Remember the loaves and the fishes
With John's handing over1, another prophet is silenced. Everything in the world goes on, as it has always gone on. The Empire remains in control. Yet into this, into Galilee2 itself, comes Jesus, proclaiming victory3 (euangelion) over Empire. He says the time for this is now.4 He proclaims the victory of the kingdom of God, a new way of being human, a new culture5. Change the direction of your living. Step out of the culture of Rome, out of Empire; trust6 the way of God, leave the old way of being.
What is it that they trusted? What is good news about this euangelion? Where— how— is it victory?
The victory is the end of the victim9. The culture of God is a world where the last lost sheep is found and restored.10 No one is left behind. The world works without losers. This new world is the opposite of a trump game where power always wins, where power always arranges its own advantage, and makes its own truth, at the expense of victims. The very structure of human reality is changed.11 This is at hand; not yet visible to many people, but ready to be entered for those who will trust it as a reality.12
There is a stunning insight into these first verses of Mark at the end of the article by Ched Meyers. In the comments, Ken Gingerich asks
If the Galilean fishing industry was controlled by the Roman occupiers, apparently all fish taken from the lake belonged to them. Would fish caught for personal use be considered poaching? And if so, what is the significance of Jesus preparing a breakfast of fish and bread in his last post-resurrection appearance, (Jn 21) after telling the disciples to recast their net on the other side of their boat? Was it one last act of resistance to empire? Does this have any connection to the use of the icthus/fish among early Christians? Or is that too much of a stretch?
Good connecting of the dots, Ken. Yes, I believe the socio-economic background alluded to above does shed some interesting light on the stories of the “miraculous catch.” It is notable that Luke places this story at the beginning of his gospel (Luke 5:1-11), effectively using it to replace Mark’s call of the fishermen (Lk 5:11 = Mk 1:18,20). John, on the other hand, puts the story at the end of his story as you note (Jn 21). I have yet to do closer exegetical work on this tradition, but it seems clear to me that it signals defiance of the fishing regulations controlled by the elite–and also signals a restoration of divine abundance in place of the scarcity of the exploited fishery. I think it is particularly significant that in John’s version Peter & co. “toiled all night,” catching nothing, only to encounter Jesus’ restoration of abundance “just after daybreak” (21:3f). Given the symbolic significance of night & day in John, I think this symbolizes the empire’s economy vs. the divine economy.
Jesus' meal of fish goes beyond mere defiance, or one last act of resistance. This is lordship. It is kingdom living. Jesus and his disciples are profoundly free to eat as they need. It is David taking the bread of the sanctuary.13 Humanity is not made for the purposes of a few, or as the resource of an economy. The creation is for all-humanity, and is being created and fulfilled within and around all-humanity.
Meyers goes on to say,
As for the symbolism of the early church, I do believe it is profoundly significant that the early icons were fish and loaves–reminders of Sabbath Economics. Much harder to spiritualize those symbols (representing the peasant diet), which is why I think they eventually were replaced by other symbols.
We live in a time when the Caesar of the free world is called Trump, and elected by those who claim to have turned to live the way of Jesus. In my own country, those in power— jostling for position— seek to trump each other by providing the peasants and fisherpeople with victims: African youth,14 refugees, and the structurally unemployed of Galilee.
In my church, the cross reaches high into the vaulted, gold, and empty. The chalice and paten are always upon the table, but are silver plate. There is bread once a month, never fish, let alone a net.15 The power of the place flows when we eat; when we wait for the last person to come to communion— the minister goes up to anyone who stays in their seat and invites them to come and stand with us. And the power flows in the café, lunch and tea, where anyone is fed, and if you have no money, we feed you anyway.
At the end of Mark, by design, or by the tearing of the text,16 Jesus' call to turn and trust lies on an empty page with an empty cross and empty tomb. What we have are loaves, and the determination to leave no one unfed. A willingness to be broken ourselves, if it must be, rather than to substitute and other victim in our place.
The word I have translated as “handing over” (παραδίδωμι) takes on shades of meaning, depending on its use. Mark uses it in 3:19 to describe Judas Iscariot as the one who would “betray” Jesus. It is used in cc.8, 9, and 10, when Jesus discloses that he will be “handed over” and killed. It is used in c.13, the “little apocalypse,” to describe the disciples’ fate of being “handed over” to councils. It is used in c.14 during the last supper when Jesus speaks of being “betrayed” by one of the disciples. And it is used in c.15 when Mark tells of the arrest and crucifixion, as Jesus is “delivered” to Pilate. In our pericope, that which would happen to Jesus after him happened to John first. Mark D Davis.
establishing Tiberias as a thoroughly Hellenized administrative and military center. The primary function of this city was to regulate the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee, putting it firmly under the control of Roman interests. There Antipas built a royal palace, where it is likely he beheaded John the Baptist (Mk 6:7ff)." Jesus, in Mark, at least, comes into, even invade,— the place where John is handed over. Ched Meyers
It was a word that was commonly applied to Caesar. "Euangelion! Good news! Caesar is victorious in Gaul!"… Luke's announcement of Jesus as "savior" is a way of saying, "Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not." Moreover, this "savior" comes from the house of David. He is not only "lord," but "messiah." (John Petty)" Quoted here. Jesus announces victory and good news in a situation where it seems there is only loss and defeat. And his disciples will find victory and good news in his own handing over.
4. "The ‘time’ has been fulfilled; the reign of God has come ‘near.’ Both are in the perfect tense." (Davis) It is clear that this fulfilment is not some future promise. It has come… which suggests those proclamations of Gospel which push fulfilment into the future or into some spiritualised version of heaven are missing something about what has been given to us now.
5. Empire has a new currency courtesy of fantasy literature and Star Wars. It is a fundamental concept to understand the economics and power dynamics of Jesus' world. And it is a fundamentally different culture to the culture of Jesus. But culture, as a substitute for kingdom, as discussed by Paul Nuechterlein, loses something of the power of the word Empire. It captures the all-inclusive and capturing nature of the human environment in which we live and are enmeshed, but empire retains an important sense of imperiousness. Paul says:
I’ve shared in the past, with regard to the NT nomenclature of the “kingdom of God,” that we feel compelled these days to somehow adjust that label to something else. And it’s not just a matter of being politically correct due to male-oriented language such as “kingdom.” Some of the alternatives for “kingdom of God” are chosen with gender concerns in mind, and so we come up with something like the “reign of God.” But I don’t think that that’s adequate, either, as a translation into modern ways of speaking. In a democratic world, we do not talk about reigns any more than we talk about kingdoms.
But we do talk a whole lot about “culture”! So I suggest: “The time is fulfilled, and the culture of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” What does it mean to distinguish God’s culture from human cultures? What does it mean to be “called out” (Gr: ekklesia, “church”) of conventional human culture and to begin to be disciples of the one who brings God’s culture near to us? Why is this such good news?
And, of course, culture misses the whole irony that is involved in using the term kingdom of God as a gainsaying of the kingdom of Herod, or empire of Rome. Indeed, we ma be more accurate is some way to speak of the counter-culture of God.
6. "πιστεύετε: PAImpv 2p, πιστεύω,1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of, to credit, place confidence in." Davis This is much more than assenting to a proposition. It implies action. It's said that a sceptic who saw Blondin walk across Niagara falls, said he now believed he could do it. Jesus calls is for us to step into the barrow and cross over with him. (For fun)
K C Hanson writes "we must avoid imagining individuals who 'go to work…' "
Fishing was an important part of the Galilean economy in the first century. But it was not the "free enterprise" which modern readers of the New Testament may imagine. Even fishers who may have owned their own boats were part of a state regulated, elite-profiting enterprise, and a complex web of economic relationships. These are symptoms of an "embedded economy." That is to say, economies in the ancient Mediterranean were not independent systems with "free markets," free trade, stock exchanges, monetization, and the like, as one finds in modern capitalist systems. Rather, only political and kinship systems were explicit social domains; economics and religion were conceptualized, controlled, and sustained either by the political hierarchy or kin-groups. (K.C. Hanson, quoted at One Man's Web)
Ched Meyers has a post on this text examines the fishing economy of Galilee. It reads like an early from of globalisation, and makes clear why Hanson uses terms like "free markets" within brackets.
On the death of Caesar Augustus, to “curry favour” with the new emperor
Herod Antipas (the client-king Tetrarch of Galilee) began building a new capital city called Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee… The primary function of this city was to regulate the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee, putting it firmly under the control of Roman interests…
K.C. Hanson offers a compelling portrait of the political economy of the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee during this period, which provides detail of the matrix of oppression narrated in Mark. We know that at this time the fishing industry was being steadily restructured for export, so that the majority of fish were salt preserved or made into a fish sauce and shipped to distant markets throughout the empire. All fishing had become state-regulated for the benefit of the urban elite—either Greeks or Romans who had settled in Palestine following military conquest or Jews connected with the Herodian family. They profited from the fishing industry in two ways. First, they controlled the sale of fishing leases, without which locals could not fish. These rights, and often capitalization as well, were normally awarded not to individuals, but to local kinship-based “cooperatives” (Gk koinōnoi)—such as the brothers Simon and Andrew or the Zebedee family we meet in Mk 1:16-20. Second, they taxed the fish product and its processing, and levied tolls on product transport. Local administrators handled royal leases, contracts and taxes—such as “Levi son of Alphaeus,” whom we meet in Mk 2:14.
This transformation of the local economy, made possible by the infrastructural improvements (roads, harbors and processing factories) carried out by the Herodians, functioned to marginalize and impoverish formerly self-sufficient native fishing families. Leases, taxes and tolls were exorbitant, while the fish upon which local people depended as a dietary staple was extracted for export. Thus fishermen were falling to the bottom of an increasingly elaborate economic hierarchy.
So Meyers is describing something horribly similar to our own economic systems. I have often thought that our better wages and conditions in Australia, relative to the factories of Foxconn, for example, have been nothing more than a pay off for our loyalty to the system. We are the beneficiaries of a system which has taken the slaves and the serfs and the day labourers off shore to China and Bangladesh.
With such rigid state control of their livelihood and the oppressive economics of export, it is hardly surprising that in Mark’s story fishermen are the first converts to Jesus’ message about an alternative social vision! If Tiberius was ground zero in Herod’s project of Romanizing the regional economy, then Capernaum up the coast, a village profoundly impacted by such policies, was the logical place to commence building a movement of resistance. Restless peasant fishermen had little to lose and everything to gain, by overturning the status quo. Thus Jesus’ strategic decision was not unlike Gandhi’s attempts to mobilize the “untouchable” classes in India in campaigns such as his famous Salt March, or M.L. King’s fateful choice to stand with the sanitation workers of Memphis in 1968. (Meyers “Let’s Catch Some Big Fish!” Jesus’ Call to Discipleship in a World of Injustice)
If we will not be a part of the system, of course, then we will not benefit from its pay offs. We may, indeed lose what security we have, and become scapegoats for those other partially rich people who are in the cost price squeeze of empire.
Perhaps Andrew and Peter felt they had nothing to lose when they left their boats. James and John were further up the pecking order; they employed people. But all of them left what they had. It means the Christianity of the rich is suspect as something that is reinforcing the status quo, rather than repenting; that is, turning again, and leaving the culture of the current Roman Empire and joining the culture of God.
10. I take the image from Michael Serres, (and the parable!) who is referenced by Nuechterlein's post this week. The full article can be download here. It is startling in its focus on the deliberate nature of victimisation. Our structural unemployment, by which I mean that our economy is designed for an causes unemployment as a part of its flexibility, is deliberate victimisation.
By similar parables, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew express the principle of the non-sacrificial economy, the economy that refuses even the smallest expense, one percent, which is no other than the scapegoat itself: if one of you has one hundred sheep and loses one, would he not leave the other ninety nine in the desert and go searching for the one that was lost until he finds it? (Matt. 18:12; Luke 15:6).
The one who brings back the lost animal turns the entire economic logic upside down in a symmetrical manner, because the other ninety nine were left in the desert, the place, normally, of the expelled scapegoat, which now constitutes an inclusion. Thus the reversal of the logic of exclusion. And as friends celebrate the return of the stray one, sacrifice is transformed into a positive feast: we will all rejoice together, without execution or expulsion, that the victim has returned to the fold.
Not only does this gesture refuse all economy founded on the calculation, even though minimum, of the one percent loss. It demonstrates positively that what has to be done is precisely to save that which by custom and reason we allow to be lost.
Lost soul, lost woman . . . do we realize that this word “loss” has both a moral and an economic meaning?
This lost man, who wanted to lose him?
Economist, turn your science upside down in order to go searching purposefully for the miserable, the sacrificed. Scientist, change your logic to save the victims of progress.
No! Not progress at any cost! Give back in full the price offered up in sacrifice for progress.
11. The very structure of human reality is changed. This is why I used the phrase: a new way of being human… When we speak of culture or kingdom in this context, we are not speaking of the difference between the USA and Australia, which are deeper than a surface glance would suggest. We are really talking about a new way of being, a way so new that it would show that the USA and Australia, and Rome, are fundamentally the same culture, the culture of violence. They live by what Wink termed the Myth of Redemptive Violence, and here. The "non-sacrificial economy" and "the end of the victim" is the end of violence as a means to establishing and maintain not merely a local culture, but human reality.
12. In the end, discipleship— following Jesus— seems to me to be the attempt to live under a new reality. It is not an optional add on to life, but a conscious effort to recast our own vision of reality, and to be open to being recast. My suspicion is that my efforts to re-see, and my attempts to sketch out a new vision of reality, are actually response to something deeper in me being recast or reformed.
15. How would a net work as symbol? We love the easy symbol of the empty cross, perhpaps with the cloth wrapped around it on Easter morning— he is risen. We avoid, in my part of the tradition, the complex symbol of the crucifix— the cost to him and perhaps to us if we can no longer dodge the powers. (Loader, quoted here) Would a net at the foot of the cross speak to us?
Little wonder, then, that Mark records the response of these exploited fishermen to Jesus’ “good news” as immediate (a scenario he repeats twice, 1:18,20). They had little to lose. In antiquity, leaving the workplace would have entailed both loss of economic security and a rupture in the social fabric of the extended family as well. In that sense, to join this movement demanded not just an assent of the heart, but an uncompromising break with “business as usual.” But the verb “they left their nets” (Gk aphiemi) is used elsewhere in Mark to connote release from debt, as well as forgiveness of sin and liberation from bondage. It is, in other words, a “Jubilee” verb. In fact, an epilogue to the later call of the rich man story defines “leaving” home, family and work specifically in terms of the discipleship community’s practice of social and economic redistribution (Mk 10:28f). Jesus is calling these disaffected workers out of an exploitive system and back to a network of “fictive kinship” that practices mutual aid and cooperation. (Meyers)
Would a net at the foot of the cross even help us question the violence that can be attached to fishing for souls when altar calls become a matter of numbers and winning souls?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Key resources in writing this post are
Jesus begins the Journey (One of my own posts from 2015)
“Let’s Catch Some Big Fish!” Jesus’ Call to Discipleship in a World of Injustice Ched Meyers and
Girardian Lectionary Ephiphany 3B Paul Nuechterlein
Dangerous Succession Mark D Davis
Also on One Man's Web
Mark 1:14-20 - Jesus begins the Journey (2015)
Mark 1:14-20 - Jonah goes to hospital (2015)
Mark 1:14-20 - Grief and Gospel: The Call (2012)
Mark 1:14-20 - The Ticky Tacky Problem (2012)
Mark 1:14-20 - Act now! (2009)
Mark 1:16-20 - Call and Commitment (2006)