By John Petty
Translation: But with the delivering over of John, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Turn and ‘faith’ in the good news.”
And moving alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew, the brother of Simon, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Come after me and I will make you to be fishers of people.” And immediately, letting go the nets, they followed him. And stepping a little forward, he saw James son of Zebedee and John his brother in the boat restoring the nets. Immediately, he called them and, letting go their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired hands, they went after him.
Background and situation: We are only 13 verses into Mark’s gospel. Thus far, Mark has introduced John the Baptist, told of the baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven proclaiming him “beloved son,” and, in only one verse, told of his subsequent temptation in the wilderness.
Our lection begins with the “delivering over” of John the Baptist. The same verb would be used later in Mark to describe the arrest of Jesus. We are not even half-way through the first chapter of Mark and, already, a shadow hangs over the story–the shadow of institutional violence.
Galilee: Following John’s arrest, Jesus, a Galilean, goes “into Galilee.” In the first 15 verses of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is presented as being both of Galilee and going into Galilee. Mark ties Jesus firmly to his home region. The Jesus movement would later be widely known as a Galilean one.
For its time, Galilee was “multicultural.” It had a significant gentile population, owing mostly to Greek and Roman settlements following their respective conquests. Gifts of land in conquered territories would be given to high-ranking soldiers and major politicians–the so-called “spoils of war.”
The vast majority of the indigenous native population was poor. Agriculture and fishing were the two major “industries” and workers in both lived at a bare subsistence level.
The region of Galilee was looked down upon by the “sophisticated” of Jerusalem. Galileans were “hicks from the sticks.” This attitude no doubt had some effect in alienating Galileans from their co-religionists in the south.
Adding to that alienation was the physical geography of Galilee. It was separated from Judea–the region of Jerualem–by Samaria, which lay between the two, a land which was avoided by both Galilean and Judean.
In addition, the land of Galilee was on at least one major and ancient trade route, whereas the city of Jerusalem was not. Galilee, therefore, had been exposed to various foreign influences through foreign traders moving through the region. (The concept of a general resurrection, for example, is believed to have “leaked” into Israel from Persia through Galilee in the fifth century B.C.) Jerusalem, on the other hand, tended to be more insular and conservative.
All these influences–poverty, alienation, exposure to “new ideas”–may have contributed to a Galilean “rebellious streak.” Before Jesus, the only Galilean to be widely known was Judas the Galilean who had led a rebellion against the census of Quirinius in 6 BC. (The zealots are believed to have emerged out of the revolt led by Judas.) It was among these Galileans–the poor, the alienated, the “rebellious”–that the Jesus movement first began.
First words: In any great work of literature, the first words of the main character have special weight. Jesus’ first sentence in Mark is: “The time has been fulfilled.” The word for “time” here is kairos, which means the special moment, the breaking in of God, “God’s time.” NRSV has “is fulfilled,” though the verb peplerotai is perfect passive and should be translated “has been fulfilled.” “The kingdom of God has come near” is likely based in a semiticism which means “arrived.”
The other half of Jesus’ introductory speech is an exhortation to “turn and ‘faith’ in the good news.” The Greek word metanoiete is a second person plural imperative–“you-all turn.” (The overwhelming majority of “you”-words in the New Testament are you-plural. They are addressed to many, not just individuals.)
Metanoia, of course, does not mean feeling sorry for getting caught and then crying your eyes out at what a jerk you’ve been. It is not, in other words, a word that is primarily about emotions, but more about action. It means “turning”–the literal meaning of the word–and moving in a new direction.
The direction toward which Jesus points and leads is the “kingdom of God.” The “way” (1:2-3) of this kingdom, its modus operandi, will be exhibited and given meaning by Jesus as we move through Mark’s gospel.
“Believe” is a poor translation of pisteuete. Contrary to popular belief, the word does not mean “intellectual assent” or something like “theological agreement.” It should be understood as “faith-as-a-verb.” (Using faith as a verb sounds funny in English which is how we got in the bad habit of translating pisteuein as “believe.”) The word should be thought of as meaning “radical trust”–trusting with all of who we are.
“Good news” is euaggelion, a word which was more frequently used, in the world of that time, to refer to the great acts of Caesar. “Euaggelion! Good news! Caesar is victorious in Gaul!” In Mark, the “good news” has nothing to do with Caesar, and everything to do with Jesus. The specific content of this “good news” has yet to be described. Whatever it will prove to be, it has arrived in Jesus.
Forming the New Community: Moving “alongside” the Sea of Galilee, Jesus sees Simon and Andrew, two brothers involved in the fishing business.
The fishing business in first century Galilee was not a free-enterprise system. The Sea of Galilee belonged to Caesar. (The Sea of Galilee is occasionally called “the Sea of Tiberias.”) Since it was Caesar’s lake, you had to get Caesar’s permission to fish on it. Licenses were usually obtained by family-based groups, such as that represented by the brothers Andrew and Simon, for example, or James and John.
It appears that Jesus relied upon fisherman for his first base of support, an indication that the fishing economy was stressed and that those whose livelihood was drawn from it were in a state of unrest. Indeed, Jesus would travel to many fishing villages along the Sea of Galilee, most particularly Capernaum, home of the Sea’s largest harbor. (For more on the fishing economy of first century Galilee, see K.C. Hanson’s article, “The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition.”)
Theologically speaking, the first thing Jesus does after announcing the fulfillment of “God’s time” and the arrival of the “kingdom” is to begin assembling a New Community. Put another way, the recruitment of Andrew, Peter, James, and John is symbolic of the “relational” nature of the gospel. “God’s kingdom” has a fundamentally communal dimension.
“Come after me and I will make you to be fishers of people.” The Greek word genesthai means to generate, to make happen, to create–in my tranlation, “to be.” In a fresh act of creation, Jesus will make his followers into “new people” following a new “way” in a New Community.
Put another way, “fishers of people” has nothing to do with today’s popular notion of evangelism. The idea is assuredly not to go around trying to “hook” people into Christianity so they can be “saved” according to our definitions.
Rather, Jesus is calling these fishermen onto a new path–a new way of living. He has more important things for them to do than participate in the current, and corrupt, market system.
The reference to “fishers” recalls Jeremiah 16: 16: “I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them…” The context of Jeremiah is to “catch” those who have been cast out–those cast out by Yahweh! In Mark’s theology, this is exactly what Jesus will do. He will redeem everything, including those who would have been rejected by God’s law.
In response to Jesus’ call that they have more important things to do than catch fish from Caesar’s lake, Andrew and Simon “immediately” left their nets and followed Jesus. The Greek word commonly translated here as “left” is aphentes. It means released, or let go. Andrew and Simon left their nets–that is, they “let go” of their economic livelihood, and “released” their participation in the current market system.
The Greek text then says that Jesus “went a little further” to James and John. Indeed he would. James and John would “let go” of something even more central than economic livelihood. They “released” themselves from their family. They left their father in the boat.
In other words, the New Community would indeed be new. It would be a “turn” from existing social structures and time-bound traditions. People in the New Community would derive their identity not from their present economic condition or their past familial relationships, but rather be given a new identity as followers of the “way” of the “kingdom of God” as taught and lived by their leader, Jesus of Galilee.