And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
One of the fondest memories that I have of my childhood, is fishing with my father on the banks of the streams and rivers near Red’s Meadows. It was primitive in those days. I cannot recall there being any nearby towns. Our tent was pitched in the trees near the river; Devil’s Post Pile was hardly a stone’s throw away. I baited my first hook, caught and gutted my first fish in central California. I think that my father was tickled that he had taught his boy to do something that he loved to do. However, when I first memorized Matthew 4:19 as part of my Daily Vacation Bible School experience, I was somewhat disconcerted and mildly disturbed.
I do not recall exactly how our teachers attempted to visualize the memorization process. In many Vacation Bible Schools today, however, the image of the baited hook is used to help the children understand what it is to be a “fisher of men”. My guess is that there are thousands of little children that are struggling as badly as I did to understand what Jesus had in mind when he began calling his Apostles to the ministry. I fear that internalizing the message and the appeal is, in the end, is too far off of the mark with the image of the line and the pole.
The apostolic call was not to be considered passive; sitting on the banks of a stream with pole in hand, waiting for a indolent fish to rise to the bait, is not the sort of activity that Jesus had in mind when he called out to Peter and Andrew to join him on his quest to invited the children of men to partake of eternal life. The sons of Jonas and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, were net fishermen, arising in the early hours of the morning, sailing to their appointed place, and proactively casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee for their fish. It was hard work; some days there was little to show for all of their labors. In Luke’s account of the Savior’s call to Peter, the circumstances illustrated the nature of the task.
And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon's, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11)
Years ago I served as a fisher of men, for two and a half years in southern Mexico. It was a time of joyful service; it was a time that defined much of what I would become as a husband, as a father, and as a teacher. I had a small taste of that which the Apostles enjoyed for the rest of their lives. I learned something about the nature of net fishing that the Savior taught his disciples in one of the parables preserved in Matthew chapter 13.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:47-50)
That was a sobering proposition: not every creature that the gospel net enclosed would ultimately be found worthy to be included in the Kingdom of Heaven. I knew that I had been successful as a missionary, insofar as the numbers were concerned, but I have not been in a position to know exactly what sort of fish were ultimately brought to shore. How many were good? How many were bad? I certainly wanted all of them to be good, that all of them would find peace, joy, and comfort in the truths to which they had been introduced. For a time I like talking about those who had come into the Church at my hands, but as time passed, I became a little more introspective, hoping that my friends would hold fast to the truth of all things that I had been the instrument in the hands of the Father to bring to them. This brings me to another one of the Lord’s analogies about missionary work.
The prophet Jeremiah devoted a great deal of his writings to the latter-day gathering of the children of God from out of the world.
Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be said, The LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The LORD liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers. Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the LORD, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks. (Jeremiah 16:14-16)
There were to be fishers and hunters. I once speculated as to what would be the difference between the two sorts of missionaries. A net fisherman casts his net and pulls in many fish at a time. The hunter finds the object of his search one creature at a time. Numerically, one appears to be extraordinarily successful; the other appears to have squandered his time in a great deal of ranging about. Yet, it is the Lord who calls for the fishers; it is the Lord who calls for the hunters; each is suited to the task to which he is set. There is nothing but folly in making comparisons between the efforts of missionaries in various parts of the world according to the numbers of new disciples that have been brought into the Church and Kingdom of God.
I have learned to be content to do the best I can, looking forward to opportunities for improvement. If I am truly His servant, then I leave the judgment, the evaluation of my labors and that of my fellow men, to Him. I hope that my efforts will one day be approved and I be found acceptable in my eternal Father’s eyes, just as my efforts were momentarily approved on the banks of the San Joachin River more than sixty years ago.