When I lived in Pacific County one activity I enjoyed was eating at a window table in a restaurant on the riverfront in South Bend. It was especially fun during gillnetting season. Now, whatever opinions you have about fishing methods--and, honestly, I know very little about commercial fishing--it was fascinating to me to watch the dance of the boats on the water and the fishermen on the decks. I loved watching the nets reeled in to see what had been caught. When the prescribed time was near for the nets to be deployed I would begin to see the dance for position on the river. All of this is carefully regulated--when one could take a position on the river and the exact time when the nets could be deployed. And you can bet the fishermen watched one another closely for violations.
Good income is all about position--on the water and in the boat. The closer to the initial flow of the fish, the better your catch. The higher your rank on the boat, the larger is your portion of the income. Fishermen get impatient with a captain who doesn’t know where to deploy the nets, when to move to a new position, and when and how to maintain equipment. The quality and amount of food provided for the crew is important, too. And, if you dislike your shipmates it doesn’t work either.
I read Irene Martin’s book, Sea Fire tales of Jesus and fishing, recently and the chapter on Sons of Thunder is my basis for this sermon. Her idea for the book was to look more closely at Jesus’ lake ministry and the fishermen he called to be his disciples. As a commercial fisherperson herself, Irene is intrigued with the fishing community and how it affected Jesus’ ministry.
So, you might ask, how does this relate to the Passover meal and Jesus insisting on washing the feet of the disciples? Not long before this meal John and James had asked to be given the places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom and in Matthew 20, even their mother asks for this honor for her sons. This would be normal behavior for fishing families. As Irene states, “The enormous accumulation of local knowledge stored up over generations and passed on orally through families and kinship lines cannot be emphasized enough. The fishermen who were best at remembering this knowledge and utilizing it effectively by making decisions on constantly changing conditions are the ones who obtain consistently high catches. … Not only does one have to be aware of where the fish are, one has to be aware of where the other fishermen are. … [in Alaska] Fishermen literally hire airplane pilots to spy on other fishermen.”
So, James and John were playing for the best position. If they could get in there before Peter and Andrew, they could be the top guys. Jesus had singled them out along with Peter so why not? As I said before, this kind of thing is normal for fishing families. One must weigh the advantages against the disadvantages of jockeying for position. You could make the whole fishing community mad. If you roll out of the South Bend dock a little too soon to set up your position, you will hear about it--on your radio and almost immediately--if one guy doesn’t say anything another will. And, all the gillnetters will be listening to the radio chatter to make sure SOMEBODY says something. And, it will be talked about in town later.
When James and John made this request, (and/or their mother, however it happened) Jesus told them, “everyone in his kingdom is in the same boat, and if they want to be great, they must be servants.” [Sea Fire pg. 44] It’s like Jesus was saying, “No, you will be deckhands.”
Even with this interchange, in Luke 22 we find that the group is arguing again about who will be greatest among them. And, Jesus strips down and washes their feet.
Irene proposes that we can see from the gospel stories that Jesus had become the effective captain of the group instead of Peter. In the stories we read that Jesus tells them when and where to fish--even when it doesn’t make sense. He decides when they will get in the boat and move to a new spot.
But boat captains don’t wash the feet of their crew and they don’t swab the deck. The crew listens and waits on the captain and if you don’t like the way he operates his boat, you look for work elsewhere. These fishermen stuck with him so they must have felt he was doing something right.
Jesus was trying to teach them something by washing their feet. It is an obvious lesson to us looking back over time and knowing what we do. I guess what we need to ask ourselves is where do we seek the position of advantage? In what way do we serve others? Do we judge others who have a lower position in the boat? In what way do we avoid servanthood?