Posted October 29, 2003
Fish As FoodFrom the Book: Tales of Jesus and Fishing: Sea Fire by Irene Martin
The Crossroads Publishing Company, NY
One of the significant experiences in encounters with Jesus throughout the Bible concerns food: feeding others, eating together, hunger, feasting, drinking. The miracle of the loaves and fishes or the feeding of a multitude of people appear several times in various Gospels. The details differ regarding number fed, the quantity of loaves and fish, and the amount of leftovers. What fascinates me is the dynamic between Jesus and the fishermen, people whose occupation entailed food production.
In Matthew 14:16 and Mark 6:37, Jesus tells the disciples to give the crowds something to eat, but they balk and he does the job himself. John’s version (6:1 – 14) is somewhat different, but again, it is Jesus who feeds the group. I find it strange that people who fished for a food product and who had their boats nearby in at least a couple of these incidents seem quite incapable of providing anything to eat. One possible conclusion is not that they were unable, but that they were unwilling. Were they in a territory where they were not authorized to fish, and could get in trouble with the Romans? Was it the Sabbath, which could have fostered a clash with religious authorities? Where they simply uncertain of success in a time of fish shortage?
A lengthy passage regarding Jesus as food occurs in John 6:35 – 70. At the end of Jesus’ sermon, many people choose to leave, but the twelve stay. In mariner’s terms, this incident can be likened to a mutiny, with the bulk of the crew abandoning ship. The twelve who include a majority of fishermen, choose not to mutiny. They view themselves as being under command, and they see no other officer under whom the can serve. “Lord to whom can we go?” asks Peter. Significantly, Peter does not attempt to retake his own position as captain at this time.
The final chapter of John provides a new turn of events. Jesus asks the fishermen to bring fish to him on the beach, and he commands them to feed others. The significance of the count of fish, 153 in number, and their large size maybe symbolic, as numerous writers have surmised. However, it must be mentioned that one of the signs of scarcity in fish populations is a reduction in the size of individual creatures. Large fish are usually a sign of abundance. Over exploitation of fish stocks characteristically leads to diminishing size of the remaining fish. The detail that the fish were large is important, as it supports my premise that regular catches were comprised of fish of small size. I notice that whenever Jesus is present, the catches are large and, in this case, the fish themselves are large, symbolizing God’s presence. By implication, catches at other times were of undersized fish in small numbers.
While scholarly opinion tends to hold that chapter 21 is a later addition to this Gospel, I see it as the completing event for the fishermen of Jesus’ acquaintance. Its emotional impact increases when it is juxtaposed with the non-canonical Gospel of Peter, Chapter 14: “Now it was the last day of Unleavened Bread, and many began to return to their homes since the feast was over. But I, Simon Peter, and Andrew, my brother, took our fishing nets and went away to the sea. And with us was Levi, the son of Alphaeus, whom the Lord . . .[end of manuscript].
We do not know how this Gospel ends, but the fragment quoted here indicates the grief that all felt. A comment I often hear from fishermen is that “fishing spoils you for any other job.” There is something about the fishing life that is so central to personality and identity that everything else seems second best. A proverb among the Finnish fishermen of the Columbia River states: “Beginning is always difficult, industry overcomes bad luck, and work is our joy.”
This saying resonates with meaning for fishing peoples everywhere, and it could be applied to th Galilean fishermen. With the death of Jesus and their perception that their work for him had ended, the natural thing for the disciples to do would be to go back to fishing, to the one thing left that provided meaning and solace. But then Jesus appears on the beach. The great catch of fish repeats the experience of the great drought of fish that began their relationship with Jesus as his disciples. Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him, and he commands Peter to feed his lambs. Jesus turns over his authority for feeding others to the disciples. He resigns the captaincy once taken from Peter and returns it to him.