Fishing for People

Feast of St. James

By Michael Fitzpatrick

A Reading from Jeremiah 16:14-21

14 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, “As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt,” 15 but “As the Lord lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them.” For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors.

16 I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them, and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill and out of the clefts of the rocks. 17 For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight. 18 And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.

19 O Lord, my strength and my stronghold,
my refuge in the day of trouble,
to you shall the nations come
from the ends of the earth and say:
“Our ancestors have inherited nothing but lies,
worthless things in which there is no profit.
20 Can mortals make for themselves gods?
Such are no gods!”

21 “Therefore I am surely going to teach them, this time I am going to teach them my power and my might, and they shall know that my name is the Lord.”


I wonder if Jeremiah 16 is our Old Testament reading because it describes God fishing for men. Today is the feast day for St. James, who was among those fishers who Jesus told to cast their nets back into the sea in Luke 5. After drawing up a massive catch, Jesus told them they would soon fish for people.

I’ve always read the fish for people story with a tone of great optimism, but seeing the metaphor used in Jeremiah 16, it’s less obvious how we should hear Jesus’ tone. For the judge of all the earth is wrathful toward the ancient Jewish community for their repeated infidelity with false gods. The fishers and hunters are to seek out the dispersed people for divine discipline. These kinds of fishers of people are what we today might call bounty hunters.

What does it mean then to fish and catch people? Perhaps a way to unify Jeremiah’s terrifying judgment with Jesus’ calling to St. James and the other first disciples, is to realize that God fishing for people is reality breaking in. Reality can be both a judgment and a grace, wrath and redemption, depending on our response. What we can say for sure is that the Creator of the universe is seeking us. Whether we hide in Eden’s bushes or take a ship for Tarshish, the divine Fisher of people will find us. May our hearts be teachable rather than stubborn when we are caught.

Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctoral student in philosophy at Stanford University. He attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, Calif., where he serves as a lay preacher and teacher.

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