Humane Religion Magazine
March - April 1996 Issue
THE FISHERMAN WHO BECAME A SHEPHERD
The Apostle Peter is usually portrayed as a brawny, seafaring, man-of-action. And this description is congruent with the gospel accounts that describe an impulsive man who undertook whatever he did with a great deal of energy and commitment.
When he met Jesus, Peter was a fisherman whose home port was Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee. But Jesus told him to leave that work aside and become his disciple. And for the next three years of Christ's public ministry, Peter was at his side.
Then, after the crucifixion, when it seemed that the forces of darkness had extinguished the light that Jesus brought into the world, Peter returned to his nets. He returned to the fishing that had been his livelihood before he met Christ.
But this brief relapse ended when the risen Christ appeared to him. (This sequence of events is reported in the 21st chapter of John's Gospel.) Jesus was waiting on the shore as Peter returned from what was to be his last fishing expedition. And he told the Apostle that he was to leave his nets behind and become a shepherd.
Three times Jesus asked "Do you love me"? And each time Peter said that he did, Christ challenged him with the statement: then "feed my lambs; take care of my sheep." Christ had called himself The Good Shepherd, and now he was telling Peter to follow in his footsteps.
The life of the shepherd was a life of human service to nonhuman creatures. It was the antithesis of what a fisherman did. The shepherd was called to preserve the life of other creatures; to meet their needs and protect them from harm. Fishing was exploitative, forcing peaceable creatures from their natural habitat and killing them.
In calling himself The Good Shepherd, Jesus was doing more than using a metaphor for his compassionate lifestyle. He was also reminding his followers what the Latter Prophets of Israel had taught: that animals were not to be exploited; that their slaughter was not pleasing to God.
The Gospel of John makes the important point that the last thing Jesus did on earth was to insure that the rough-hewn fisherman who was his disciple, became a compassionate shepherd who would serve life, not destroy it. #