January 26, 2020, Third Sunday of Epiphany. A reflection on Matthew 4:12-23.
“Immediately they left their nets, their boat and their father, and followed him.” (v20&22)
How immediate was immediately? Brothers Simon and Andrew, James and John immediately left and followed Jesus. Why could this be? Can there be urgency?
In her writing Fishing Economy in the Sea of Galilee, Alicia J. Batten, Associate Professor, University of Waterloo has these to say… “Fishing was a fundamental part of the embedded agrarian economy of first-century Galilee. This region was ruled by Herod Antipas; a client king of the Romans. An “embedded” economy was one in which questions of production, processing, trade, and their regulation could not be separated from politics, religion, and family or village life. There was no free market that functioned independently from other dimensions of society, and little if any upward mobility. Most peasant fishing families were poor and lived at subsistence level, while a small minority of elites held the bulk of wealth and power. Fishing licenses were required for access to certain areas, and fishers needed various raw materials such as wood for their boats and flax for their nets. Evidently, families had to occasionally hire day laborers for assistance with the haul (Mark 1:19-20). Fish processors and distributors were required to pay taxes for the product and tolls for its transport. A reference to processed fish, opsarion, appears in John 6: 9-11.”
Further she said, “In general, the economy of the Roman Empire was extractive insofar as production and distribution served the interests of the powerful, not those who actually performed the labor. Peasant fishers and processors had little to no control over fees for fishing licenses or tax and toll rates. It is reasonable to conclude that such an economic situation was largely one of exploitation. This exploitation may have intensified in the Galilee during Herod Antipas’s reign, due largely to his increased commercialization of fishing and his own luxurious living. At any rate, fishers, farmers and other laborers in the Galilee sought ways to resist exploitation by hiding goods, lying about the size of their families in order to pay fewer poll taxes, and other covert strategies.”
Now, from the Galilean context which also reflects the context of the whole Roman Empire that Batten has told us we can clearly tell and surmise the reasons for this quick response of the four fishermen. There was an urgency for the poor Galilean fishermen, farmers and laborers along with their families to be free from the exploitative rule of the Roman Empire through the puppet king Herod Antipas. They must have found a leader in Jesus whom John in the preceding chapter (3.11) described as more powerful than him who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.
To fish men or to be fishers of men as what Jesus told them when He called to follow Him was very clear to these first disciples. Clearly it was for them to help Jesus organize and make men free. As Galilean fishermen they are very much aware of their own situation – their own family and the rest of their society not only of Galilee but of all the regions under the empire.
So, this is it. This is how to be Jesus’ followers. They practically left everything including their source of living which actually did not make them live decently but were only delivered to the caprices of the king and rulers. They left their fathers, their parents and family to join with the rest of the fathers, parents and families in the society whom they have to fish, to organize for the liberation of the people of Israel (but not today’s Israel) just like the liberation of their forefathers from the bondage of the Egyptian pharaoh.
Today there is also urgency for the Christians and the believers to know where God is. I remember the question of a woman, a believer in Salzburg, Austria who asked me during a sharing session after the mass, where is God in all of this miseries of the people and the rest of humankind including the groaning of the earth. As Christians and believers we should know that God is with us.
That God is with all of the millions of refugees and migrants – the diaspora all over the world.
That God is with all the people of Palestine victimized and killed every minute by the Israeli occupation into their lands.
That God is with the Rohingya people of Myanmar who are victims of discrimination – without any recognition of their basic rights starting from recognition of their citizenship. There are hundreds of thousands of them who become refugees and were also victims of war of genocide by their own country, by the government.
That God is with all the lumads and indigenous peoples together with the poor peasants of the Philippines and over the world who are being driven out from their fertile lands to give way to the foreign corporations of plantations, mining and other extractive businesses.
That God is with all the more than 30 thousand and mostly poor people killed in the anti-drug war in the Philippines. That God is with them together with their families, relatives, friends and communities seeking for justice.
That God is with all the people ruled by the modern Herod Antipas like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte and other populist, fascist and dictator regimes of nations.
The believers of today are urgently called to act on the situations that we have now. Like the first disciples, we need to urgently and quickly respond to the calling to help in these various and every situations of all peoples of the world where God is also present. This might also require us to leave all of ours – possessions, sources of living, families and parents.
Are we ready for a quick response or do we need to quit from Christians and believers?
Until next for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany