FISHERS OF MEN

by Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

 

This characterisation of the Apostles by Christ may, at first glance, not surprise us, nor could it be thought of as provocative. We consider it to be to some extent a very natural, i.e. expected, metaphor, since most people’s daily lives involved “fishing”.

Without the given “professional” framework, it would of course have been provocative to name simple, everyday people — who were called to preach repentance and salvation to fellow human beings “fishers of men”. For, whenever “humans” are sent to serve “humans”, the link between them is common “human nature”.

This common foundation is precisely what the Apostles appeal to initially, so as to become acceptable and credible. The “resemblance” is the “common language” which ensures communication, dialogue, understanding and solidarity.

Accordingly, when people where at one stage moved to see the Apostles as “strange” or “exotic” beings, Sts Paul and Barnabas stated in all humility: “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also of the same nature as you. And preach to you that you should turn from these vain things to the living God” (Acts 14:15).

If the sacred protagonists among the Apostles considered it unheard of to be regarded as having a nature other than that of fellow human beings — for whose sake God Himself became human — how much more scandalous, if not blasphemous, would it be for us to view the preachers of the Gospel “fishermen”, and the ones to whom they are sent “fish”!

By keeping this effectual image in mind — especially since Christ Himself gives it — we must make some important observations right from the outset. Otherwise, it is inevitable that we will not only fail to appreciate it as much as we should, but that it may also become a “trap” and “scandal” in our hearing of the Word of God.

The first thing we must remember is what exactly is meant when people say “fisherman”. With the same word we describe both the professional who earns his living by fishing, as well as the person who, while having another means of living, likes to go fishing often for recreation, in the same way that someone goes hunting or plays football, backgammon and chess.

At any rate, whether a “profession” or “hobby”, fishing is known through our intense desire to catch edible fish that are alive, even if we are not the ones who are going to eat them (there are fishermen who never eat fish!).

In both cases there is a certain degree of effort and recreation, and this almost contradictory combination makes fishing a kind of hidden “bet”. But betting and the so-called games of “gambling”, apart from causing dangerous addiction (the degree of dependence corresponds to that of drugs, which Dostoyevski described in a unique way in his work “The Gambler”), also leave open the infinitely greater possibility of one losing rather than winning. Representative of this truth is the saying of our people “Nine times empty and only once full is the dish, of those who gamble, hunt or fish”.

If we also take into consideration that fishing begins with bait, then the whole model of the fisherman as a “model” of the preacher of the Word of God not only loses credibility, but also becomes highly suspicious, or at least of “bad taste”.

The “negative” factors mentioned above, and any others that we could perhaps discover by analysing the image of the fisherman, lose their “abominable” character under one condition, and are automatically transformed into “positive” data. Not only that, but it is precisely these data which literally “sanctify” this image, provided we remember the basic presupposition according to which Christ made the bold comparison. The presupposition is that those who assume the task of being a “fisher of men” are like the people to whom they are sent in every respect, yet not through their own initiative, nor on account of any capabilities or virtues that they may have. The task here is “not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy” (Rom 9:16).

We therefore underline the fact that what is involved is not an “award” or a “distinction” of honour, but rather the “mercy” of God, which is loving charity and condescension. This was known and contritely confessed by all those who were “sent” by God, from the Prophets and Apostles to the New Martyrs of the faith. St. Paul, the former persecutor of Christ, insisted upon the “charismatic” nature of the task, seeing it as an inexhaustible obligation and duty, which is why he expressed it as the highest priority of his life: “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).

In explaining further the inner relationship between “calling” and “obedience”, St. Paul epigrammatically shows us the development of the spiritual task in its characteristic scale: “Those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). Only in this way is the other central position of St. Paul affirmed that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).

This absolute dependence of the one who is “sent forth” upon God who sends forth was always the basis on which the mission was considered to be conducted “in the name of the Lord”.

However, we know that, in the language of the Church, the phrase “in the name of the Lord” does not have the same meaning as the words “prevalent in the name of the law” which are used by judges, or “in the name of the people” which became prevalent after the French Revolution (1789).

The “name of the Lord” is God Himself whom, according to the 10 Commandments, we are not to call upon “in vain”. Therefore, the words “in the name of the Lord” presuppose the direct presence and energy of God who, although invisible, is “everywhere present” and “fills all things”. This is why it is only natural for the personage of the “chosen vessel” to disappear before the divine Majesty. The Prophets knew this when they dared to identify absolutely their own preaching with the Word of God, by always using the familiar prefix: “The Lord said”. But Christ Himself, in sending His disciples to preach the Gospel “to all the creation”, developed a “spiritual equation” on the one hand between them and Himself, and on the other between Himself and His Father: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt 10:40).

From the moment that those who are “called” and “sent” to preach are placed on “the same level” as the Lord who is preached — by divine condescension — the image of the “fisherman” used by Christ to encourage them to be “fishers of men” could not possibly remain the same as the world knows it.

Now the image of the “fisherman” must change radically. Not, however, in order to simply acquire a “more spiritual content”, as we are accustomed to saying when using a term of limited practical use “with a metaphorical meaning” or “in parables”. It will change to the point where things are literally turned “upside down” with a radical overturning. To the point, in other words, where the “fisherman” himself becomes the “fish”! Is this not also a case of turning things “upside down” when the one who preaches is “likened” to or “equalised” with Christ who is preached?

It is self-evident that, in order for the “fisher of men” to invite fellow human beings to become “conformed to the death and Resurrection of Christ” (Baptismal prayer), it is first necessary for him or her to undergo the “good transformation” and “conformation”, namely the “transfiguration” in Christ.

Yet no matter how much this theory may sound like a logical consequence of the “demand” placed and guaranteed by God, it in fact appears to be “paradoxical”, if not mythical and totally unheard of. Since Christ Himself was called the “Fish” and the “Bread” and the “Lamb” — so as to emphasise that He is ultimately the “food of the entire world” — the one who is “sent” in the name of the lord must also become “Fish”, “Bread” and “Lamb”.

This Christological and soteriological rule which the God-man established as the final and highest sign of the love of God for humanity and the world, was enduringly followed by the host of Saints and Confessors of the Faith, both in their personal lives and in their teaching and kerygma to others.

The Apostle Paul epigrammatically expressed this rule, with contrition but also while boasting in the lord: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22).

When the highest goal of the “fishers of men” is “salvation in Christ”, and then no amount of effort or sacrifice is too great to achieve what is sought after. Indeed, the Apostle Paul himself goes as far as to say that he would accept to become “anathema” for the salvation of his brothers (cf. Rom 9:3).

At this point, however, some explanation is needed so that one does not reach dangerous exaggerations through misunderstanding. For, the spiritual life is always like walking on a “tightrope”, as the Fathers always underline.

This tightrope demands a mystical “balance” between the point to which the preacher of the Gospel, the “fisher of men”, must “open himself up” to others, and the point after which he must “guard himself” against others.

It has been wisely observed that the skilful fisherman must take care that his face is not reflected in the water, otherwise the fish will go away. The same is true in the case of the “fishers of men”. The personal features must never become an obstacle to the Gospel. We therefore avoid concealing who we are and hypocrisy, so that others do not think that we are better than what we are in reality. Nor do we display exaggerated honesty regarding matters which are of no benefit or which would not be a helpful example to our listeners.

One of the most fundamental gifts of the “fisher of men” is what the Fathers call “discernment”, described as the “ greatest of the virtues”.

Discernment is the sensitivity and perceptiveness of the one preaching to guess, right at the outset, the ability of each audience to “bear” the message, and to express it accordingly. In so doing, he will not cause tedium and weariness in those who vigilantly await more, but he will also not tire and scandalise those who easily misunderstand and become fatigued.

However, it is not only the contents and the method of formulation of the sermon, but also its duration, which influence its effectiveness. It has correctly been observed in this regard that “the measure belongs to the hearer, not to the speaker”. Let us not forget that, when speaking to His disciples about the most crucial things, Christ Himself felt the need to “interrupt”, on account of their inability to follow anything more at that moment: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

By way of summary we must observe that the lord gave us another very characteristic image, taken from His vast Kingdom, of the moral, spiritual — and even technical — demands placed upon the labourer of the word of God due to the superhuman nature of the mission. He therefore exhorts epigrammatically: “Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).

If the serpent is considered as being wise because it has established the priorities of its life once and for all, as it has trained its body for lifelong manoeuvring in order to avoid danger and guard its head, which is the “headquarters” of the body. And the dove has become the symbol of spotless integrity, precisely because the colour white is not a momentary cleanness, but a firm and constant characteristic.

Since we have mentioned the characteristic symbolism of the serpent and the dove, let us also see the corresponding symbolism of the other three images of the Fish, the Bread and the Lamb. The symbolism is of interest to us, given that — as we have already said — all three images relate directly and to the same degree both to the “fisher of men” and to the God-man who is proclaimed.

The fish, apart form the well-known meaning ascribed to the letters of that word in Greek (which form the acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour), are the symbol par excellence of silence. This is not only the distinctive “language” of the one who is “dead to the world” (cf. Gal 6:14), but also the only and perhaps most eloquent response to the profane noise we live in, just as Christ Himself had to remain silent in order to put a stop to the verbosity of impiety. And so should the one who proclaims the Gospel of salvation in His name know when to be silent. This is true for two reasons: On the one hand to reprove through silence those who speak thoughtlessly and profanely and, on the other, to listen more clearly to human suffering which is sometimes murmured with “unspoken sighs”. In any case, we comfort our fellow human beings in the most bitter moments of life by remaining by their side, not so much with words and rhetoric as with silence which is so full of meaning.

Bread, the most common food of our daily diet, naturally came to symbolise the body of Christ sacrificed for every member of the human race. Furthermore, bread — especially if we recall the works of the Apostolic Fathers does not simply stand for food. It also reminds us directly of the crushing and sacrifice, which the grain of wheat underwent, by being grounded and baked, in order to become edible. The addition of wine and the vine ensures for us the entire setting of the Divine Eucharist.

The lamb is first and foremost the symbol of goodness and purity. We recall the strong distinction made by Christ, when speaking about the final judgement, between the sheep that will be separated from the goats. But the lamb is also the most expressive symbol of humility and silence with its “non-negotiable” obedience right up unto the slaughter. For, the slaughtering of one makes possible the revelry of many. This is why Christ could quite easily say to His disciples: “behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt 10:16).

We should however remind ourselves that these three central images, with deep symbolic significance, were already expressed in the Old Testament as “pre-figurements” and “predictions”. Christ is sometimes described as the “Wisdom of God” which has “built her house ... mixed her wine and also set her table” (Prov 9:1-2), vividly inviting all to revelry with the words “come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Prov 9:5). Similarly, the image of bread in the Book of Exodus (16:4) “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you”. And of course, everything that is mentioned in the Old Testament regarding the “manna” is directly related to the bread (cf. John 6:58).

All that is said concerning the “servant of God”, who is characterised by boundless obedience and self-abandonment to the will of the Father, just as the fish does with its silence, and the lamb which shows no resistance.

If we turn again to the New Testament, we see that there are another three vivid images with which Christ characterised both Himself and those are sent to proclaim His Gospel to all the world”. With these we fulfil more fully and approach more closely the rule of the Apostle Paul (“being all things to all people”). We refer here to the images of “light”, “salt” and “water”.

Knowing the vital power that these three elements (light, salt and water) have to transfigure the world and life, it becomes more clearly apparent what the word of God accomplishes, or should accomplish, in the world when proclaimed by “fishers of men”. People who are prepared at every moment to see the logic of this world overturned by the logic of God in the most amazing dimensions and interventions, as we have tried to outline, in speaking about our sacred mission in obedience to Christ.

from Voice of Orthodoxy, vol 21/11-12, November - December 1999
the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archbiocese of Australia

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