Week of Sunday 7 February: Epiphany 5
Gospel: Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
There is something very attractive in the image of Jesus sitting in the boat, as the people press in. It was hung on our Sunday School wall, and painted into story books. As a farm kid who grew up a long way from the sea, I had ambivalent attitudes to the sea, but this picture always communicated something about safety to me. I always had images of warm afternoons, with gently lapping water. The crowd- I don’t like crowds- was not oppressive, but friendly and familial. Sometimes it was barely there.
Oddly, the places of my childhood that fit the mood I have painted, have nothing to do with the seaside. They conform to Sunday School Picnics, where the whole world retreated, and we had a few hours of escape to run and race, and feast, and enjoy life. The picnics were in a creek bed with steep earthen cliffs. Each year the farmers would provide old empty wheat bags, in which we would sit and wildly slide down to the bottom of the creek. Many a child, in the absence of a handy bag, would wreck the seat out of their pants!
These first few stories of Luke have some of that sense of sun-drenched glory days about them. There is no ‘and immediately’ as in Mark. The pace is slower, more relaxed. “Once while Jesus was standing… Once, when he was in one of the cities…”
Perhaps I am a hopeless romantic, but some of my thinking for the week will be to reflect on the safety that is in gospel despite all the seriousness and challenge! Even at the moment of great challenge in today’s reading, Jesus says to Peter, “Do not be afraid.”
It is in the context of this story that we see the calling of Peter as a disciple. This reflects the tradition of Peter’s centrality in the early church. But it is also a real portrait of a very human person. It is a psychologically realistic picture of his calling and conversion, unlike the description of Mark- that ‘gospel in a hurry’ (Mark 1:16-17).
John Petty outlines the conversion of Peter.
In Luke's gospel, Simon is mentioned for the first time in 4:38--"After leaving the synagogue he (Jesus) entered Simon’s house." Jesus initiates the action, as you might expect, but note the kind of action. The first mention of Simon in Luke's gospel is that Jesus enters his house.
The house, psychologically speaking, is a symbol of the ego or the self. When we stop and think about it, this makes a certain obvious sense. As it always has, the house represents class, wealth, taste, status, even, in many cases, a person's psychology, and presents it to the world, To say "he entered Simon's house" is to say, at a psychological level, that Jesus entered into the complete reality of the person of Simon.
The next time Simon is mentioned is 5:4: Jesus gets into a boat, "the one belonging to Simon." Again, Jesus initiates the action. This time, he does not enter into Simon's personal space, but rather into his "economic space." He enters Simon's boat, and, in so doing, he enters into Simon's occupation, his means of livelihood, his way of participation in the economic system.
Next, Jesus tells Simon "to launch out a little from the land." Then, Jesus teaches. After that, Jesus tells Peter to "launch out into the deep." In sum thus far, Jesus has entered into Simon's personal, public, private, and economic life. He has told Simon to go out a little bit. He has taught in the presence of Simon. Now, Jesus tells Simon to go "into the deep." Go in completely and utterly. It is, in effect, a call to lose himself in every way--especially as he is defined by his own ego, under the current economic arrangements.
Simon replies, "Master." (Peter will again use this title for Jesus in chapter 9, as will John, for the first time.) Then Simon says, in effect: We have fished and fished and fished in (Caesar's) lake and don't have a thing to show for it. But, if you say so, we will fish. Next, they are swamped in fish, and next after that, "Simon Peter saw." Old Simon as well as New Peter saw. He got it--or better, Jesus got him.
The conversion of Simon Peter has begun well before the events of Caesarea Philippi. At one point in the story Luke already calls him Simon Peter, even though Jesus does not give him that name until chapter 6.
In a sense, Simon Peter is ‘every person.’ He grows. He begins to see. He commits himself, leaving everything (5:11), and grows in understanding and insight. (9:18) Then, at the end he fails completely and denies him, despite all his efforts to “hang in there” after the arrest. (22:54-62) But this is not the end. There is a restoration; “24:344, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
John (Petty) notes "Peter saw--idwn de simon petros. The verb is in the primary position, which is a subtle emphasis."
8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Peter was seeing and understanding. Peter knew he was in the presence of God, not some mere miracle worker who could provide fish. (His words "go away from me" reflect this knowledge, not some desire to avoid Jesus call.) In this sense he is much more insightful than the people in John 6 who followed Jesus because they wanted more bread to eat rather than seeing the sign.
Fitzmeyer (The Gospel According to Luke Anchor Bible pp 563) says “what fishermen do to fish is not salutary,” pointing out that being ‘fishers of men’ is an odd metaphor. How often we have hallowed traditions that must sound very odd to outsiders! He, and Petty, note that the Greek has much more subtlety than “you will be catching people.” It is more that Peter will “be catching people alive.”
Fitzmeyer (569) also specifically notes that this story on the lakeside has none of the dark or chaos overtones of the storms on the lake in other stories of Jesus, which reflects my own sense of the comfort and safety in the emotional tone of the story.
I'm intrigued by my response to this story. Normally, I would focus on the demand and the challenge to leave everything. I would try harder not to fail. But the image of the gentle Jesus on a sunny Sunday afternoon is also a part of our tradition. Discipleship and comfort need to be held in balance.
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