A Fish Story
by Timothy J. Mooney
Every one of us is fishing for something. Fishermen fish for fish, the crowd fishes for a word from Jesus, Jesus fishes for others to catch a vision of the Kingdom of God, and Jesus fishes for those who might become fishers. Every one of us, in the eyes of someone else, is a fish to be caught. By observing this text closely, we might learn something about fishing.
The crowd is fishing for a word, a healing from Jesus. So they press in on him, and on each other. To press is to constrict, to tighten. It’s often motivated by anxiety. If I don’t press in I won’t get what I’m hoping for. Someone will get it before me. Pressing assumes scarcity, not enough to go around. Or, it assumes reluctance and resistance on the part of the one we hope to receive from. I have to apply pressure to get what I want, what I deserve. Pressing works, but only in limited quantity. Too much, and the pressure chases away what we hope to catch. Just like trying to catch a fish with your hands, you squeeze too tight and the fish slips away. The pressing crowd was too much, Jesus had to create some distance, to take the pressure off. From the boat in the lake, he could freely speak, and then more of the crowd could hear the words they were fishing for.
Are you and I pressing? How does that feel? Is there anxiety, fear behind it? What are we pressing for? Who are we pressing? In what ways are we pressing too hard? Who in our life needs to get in a boat to create some distance so that they might be free to speak, to be heard by us?
The fishermen are fishing for fish, and they had worked hard, toiled all night, and now they are caring for their nets in order to go back out and work hard again. In contrast to the pressing crowd, the fishermen have learned patience. They do not press. They are not impressed with the pressing crowd, nor with Jesus, for that matter. They only know to work hard. And that has worked well enough for them. But their empty nets suggest a deeper truth. You can’t always get what you’re fishing for just by working hard. Ultimately it, too, isn’t enough. Their nets were empty.
Are we like these fishermen? Are we the ones who have always worked hard? Lived by the protestant work ethic? In what ways have we experienced an empty net? What is it that hard work can’t earn or buy? Hard work is important, but what have we neglected? Missed? What has our hard work chased away?
Now let’s look at Jesus’ way of fishing. And let’s keep in mind that Jesus is fishing for two things: for people to catch the vision of the kingdom of God, and for more fishers.
First, Jesus does something indirect with the fishermen. “May I borrow your boat while you’re washing out your nets, to speak to this crowd? They’re pressing in on me.” Sure, they say. It has nothing to do with them, and it gives them a chance to confirm their own prejudice against crowds of followers; they were fishermen, after all, not shepherds. But Jesus surely knew that while their eyes were on their nets, their ears were on Jesus’ words. We have an uncanny ability to hear something very clearly when we think it’s intended for others to hear and not us. Our protective defenses don’t have time to come up, until it’s too late.
Jesus does something indirect with the pressing crowds, too. He speaks to them in parables. Stories about mustard seeds, a father with two sons, a woman and ten silver coins, workers and landlords, a shepherd in search of a lost sheep, a sower sowing seeds. Folktales, stories about things they are very familiar with, but with an unfamiliar twist. The fishermen chuckle under their breath because they recognize when someone is fishing well. Seeing Jesus as a fisherman of sorts, they even begin to trust him: “He’s got that crowd hook, line, and sinker.”
Then Jesus speaks to the fishermen about what they know, what they love, what they do, who they are, what they need: fishermen fishing for fish. There is now enough trust, enough identification, to accept Jesus’ invitation to go to the deep water and let down their nets. And there, in the deep water, you always catch more of what you need than you ever imagined possible.
Jesus fishes for us this way. Indirectly, within earshot, within the familiar things of our own lives. And then he invites us to go deep, within who we are, what we deeply desire, what we truly love and do. And when we go deep, into the truth of our lives, something very important happens. It’s hard to describe because it’s paradoxical. The paradox is this: we experience the False Self, we are sinners: and we experience the True Self, we are beloved and loved by God, made in the image of God.
The moment we see our sin is the same moment we see how deeply loved and valuable we are to God. Because they are not separate moments. When we let our nets down into the deep, we both know ourselves as flawed, and as God’s beloved.
We don’t like the notion of being sinful. I sure don’t. And I know many people stay away from church, from God, because they don’t like to be made to feel that way, and it’s often because they feel that way already and don’t want to have it shoved down their throats. And, churches can tend to err on the side of making people feel guilty by pressing the idea of our sinfulness. But the truth is, we must hold these two experiences together in paradox.
When we go deeply into our own experience, we discover God is abundantly present, like the catch of fish when Simon let down his net into the deep. Our amazement at the catch, at God’s abundant goodness, illumines the False Self we often live out of. When we see how good God is, we see, by contrast, how far away from true goodness we are. Simon expresses this experience when he says: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” This is recognition of the False Self. Yet in that moment we also know ourselves as deeply loved, accepted, and valued by God. Underneath it all is the True Self we are created to be, the very image of God in us. This is why Jesus responds immediately to Simon: “Do not be afraid.” The False Self, the sinful self, is not something to be feared, it does not separate us from God. Jesus is not going to go away, as Simon requested. The moment we see our sin is the same moment we see how deeply loved and valuable we are to God. Because they are not separate moments. When we let our nets down into the deep, we both know ourselves as flawed, and as God’s beloved.
In the middle of this fish story I want to tell you a fish story about a dog named Shadow. I must be honest and tell you that I can’t remember who wrote this, but this is what he wrote:
A dog has left its yard. It stands looking back at a man across the street. The man yells for Shadow to come home. The tone of his voice does not mask his anger. Shadow stands looking, conflicted by the desire to please its owner and the fear of being punished. Shadow moves no further away, but does not dare go back to its owner. The dog is smart enough to know that returning means a definite smack on the nose or hindquarters. The owner hasn’t quite figured out his chastising only feeds Shadow’s resolve to stay away. It is curious to me that anyone would think this tactic the best strategy for getting a wayward dog to come back home.
As the battle of wills continues, I wonder why the owner so desperately wants Shadow to come home in the first place. From the look on his face and the tone of his voice, I can’t imagine his pleas being motivated by a deep love for the dog. It seems more an issue of control than a desire to have a companion come home, be reunited with a friend, and share the joys of life again. I have never seen this man take Shadow to throw Frisbee, go for a walk, or sit in the shade just to sit in the shade, so I doubt he would miss the camaraderie. Why is he so insistent that Shadow come home?
As I’m thinking about this, a woman appears from the house, holding what looks to be a piece of bacon. She calls to Shadow in a sweet voice and waves the bacon in the air in an attempt to lure him home. She does what she can to make the treat look as tasty as possible. She even pretends to eat some so Shadow will realize just how wonderful the bacon must be. I can’t help chuckling at this sight. A man stands in his front yard yelling across the street, his wife yells at him to stop yelling, then talks sweetly to Shadow, who stands in the yard and is not enticed by the obviously delicious bacon. This is quite a sight to behold.
Then another player enters the stage. From out of the house comes a little girl in a robe, with slippers on her feet. She carries a doggie treat, speaks lovingly to Shadow and as she does, walks slowly across the street to the yard Shadow still occupies. When she reaches him, he cowers, ears down and tail between his legs. She leans over, pets him behind the ears, gives him a treat, and sits down. For a few minutes they sit in the yard, Shadow licking the girl’s face and she rubbing his back. They play for a while and then together run playfully back into the house.
The man in the story presses, yells, intimidates, disciplines. That’s not a home a dog, or any of us, would want to return to. The woman presses her husband, then bargains with and manipulates the dog. Her speech is sweet, but not sincere. Bacon is human food, not dog food. And she is too far away. You come to me, I won’t come to you! The little girl, has dog food, speaks out of her love for the dog, and goes to the dog. No pressure. As she nears, Shadow cowers, ears down, tail between his legs: he experiences his dog-depravity. But all her words and actions say: “Do not be afraid.” She gets down nose-to-nose, scratches him behind his ears, talks to him, offers something nurturing, plays with him. Genuine affection, love for the dog, is expressed.
Jesus fishes like the little girl. Jesus invites us to fish this way, too. We don’t need to press, to work hard at it. Jesus invites us to genuinely care for others, go to them, talk about what’s real in their lives, what’s familiar. By doing so we indirectly help them see the kingdom of God is already present in their lives. And when trust is built, we can invite others to let down their nets into the deep places within their souls, and there find the abundance of God that will amaze them, feed them, humble them, and invite them to no longer be afraid, for they are loved beyond measure. Anyone want to go fishing? Amen.