Catching Men Alive

“Take care therefore how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” Luke 8:18

Jesus the Teacher ties up his parable of the sower with the above admonition in Luke.  Mark and Matthew both have the parable but don’t include Luke’s warning. (Actually, Mark 4:24 does include a warning, but he is more concerned with what the disciples hear rather than how they interpret.)   Our English translations of Luke 8:18 vary between “consider carefully,” “take heed,” and “pay attention.”  You get the idea.  For Luke mastery of content would certainly be essential but that alone does not secure the right interpretation – and interpretation determines application. 

Luke practices what he preaches. You’d be hard pressed to find any passage of Luke that is not suffused with allusions to texts found within the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament).  For Luke, hearing Jesus depends heavily on knowing the original context from which a word or phrase is taken from the scriptures of Israel.  One example occurs in Luke 5 and the narrative of the calling of Peter and the early apostolic band. Matthew and Mark also relate this encounter but details are sparse, with Peter and his partners’ new role described as ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων, fishers of men (Matthew 4:19, Mark 1:17). But only Luke’s narrative includes the miraculous catch by the Galileans as part of their calling (5:1-11). More importantly, he doesn’t use ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων, fishers of men, to describe them. Rather, Luke relies upon a fairly infrequent Greek New Testament term, ζωγρέω (zogreo; literally “catching men alive”).

Why use this term ζωγρέω when according to his own telling of Jesus’ encounter with Peter the fishing metaphor is clearly available to him? It seems that “fishers of men” would have been the obvious choice.  But Luke is deeply immersed in the Hebrew Bible and his word choice here serves as an ancient “hyperlink” into a narrative world that gives us insight into how Jesus understood his mission. We can’t know for certain whether Luke had copies of parts of Matthew and Mark at hand, but if he did, the contrast in word choice makes “catch men alive” even more striking.

ζωγρέω (zogreo) occurs 8 times in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (Septuagint) used by both Jewish communities and the early church: 3 times in the Law (Num. 31:15, 18; Deut. 20:16), and once each in the Former Prophets (2 Sam. 8:2) and the Writings (2 Chr. 25:12). Here the term distinguishes between those who are spared, “kept alive,” and those who are not – either due to warfare or the ban on sharing the land with the inhabits of Canaan.  But even in these texts those who are spared are so only for a short time before being killed or are taken as spoils of war. To be “kept alive” retains its extremely negative connotation. 

But among the Former Prophets the book of Joshua can shed light on why Luke settled on this term.  In Joshua 2:13 and 6:25 it is Rahab, a citizen of Canaanite Jericho, who makes a deal with the Israelite spies that they might “save alive (ζωγρέω) my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” Joshua kept the deal (6:25) and does so again with the inhabitants of Gibeon (9:20); “keeping alive,” as indentured servants those he was prohibited by oath from destroying. 

So in what way do these texts, particularly Joshua 6 and 9, affect how we hear Jesus’ calling of Peter and friends in Luke? And how might this confirm Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ message of the arriving kingdom of God as both salvation and judgment for His people Israel (Matthew 10:6, 15:24)?

Jesus’ mission is a “Rahab Moment” for Israel; the keeping alive of those who discern the times, make the proper, often costly (i.e., Luke 12:33) adjustments to ensure their place in the life that follows the arrival of the King; giving themselves over to the victor and integrating themselves, like Rahab, into the people of God (See Ephesians 4:8, repurposing Psalm 68:18, also Matthew 1:5). The added irony in Luke’s bringing the imagery of the Rahab story forward is that here Jesus and his loyal followers are “catching men alive” from among Israel. In other words, Jesus’ ministry was for Israel to be saved and that through them (whether by means of a “little flock,” as in Luke 12:32, or a multitude of converted Israelites [Romans 11:26]) the purposes of God might continue for the benefit of the world. This is precisely the meaning of the sending out of the 72 later in Luke (Luke 10:1-16; Matthew 10:5-6, 23).

What followed some 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection was a catastrophe for Israel; the judgment he had proclaimed came to pass. But simultaneously, in a mysterious way according to God’s eternal purposes, a door of hope was opened to the rest of the world through the “catching alive” of this “little flock.”  Might we be living in an analogous time for the Church (I Peter 4:17)?  And if so, how will we respond to the prophetic voice that is calling us to a time of costly renewal and a reshaping of our place and role among the nations?

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