Today’s Gospel makes no practical sense. There, beside the Sea of Galilee, you had Simon and his brother Andrew doing what fisherman do, that is, fish. Fishing was their livelihood. It’s how they fed their families, not only from the fish themselves but from selling the surplus in the local market. Folks in the market would know Simon and Andrew to be brothers in business together. They were hard workers. They were fair with their pricing, and persons respected them. Another generation of family fishers was James and John. Their father, Zebedee, and perhaps his father before him made their living from fishing. They’re discovered in their boat alongside their father and hired men, all mending their nets. Were Zebedee and his sons wealthier than Simon and Andrew because of the mentioning of their boat and nets, or did Simon and Andrew discard boats, preferring the shallow shoreline to the deep waters? Regardless, they all were fishermen, and fishing is what they did. Fishing was a part of their vocational identity. It is unconscionable that they would be anything more than this, and yet, life happens when we least expect it – Like waking from a deep sleep our eyes open. We look back on our old, slumbering selves and forward to a bright reality wondering how we ever fell asleep in the first place. How could we be sleeping for so long? The question disappears like a breath as we turn and face a new dawn, eyes wide open towards hope. Hope springs eternal as eternity speaks a word. Surprisingly, it’s not a word of inspiration. It’s not some credulous maxim to believe in yourself. It’s not a song to say you are beautiful in every single way. Saying such things just keeps us comfortably asleep. No, the spoken word creates new life, awakens the dreamer, and shocks the practical. The word is “Repent.” “Repent” is the first action verb of the first line of Jesus’ preaching ministry. It’s not practical but personal. It’s not respectable but relational. It doesn’t alienate but aligns. It’s not easy, it’s hard. St. Jerome once wrote, “The sweetness of the apple makes up for the bitterness of the root. The hope of gain makes pleasant the perils of the sea. The expectation of health mitigates the nauseousness of medicine. One who desires the kernel breaks the nut. So one who desires the joy of a holy conscience swallows down the bitterness of penance.”
“Repent” was the first action verb of the first sentence of Jesus’ ministry. “Follow,” was the first word of the second sentence in Jesus’ ministry. For Simon and Andrew, repentance was imagined as nets dropping out of the fishermen’s hands. We may also note that they did not release the nets reluctantly, but “immediately” is how the scripture described it for us. Notice too that their nets were empty. Does this represent a lost cause, a hunger that needs filling, a forgotten longing? “For God alone, my soul in silence waits,” the Psalmist reminds us today. “Truly, my hope is in him,” it continues. Was it this Jesus for whom the soul had been waiting? Was he hope and the spring eternal enfleshed? Knowing and yet somehow unknowing the answer, they left their nets and followed him down the shoreline to find men who were just like them – men they knew needed the one whom they were now faithfully following. Like Simon and Andrew before them, now it’s James and John’s turn to leave their livelihood to discover Life. Leave their earthly father to follow their spiritual one. Leave their empty nets in need of repair. Little did these fishermen know that God had captured them in his net only to be rereleased – not into the uncertainties of the sea but into the mysteries of love.
If this story is not a story for our lives right now, then I don’t know what it is? This past year’s collective tragedies have made us all reconsider our vocations, values, and beliefs. Like the first disciples, we have discovered empty nets collecting nothing but air. Many of our institutions are like torn nets we never realized needed repairing. Closets have opened, revealing skeletons. Mirrors tilted toward ourselves, and we didn’t like what we saw. Nature abhors a vacuum, so political and cultural ideologies crept in undercover, promising certainty. Certainty morphed into cult, cult into mob, mob into physical and psychological violence, disdain, cancellation, and corruption. These nets, although profitable, are still spiritually empty.
I would argue the nets cannot be mended but must be dropped altogether. “Repent,” and “Follow,” the One who calls us each by name. Come to him if you’re weak and heavy burdened. He will give you rest. He will lighten the load. His name is Jesus. We know this, but at the time, Simon and Andrew did not. He’s the savior of the world. We profess this, but James and John could not have known. He’s your savior, my savior, their savior, the world’s savior coming into the world to untangle the net of sin and mend the net of death that separates. Right now, today, and this week pray to God for the grace to “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ, and to proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.”