Jesus had just encountered, and for the time overawed by the majesty of His bearing. His return to Capernaum could not have remained unknown. Close by, on either side of the city, the country was studded with villages and towns, a busy, thriving, happy multitude. During that bright summer He had walked along that Lake, and by its shore and in the various Synagogues preached His Gospel. And they had been 'astonished at His doctrine, for His word was with power.' For the first time they had heard what they felt to be 'the Word of God,' and they had learned to love its sound. What wonder that, immediately on His return, 'the people pressed upon Him to hear' it.
If we surrender ourselves to the impression which the Evangelic narratives give us when pieced together,1 it would almost seem, as if what we are about to relate had occurred while Jesus was returning from Jerusalem. For, the better reading of St. Mark i. 16 gives this as the mark of time: 'As He was passing on by the Sea of Galilee.' But perhaps, viewed in connection with what follows, the impression may be so far modified, that we may think of it as on the first morning after His return. It had probably been a night of storm on the Lake. For, the toil of the fishermen had brought them no draught of fishes,2 and they stood by the shore, or in the boats drawn up on the beach, casting in their nets to 'wash' them3 of the sand and pebbles, with which such a night's work would clog them, or to mend what had been torn by the violence of the waves. It was a busy scene; for, among the many industries by the Lake of Galilee, that of fishing was not only the most generally pursued, but perhaps the most lucrative.
1. The accounts in the three Synoptic Gospels must be carefully pieced together. It will be seen that only thus can they be understood. The narratives of St. Matthew and St. Mark are almost literally the same, only adding in St. Mark 1:20 a notice about 'the hired servants,' which is evidential of the Petrine origin of the information. St. Luke seems to have made special inquiry, and, while adopting the narrative of the others, supplements it with what without them would be almost unintelligible.
2. St. Luke 5:5.
3. St. Matt. 4:18 &c.; St. Mark 1:16 &c. as compared with St. Luke 5:2.
Tradition had it, that since the days of Joshua, and by one of his ten ordinances, fishing in the Lake, though under certain necessary restrictions, was free to all.4 And as fish was among the favourite articles of diet, in health and sickness, on week-days and especially at the Sabbath-meal, many must have been employed in connection with this trade. Frequent, and sometimes strange, are the Rabbinic advices, what kinds of fish to eat at different times, and in what state of preparation. They were eaten fresh, dried, or pickled;5 a kind of 'relish' or sauce was made of them, and the roe also prepared.6 or twine,7 and the smaller fish in baskets or casks. In truth, these Rabbis are veritable connoisseurs in this delicacy; they discuss their size with exaggerations, advise when they are in season, discern a peculiar flavour in the same kinds if caught in different waters, and tell us how to prepare them most tastefully, cautioning us to wash them down, if it cannot be with water, with beer rather than wine.8 9 It is one of their usual exaggerations, when we read of 300 different kinds of fish at a dinner given to a great Rabbi,10 although the common proverb had it, to denote what was abundant, that it was like 'bringing fish to Acco.'11 Besides, fish was also largely imported from abroad.12 It indicates the importance of this traffic, that one of the gates of Jerusalem was called 'the fish-gate.'13 Indeed, there is a legend14 to the effect, that not less than 600,000 casks of sardines were every week supplied for the fig-dressers of King Jannĉus. But, apart from such exaggerations, so considerable was this trade that, at a later period, one of the Patriarchs of the Sanhedrin engaged in it, and actually freighted ships for the transport of fish.15
4. In order not to impede navigation, it was forbidden to fix nets. For these two ordinances, see Baba K. 80 b, last line &c. The reference to the fishing in the lake is in 81 b. But see Tos. Baba K. viii. 17, 18.
5. St. Matt. 7:10; 13:47; 15:36. 6. Ab. Z. 39 a.
7. Bab. Mez ii. 1. 8. Moed K. 11 a, last line.
9. Three lines before that we read this saying of a fisherman: 'Roast fish with his brother (salt), lay it beside his father (water), eat it with his son (fish-juice), and drink upon it his father' (water).
10. Jer. Sheq. vi. 2, p. 50 a. 11. Shem. R. 9.
12. Specially from Egypt and Spain, Machsh. vi. 3.
13. Neh. 3:3. 14. Ber. 44 a. 15. Jer. Ab. Z. ii. 10, p. 42 a.
These notices, which might be largely multiplied, are of more than antiquarian interest. They give a more vivid idea of life by the Lake of Galilee, and show that those engaged in that trade, like Zebedee and his sons (hyafd:baz:, 'the God-given,' like Theodore and Dorothea), were not unfrequently men of means and standing. This irrespective of the fact, that the Rabbis enjoined some trade or industrial occupation on every man, whatever his station. We can picture to ourselves, on that bright autumn morning, after a stormy night of bootless toil, the busy scene by the Lake, with the fishermen cleaning and mending their nets. Amidst their work they would scarcely notice the gathering crowd. As we have suggested from the better reading of St. Mark 1:16, it was Christ's first walk by the Lake on the morning after His return from Judĉa. Engaged in their fishing on the afternoon, evening, and night of His arrival in Capernaum, they would probably not have known of His presence till He spake to them. But He had come that morning specially to seek four of these fishers, that He might, now that the time for it had come, call them to permanent discipleship - and, what is more, fit them for the work to which he would call them.
Jewish customs and modes of thinking at that time do not help us further to understand the Lord's call of them, except so far as they enable us more clearly to apprehend what the words of Jesus would convey to them. The expression 'Follow Me' would be readily understood, as implying a call to become the permanent disciple of a teacher.16 Similarly, it was not only the practice of the Rabbis, but regarded as one of the most sacred duties, for a Master to gather around him a circle of disciples.17 Thus, neither Peter and Andrew, nor the sons of Zebedee, could have misunderstood the call of Christ, or even regarded it as strange. On that memorable return from His Temptation in the wilderness they had learned to know Him as the Messiah,18 and they followed Him. And, now that the time had come for gathering around Him a separate discipleship, when, with the visit to the Unknown Feast, the Messianic activity of Jesus had passed into another stage, that call would not come as a surprise to their minds or hearts.
16. So in Erub. 30 a. 17. Ab. i. 1; Sanh. 91 b. 18. St. John 1:37 &c.
So far as the Master was concerned, we mark three points. First, the call came after the open breach with, and initial persecution of, the Jewish authorities. It was, therefore, a call to fellowship in His peculiar relationship to the Synagogue. Secondly, it necessitated the abandonment of all their former occupations, and, indeed, of all earthly ties.19 Thirdly, it was from the first, and clearly, marked as totally different from a call to such discipleship, as that of any other Master in Israel. It was not to learn more of doctrine, nor more fully to follow out a life-direction already taken, but to begin, and to become, something quite new, of which their former occupation offered an emblem. The disciples of the Rabbis, even those of John the Baptist, 'followed,' in order to learn; they, in order to do, and to enter into fellowship with His Work. 'Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.' It was then quite a new call this, which at the same time indicated its real aim and its untold difficulties. Such a call could not have been addressed to them, if they had not already been disciples of Jesus, understood His Mission, and the character of the Kingdom of God. But, the more we think of it, the more do we perceive the magnitude of the call and of the decision which it implied - for, without doubt, they understood what it implied, as clearly, in some respects perhaps more clearly, than we do. All the deeper, then, must have been their loving belief in Him, and their earnest attachment, when, with such unquestioning trust, and such absolute simplicity and entireness of self-surrender, that it needed not even a spoken Yea on their part, they forsook ship and home to follow Him. And so, successively, Simon20 and Andrew, and John and James - those who had been the first to hear, were also the first to follow Jesus. And ever afterwards did they remain closest to Him, who had been the first fruits of His Ministry.
19. St. Matt. 4:20, 22.
20. The name Peter occurs also among the Jews, but not that of Paul. Thus, in Pesiqta (ed. Buber, p. 158 a, line 8 from bottom, see also the Note there) we read of a R. José the son of Peytros, and similarly in the fragments from Tanchuma in Jellinek's Beth ha-Midr. vol. vi. p. 95, where, however, he is called Ben Petio. In Menor. Hamm. the name is changed into Phinehas. Comp. Jellinek, Beth ha-Midr. vol. vi. Pref. xi.
It is not well to speak too much of the faith of men. With all the singleness of spiritual resolve - perhaps, as yet, rather impulse - which it implied, they probably had not themselves full or adequate conception of what it really meant. That would evolve in the course of Christ's further teaching, and of their learning in mind and heart. But, even thus, we perceive, that in their own call they had already, in measure, lived the miracle of the draught of fishes which they were about to witness. What had passed between Jesus and, first, the sons of Jona, and then those of Zebedee, can scarcely have occupied many minutes. But already the people were pressing around the Master in eager hunger for the Word; for, all the livelong night their own teachers had toiled, and taken nothing which they could give them as food. To such call the Fisher of Men could not be deaf. The boat of Peter shall be His pulpit; He had consecrated it by consecrating its owner. The boat has been thrust out a little from the land, and over the soft ripple of the waters comes the strange melody of that Word. We need scarcely ask what He spake. It would be of the Father, of the Kingdom, and of those who entered it - like what He spake from the Mount, or to those who laboured and were heavy laden. But it would carry to the hearers the wondrous beauty and glory of that opening Kingdom, and, by contrast, the deep poverty and need of their souls. And Peter had heard it all in the boat, as he sat close by, in the shadow of His Majesty. Then, this was the teaching of which he had become a disciple; this, the net and the fishing to which he was just called. How utterly miserable, in one respect, must it have made him. Could such an one as he ever hope, with whatever toil, to be a successful fisher?
Jesus had read his thoughts, and much more than read them. It was all needed for the qualifying of Peter especially, but also of the others who had been called to be fishers of men. Presently it shall be all brought to light; not only that it may be made clear, but that, alike, the lesson and the help may be seen. And this is another object in Christ's miracles to His disciples: to make clear their inmost thoughts and longings, and to point them to the right goal. 'Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.' That they toil in vain all life's night, only teaches the need of another beginning. The 'nevertheless, at Thy word,' marks the new trust, and the new work as springing from that trust. When Christ is in the boat and bids us let down the net, there must be 'a great multitude of fishes.' And all this in this symbolic miracle. Already 'the net was breaking,' when they beckoned to their partners in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And now both ships are burdened to the water's edge.
But what did it all mean to Simon Peter? He had been called to full discipleship, and he had obeyed the call. He had been in his boat beside the Saviour, and heard what He had spoken, and it had gone to his heart. And now this miracle which he had witnessed! Such shoal of fish in one spot on the Lake of Galilee was not strange. The miraculous was, that the Lord had seen through those waters down where the multitude of fishes was, and bidden him let down for a draught. He could see through the intervening waters, right down to the bottom of that sea; He could see through him, to the very bottom of Peter's heart. He did see it - and all that Jesus had just spoken meant it, and showed him what was there. And could he then be a fisher of men, out of whose heart, after a life's night of toil, the net would come up empty, or rather only clogged with sand and torn with pebbles? This is what he meant when 'he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying: Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.' And this is why Jesus comforted him: 'Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.' And so also, and so only, do we, each of us, learn the lesson of our calling, and receive the true comfort in it. Nor yet can anyone become a true fisher of men in any other than such manner.
The teaching and the comfort required not to be repeated in the life of Peter, nor in that of the others who witnessed and shared in what had passed. Many are the truths which shine out from the symbolism of this scene, when the first disciples were first called. That call itself; the boat; the command of Christ, despite the night of vain toil; the unlikely success; the net and its cast at the bidding of Christ, with the absolute certitude of result, where He is and when He bids; the miraculous direction to the spot; the multitude of fishes enclosed; the net about to break, yet not breaking; the surprise, as strange perhaps as the miracle itself; and then, last of all, the lesson of self-knowledge and humiliation: all these and much more has the Church most truly read in this history. And as we turn from it, this stands out to us as its final outcome and lesson: 'And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all and followed Him.'21
21. We would call special attention to the arrangement of this narrative. The explanation given in the text will, it is hoped, be sufficient answer to the difficulties raised by some commentators. Strauss' attempt to indicate the mythic origin of this narrative forms one of the weakest parts of his book. Keim holds the genuineness of the account of the two first Evangelists, but rejects that of the third, on grounds which neither admit nor require detailed examination. The latest and most curious idea of the Tubingen school has been, to see in the account of St. Luke a reflection on Peter as Judaistically cramped, and to understand the beckoning to his partners as implying the calling in of Pauline teachers.
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