It was one of those great spring days in the South, when the sky is clear and the breeze is light, but before the sun has become so scorching hot as to make outdoor activity nearly unbearable. I was seventeen and a junior in high school. My friends and I on the Ridgrecrest High School track team lounged in the middle of the football field at Harmon Playfield, picking grass, occasionally wrestling, and doing our best to outdo each other with bawdy jokes. We were there, and not in school, because that day was the elementary school’s Track & Field Day. Very soon kids from kindergarten to fifth grade poured into the stadium to run races, throw Frisbees, jump around in burlap potato sacks, and toss softballs. The high school track team ran the events and timed the races. It was essentially a day out of school for us, a day free from math, chemistry, and English literature, and it felt like heaven.
At midday the events suspended and all the elementary school kids moved into the bleachers and opened sack lunches. Coach Carter let us, the track team, walk across the street for lunch at Osey’s Barbeque. We filled most of the stools at the counter and ordered the kind of jumbo sized pulled-pork-and-coleslaw sandwiches that only seventeen year old boys can fully appreciate. We were halfway through our lunch break when an elderly man sitting next to me at the end of the counter (who had gotten increasingly sullen the longer we were there) spoke up.
He glared at us and challenged, “Why aren’t you boys in school?”
One of us explained to him what we were doing, but to the man—a Mr. Oates, I came to find out—our reason was insufficient. We were, to him, vagrants. Our joking and the noisy volume of our high school conversation suggested to him that we were lost souls. And he began to evangelize. Big time.
“The road to hell!” he cried out to us with his jaw set in stone. He clearly intended this phrase to be the predicate of an unspoken subject, such as, “The heinous way you boys are acting while enjoying your Sloppy Joes is the road to hell.”
Mr. Oates spoke of our need to repent. He expressed to us the urgency that we believe in Jesus Christ as our personal lord and savior. Some of us meekly tried to speak up and tell him that we were members of churches, but he preempted us by firing back, “Denominations! Not churches, denominations! Not Jesus’ churches; not Jesus’ churches!”
Well, we finished our sandwiches with markedly less enthusiasm than we’d begun them, and we slunk out of Osey’s Barbeque. As we walked back to the stadium, two things struck me. The first was, perhaps obviously, that I felt I’d been verbally and spiritually manhandled. Mr. Oates’ tongue lashing hurt, almost the way physical blows would have hurt. But the second was oddly more positive. It also struck me that by evangelizing to us, Mr. Oates was doing something he felt absolutely convicted to do. I don’t imagine that an elderly old man relished confronting a line of high school boys much stronger and more impertinent than himself. Who knows how we might have reacted? But he did not hold back. He spoke a word that he truly believed needed to be spoken. And even in my hurt, there was something awesome about that.
Two years later I was a sophomore in college. My freshman year had been much like the freshmen years that so many college students experience, and by the following fall I was feeling a striking need to kneel in church! On a Tuesday night I wandered into St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Conway, Arkansas, and within the first five minutes of that service, I experienced a number of irrevocably life-changing things. It would be self-indulgent and take too much time to go into all of them, but the one thing I must mention is the priest. A female priest. The first I’d ever seen. Her name was Peggy Hays. She was probably sixty-five and had that dignified air of someone like Anne Bancroft in her later years. Peggy moved slowly through the liturgy, being quietly intentional about every motion. Her respect for the prayers and the altar spoke more volumes that any words could.
When the service ended, Peggy was interested in me. She was interested in hearing why I was there. And when I was reticent to go into many details, she was respectful. But she made a point to say she hoped I’d come back, and I felt as though she meant it. After shaking her hand, I walked to the door but waited there for a few moments to watch Peggy engage the other few people who’d attended the Tuesday night service. She was present to each of them. Some approached her with looks of concern on their faces, and as they interacted I could see the muscles and lines in those faces relax. It was remarkable.
I did go back, again and again. And each time I was nourished and fed. I cannot recall any single conversation that I ever had with Peggy in the same detail as I recall the only conversation I ever had with Mr. Oates, but I can tell you that each conversation with Peggy was infinitely more important to my soul.
I have no doubt that both Mr. Oates and Peggy Hays had studied today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew. In fact, I would bet that for each of them this very passage served as a primary motivating factor in their lives, as central to who they were. And yet, they read this passage in two very different ways.
In this fourth chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew from their work on the boat. In his calling, he gives them the formula for the new life of grace which he offers. He says, “Repent; follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” The first two elements in this formula are clearly vocative, but the third is less obvious in its meaning: I will make you fish for people. What is “fish” here? The question is important, and the answer makes all the difference in how we follow Jesus. Will Jesus make us fish for people? Or will Jesus make us fish for people? Is “fish” a verb or a noun?
For Mr. Oates at Osey’s Barbeque that spring day in 1990, fish was clearly a verb. For Jesus to make him fish for people meant for him to evangelize with power and courage, to speak a word that might lead me and the other members of the Ridgecrest track team to repentance and belief. His fidelity to Jesus’ call meant that he proclaimed this message with a prophetic fervor that would not allow him to listen to us or entertain that we might also have something to share with him. In him, there was urgency; there was conviction… And not a word he said transformed us. He fished, but his nets came back empty.
Somehow Peggy Hays relayed the same vital formula of repentance and belief to those around her, but she did so without the vitriol and bluster of Mr. Oates. In her demeanor, we saw someone who was clearly at peace with God, someone who had repented. In her actions, we saw someone who truly, deeply, and palpably believed in the grace and love of Jesus. And in our contact with her person, we experienced nourishment. She became that through which Christ conveyed himself. She became fish for us. Fish the noun, not the verb. This reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew is in concert with the larger image of fish in the Gospels. Throughout, a meal of fish often serves as the medium through which the risen Jesus communicates grace: after walking the road to Emmaus in Luke; on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in John.
Now, do not misunderstand. This doesn’t mean that Peggy failed to verbalize her faith, and neither can we. But the ears around her were rendered able to listen to her words because her life first so transparently embodied them. The Gospel she spoke was first incarnate in the lived relationship with grace that was expressed through her very being. Before any words were spoken, she became fish for us.
Jesus’ calling is clear. If we are to experience the life of grace, we must repent, and we must follow. But how will this look in our lives? In what way will we follow Jesus, like Mr. Oates or Peggy Hays? Is fish a verb or a noun? If we are to transform our own lives and the world for the Gospel, then the way we read Matthew’s tale may make all the difference.