Every story has a context. Over the centuries, we’ve become extremely disconnected from the context of the gospel stories, and one of those disconnects is about the political reality of life for fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.
As I noted last week, John Dominic Crossan was one of the speakers at the CAC’s Universal Christ conference. In one of his talks, he outlined the reasons that fishing on the Sea of Galilee had reached a major turning point about a decade before Jesus began his public ministry. To cut a complex and interesting story very short, Herod Antipas (a son of the Herod who tried to kill the infant Jesus) decided to prove his capability to Emperor Tiberias by commercializing the fishing industry in Galilee and selling salted fish to Rome.
To do this, he moved his capitol from Sepphoris to the newly built Tiberias (named, in good sycophant fashion, after the Emperor) on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (the image above is of Tiberias today). He then proceeded to commercialize the fishing industry by contracting professional fishermen and pushing out the local peasant fishermen who had been making a living on the sea for centuries.
Interestingly, Jesus grew up in Nazareth, only four miles from Sepphoris. Scholars suggest that much of the carpentry and related work that Joseph and Jesus would have done was as day laborers in Sepphoris (Nazareth was tiny, with only about four hundred people). When Herod Antipas abandoned his old capitol in favor of this new one, he also left a lot of peasant craftsmen out of work.
Perhaps Jesus had no choice in leaving Nazareth, because there was no steady work for him there anymore. We know that, as an adult, he moved to Capernaum (a fishing town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee) and made it his home base. From there, Jesus called those “freelance” fishermen. He knew they were struggling to keep afloat, on multiple levels. He knew their frustrations and fears because he’d experienced them at home in Nazareth. He, and they, were primed for an uprising.
Jesus called the fishermen to join his nonviolent revolution and couched it in terms they could understand. Instead of catching fish to be salted and sent to feed the fat cats in Rome, he was calling them to catch people for the Reign of God. Jesus was radically reinventing the purpose and meaning of their lives.
The fishermen’s response had to be radical, too. They had to leave their nets, their boats, and what they knew in order to embark on something unknown and untested. Perhaps being squeezed by the commercial fishing industry in Tiberias made their choice easier—but it’s seldom easy to leave behind the known, the comfortable, the routines we cling to for comfort.
Take a look at the world around you today. Where do you see people in power disenfranchising the poor and powerless? As I asked last week, where are you called to join Jesus’ nonviolent uprising today? How might you be called by Jesus to embark on something new and unknown?
How can we continue the revolutionary message of resurrection on behalf of those whose lives are being crushed by the powerful today?