Commentary on Mark 1:14-20
Exploring the text
Jesus begins his ministry “after John was arrested.” By whom? Why? That information is given in 6:17. It was King Herod who did it on account of John’s denunciation of his illicit marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife. Two possible scenarios for this are: under Jewish law only men could divorce their wives and Philip had not done it so Herodias was still legally married to him, or she had divorced Philip under Roman law but that was not recognized by Jewish law. In any case, in John’s view, the marriage was illegal and contravened the OT legislation (see Lev 18:16; 20:21).
Jesus’ ministry starts with the proclamation of the good news of God, that is, the gospel. The content of this message was that God’s kingdom was near, that is, fast approaching, almost here, and so people had to prepare for it by repenting and believing in the good news. God’s kingdom should be interpreted as God’s reign, for the word basileia refers more to a dominion, the power to reign, than to a specific place.
The word for “time” is kairos, signifying an opportune time and decisive moment because God is about to act. It has eschatological implications. The word for “fulfilled” is a verb in passive which conveys the idea that the implicit subject is God, who had caused this to happen.
Jesus recruits his first disciples. They will be “fishers of people.”1 This metaphor was used by missionaries all over the world to justify and legitimize the allegedly life-giving ministry of the Christian evangelist. And yet, it really is a metaphor of death: fish, when taken out of the water, die! But that has been interpreted as dying to the world, which results in life unto God, something the author of the Gospel clearly affirms in Mark 8:35. The metaphor can also be explained by saying that since in the Bible the sea represents the place of the primordial chaos, inhabited by God’s mythical enemies, the fishing of people can have the connotation of rescuing them from the snares of the devil.
Contextualizing the text
In my experience as a youth in Argentina, and through the preaching of U.S. missionaries, we understood being fishers of people in the two senses mentioned above. We heard the preaching of the Protestant version of the gospel as believers of the Roman Catholic faith, who already enjoyed a healthy relationship with God.
Ched Myers, in his book Binding the Strong Man, has alerted us to the fact that the metaphor of fishing is taken from Jeremiah 16:16, where it is used to symbolize God’s disapproval of Israel. It is also used in Amos 4:2 and Ezekiel 29:4, where catching fish with hooks is used to represent the divine judgment upon the rich and the powerful, respectively. “Jesus,” Myers concludes, “is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.”2 This is quite a different interpretation from the one I received in my youth.
I would like to suggest then that the purpose of Jesus’ call to discipleship is not to take people out of a hostile world, promising them a better life in God’s heavenly kingdom. Instead, his purpose is to change the world in such a way that it will cease to be the hostile place it is, so that God’s reign can be established on earth. Doing this will require that we make a preferential option for the poor, the dispossessed, the excluded, and those who because of gender, sexual orientation, race, or class have been rendered invisible in our society. It will also require that we will courageously denounce the evils of our western culture and its arrogant project of globalization. In short, it will require that we change the romantic view of discipleship that we have inherited for one that, by addressing the socio-political realities of our world, may do more justice to Jesus’ original intent.
- Osvaldo D. Vena, “Fishers of People: Mark 1:16-20” in Opening the Door. Pastoral Resources for Re-Constructing the Culture of the Call, a resource produced by Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, 2001, 6-7.
- Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 132.