There are some phrases that we hear so often we never stop to ponder their meaning or where they come from. In the Gospel of Mark this year we will hear the phrase "fishers of men." Where does this come from and what does it mean?
The idea "fishing for men" comes originally from Jeremiah 16 - The context is that the 12 tribes of Israel are scattered among the nations and are there in bondage, just like they were in Egypt. So God is planning a new Exodus to bring them out of the nations, which will be greater than when He brought them out of Egypt.
Jeremiah 16:14-21 However, days will surely come, says the LORD, when it will no longer be said, "As the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites out of Egypt"; but rather, "As the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites out of the land of the north and out of all the countries to which he had banished them." I will bring them back to the land which I gave their fathers.
Look! I will send many fishermen, says the LORD, to catch them....O LORD, my strength, my fortress, my refuge in the day of distress! To you will the nations come from the ends of the earth
Not only are the Israelites coming back to the Lord from the nations, but the
nations are coming to the Lord as well. So with the return of the Israelites
come the return of the nations back to the Lord.
So, when the disciples hear Jesus say to them, "I will make you fishers of men", would they have made the connection between this title and the prophesies of Jeremiah 16?
We do not know how well the disciples had the old testament committed to memory, probably far more that we in the modern world tend to guess. But one thing is sure. Jesus, in using the phrase "fishers of men", is doing far more than merely alluding to the occupation of the men He is calling to follow Him. By using an Old Testament image, He is announcing the fulfillment of this image in His mission, as being a new Moses with a New Exodus, drawing all nations out of the slavery of sin and into the new promise land of God's Kingdom.
There are other images that Jeremiah presents that our Lord draws on Throughout Jeremiah, the Lord promises to give the people new shepherds that the Lord will use to guide not only Israel out of the nations back to the promised land, but also the nations as well.
Jeremiah 23:1 Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the LORD. Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow; there they shall increase and multiply.
So here the Lord is removing the old shepherds, namely the Scribes and Pharisees, and is replacing them with the apostles. He continues...
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing, says the LORD. Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David; As king he shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and right in the land.
This righteous shoot is Jesus, of course.
In his days Judah shall be saved, Israel shall dwell in security. This is the name they give him: "The LORD our righteousness." Therefore, the days will come, says the LORD, when they shall no longer say, "As the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt";
but rather, "As the LORD lives, who brought the descendants of the house of Israel up from the land of the north"-- and from all the lands to which I banished them; they shall again live on their own land.
Just like in Jeremiah 16, we see here in Jeremiah 23 the foreshadowings of a New Exodus.
In a round about way Jesus links these two images of fishing and shepherding in the Gospel of John.
In the whole of John 21 we see the apostles going back to fishing. While doing that they see Jesus on the shore who instructs them where to catch a large number of fish. They catch a ton and realize that it is Jesus who is on the shore. Peter jumps in the water and then eats fish with Jesus and while there, Jesus asks Peter three times, "do you love me?" With each response Jesus is instituting His office of chief shepherd when He says: "feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep." This, of course, is fulfilling Jeremiah 23.
Another cool tidbit is that while the apostles are fishing and catching nothing Jesus says, "cast your nets over there." Peter hauls in 153 fish.
St. Jerome tells us that at his time Greek zoologists had identified 153 different kinds of fish. This points to the fact that men from every nation would be called to be saved. It is also important to know that it is Peter alone who hauls in the fishing net and that the net is not torn though under great strain. The Greek word for torn here is skizo, where we get the word schism. We see an image of the end times when all nations will be brought to the Lord through the net of Peter without schism.
To finish, I read a beautiful quote in St. Thomas Aquinas' Catena Aurea concerning the apostles new role to catch men for the Kingdom:
"How wonderful is fishing. For fish, when they are caught soon die, but when men are caught by the word of preaching are soon made alive."
I would also add that when you fish you bring the fish out of the water. But when men are converted they are put into the waters of Baptism.