By Ched Myers, a sermon to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Goleta Slough Watershed/Chumash Territory, CA, 5th Sunday in Epiphany, Feb 6, 2022
Luke 5:1-11 powerfully stitches together two gospel traditions: the miraculous catch of fish also found at the end of John (21:1-14), and the call of the fishermen which also occurs at the beginning of Mark (1:16-20). Let’s look at both themes, each so important to the vocation of followers of Christ.
Jesus’ encounter with working fishermen on the shores of Lake Galilee is typically romanticized in our churches: Oh, how quaint, fishermen! But this is a trivialization. No, this scene communicates defiance and delight, resistance and renewal—the same energy that fueled the painting of that new mural of the Goleta Slough here at the church, just completed by our friends Dimitri Kadiev, Rufo Noriega and Joshua Grace (right), which we are celebrating today.
Every story has a context, not least those of the Bible, which too many people read as it if took place in Disneyland! In fact we know a lot, from both history and archaeology, about the scenario related by Luke. Scholars tell us that the Sea of Galilee in the early first century was ground zero for efforts by imperial Rome to structurally adjust and exploit the economy of the occupied territory of Palestine.
Here it is in a nutshell: When Jesus was a teenager, Caesar Augustus died in Rome, and Tiberius became Emperor. The native Judean ruler Herod Antipas built a new city as his administrative center right on the shores of Lake Galilee, and named it Tiberias in order to curry imperial favor. The primary function of this new city was to regulate the fishing industry around the lake, the most prosperous segment of ancient Galilee’s economy. This new wave of Roman colonization placed fishing firmly under the control of Roman and Herodian elites, who restructured the industry for export markets. All fishing became state-regulated, changes that benefitted the wealthy urban managerial class, while disenfranchising peasant fishermen.
Native fishermen, who had traditionally harvested these waters in a sustainable fashion for local consumption—just as the Chumash did in the nearby Goleta Slough for millennia—were now required to buy fishing leases from the regime, which taxed them and controlled their markets. The Herodians built roads, harbors and fish-factories along the shore (such as at Magdala, where Mary was from), which processed fish into salt preserve or fish sauce for export. Elites looked down on the fishermen, even as they depended upon their labor: one ancient papyrus called them “more miserable than any other profession.”
So when Jesus of Nazareth showed up at the sea, as narrated in all four of our gospels, he was walking right into a distressed economic landscape—boom for a few, bust for most. Top-down strategies of economic and infrastructure development inevitably enrich the few and impoverish the many, as we still see in our world. The ancient fishing village of Capernaum, just up the coast from Magdala and Tiberias, was profoundly impacted by such policies. Which made it a logical place for Jesus to commence building a movement of dissent, beginning with restless peasant fishermen who had little to lose and everything to gain by overturning the status quo. Like Gandhi’s mobilization of the “untouchable” classes in India in his 1930 Salt March to the sea. Or Martin Luther King’s fateful decision to stand with the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968. True change can only come from below.
Our gospel text depicts Jesus organizing a teach-in among these disgruntled workers. He borrows a boat from crusty fisherman named Simon, and pushes just offshore so he can use the water and beach as a natural amphitheater. He then concludes his analysis with an object lesson, instructing Simon to shove off into deep water and try casting one more time (5:4). The boatman’s response is poignant: “We’ve worked all night long but have caught nothing” he laments (5:5). The waters are becoming fished out, depleted by industrialization—like a diamond mine in Africa today, or coca plantation in South America, or tar sands field in Canada. Or like the Goleta Slough.
It’s testimony to Simon’s desperation that he follow the stranger’s advice anyway. Then comes the moment of revelation: suddenly there are “so many fish that their nets begin to break,” and when hauled in they “fill both boats so that they began to sink.” The abundance of divine creation has been restored, with a catch that could break not only nets, but also the cycle of their poverty. Like Luke’s later story of feeding the multitudes in the wilderness, God provides enough for our need; just not for our greed.
In the face of such a reversal of fortune, Simon is confused. His confession of “sin” could mean that he was, like everyone in the village, “in debt up to his eyeballs” (sin and debt are the same word in Greek). Or it could mean that he realized that he’d “gotten it all wrong” (sin also means to “miss the mark”). He and his peeps are amazed, but also paranoid. This spectacle perhaps signaled a Messianic “uprising” against unjust over-extraction by the Romans, but it would be perceived by the authorities as a contraband catch, authorized by an itinerant preacher without a fishing license! So should these hard-pressed peasants joyfully gather this windfall—or run for the hills? You see, wildcat redistributions of wealth were, and still are, very risky business.
Jesus understands their anxiety, and offers them a paradigm shift, and an alternative vocation: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (5:10). Rest assured that this trope is not some sort of Billy Graham-like call to save souls door to door. Rather, Jesus is quoting the prophets concerning God’s judgment on whoever oppresses the poor. Like Jeremiah, who envisions Creator “sending for many fishermen” in order to catch the leaders of Israel “who have polluted the land”… (Jer 16:18). Or Amos, who warns the elite classes of Israel that Creator will “take them away with fishhooks” to justice (Amos 4:2). Or Ezekiel’s rant against Egypt’s Pharaoh: “Creator will put hooks in your jaws, and… pull you up from your streams,” along with the fish to which you claim exclusive rights (Ez 29:3-4).
For Jesus—who not only knew the prophetic literature but sought to embody it anew in his context—this “fishers of people” idiom was a divine summons to working folk to join him in overturning the structures of power and privilege in the world, in order to restore both Creation and justice to the poor. In modern parlance, Jesus was calling them—us—“to come help him catch some Big Fish.” Indeed, Luke concludes his story by noting simply that those fishermen “left everything and joined the movement” (5:11).
Which brings us to the mural we are about to dedicate. The naturally abundant Goleta slough was the ecological and spiritual heart of Chumash life in this place prior to European invasion. It reflected today’s reading from Isaiah: “The earth is full of Creator’s glory.” But 250 years of Spanish, then Mexican, then American genocidal colonization, and the ecocide of a century of industrial development, destroyed this place and its Indigenous caretakers, both of whom now barely survive. It’s a haunted history with which we settlers here must come to terms, as we argue in our new book on “discipleship as decolonization.” This mural presses “our responsibilities today as individuals and communities to these waters and to the Chumash, and invites a reconnection to love these lands, examine our callings, and fight for their rights and health once again.”
Muralist Kadiev is in the habit of sneaking the great resister Harriet Tubman into each of his pieces. What better time than Black History month to remind ourselves of the fact that when this venerable Conductor of the Underground Railroad smuggled enslaved people to freedom, she was just following the Jesus who liberated fish from Roman control to feed oppressed people. Friends, let’s get on Harriet’s train, let’s go after some big fish with Jesus. In the famous words of today’s Isaiah text: “Here am I; send me!”