Thought for the day
We tend to think of the first disciples as somehow “clergy” with a call special to them. But that is not adequate. Jesus is first of all calling disciples, that is ordinary people, including ourselves. Discipleship includes experience, learning and risk. What experiences have brought me this far? What have I learned and am I still learning? How about the call to “put out into the deep”? Is the Lord asking of me a deeper following, both costly and life-giving? How am I responding? Is there something in me hesitating and holding back? Do I need to hear again the words, “Do not be afraid”?
God of surprises, help us to take the risk of following Jesus on a path of discipleship costing “not less than everything.” Help us to let go, that we may live the Gospel fully and richly. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jesus Calls the First Disciples
Luke 5:1 Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2 he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3 He 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. 4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7 So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10 and 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.” 11 When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
The call stories in Matthew and Mark are devoid of incident and biographical interest. We never learn about previous experience, impression made, or, for that matter, whether any of the called would have been on some kind of spiritual quest. All such details are suppressed, to allow the authority of the Son of Man to stand out in a stark way. Luke takes a different tack: Jesus has already been preaching and his fame is widespread.
In the construction of this passage here, Luke combines the call stories, taken presumably from Mark, with the story of the miraculous catch of fish. The provenance of that story remains a puzzle, because a similar story is elsewhere recounted only as a resurrection appearance narrative in the Fourth Gospel (John 21:1-11). In any case, Luke provides us with a more psychologically believable account of the call: Peter hears the preaching of Jesus and sees the miraculous catch of fish and only then is called and responds unhesitatingly.
Kind of writing
The selection made for today is a combination of the call story (technically a chreia) and the miraculous catch of fish (technically a theophany). As the text stands, the call story is interwoven into the account of the miracle and cannot be easily “extracted” from it. You might even notice that the call proper is more implicit than explicit. The miraculous catch of fish illustrates well the experience of the sacred (mysterium) as awesome (tremendum) and as inviting (fascinans). The impact of the sacred draws Peter to Jesus, while at the same time creating a sense of unworthiness and distance.
Old Testament background
Miraculous catches of fish are unknown in the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (but cf. miraculous provisions such as 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 4). On the other hand, call stories and theophanies are well represented. Today’s first reading is a good example, showing the same features (mentioned below) of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Other examples:
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1–6)
Then the spirit lifted me up, and as the glory of the Lord rose from its place, I heard behind me the sound of loud rumbling; it was the sound of the wings of the living creatures brushing against one another, and the sound of the wheels beside them, that sounded like a loud rumbling. The spirit lifted me up and bore me away; I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of the Lord being strong upon me. I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who lived by the river Chebar. And I sat there among them, stunned, for seven days. (Ezekiel 3:12–15)
New Testament foreground
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20)
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. (John 21:1-11)
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)
Verse 1 Gennesaret = sea of Galilee or of Tiberias. “Word of God” is an expression taken from the prophets, where it appears usually as the Word of the Lord. The expression is used a few times in this Gospel: Luke 3:2; 5:1; 8:11, 21; 11:28. The presence of many people eager for the word gives a context for the preaching from a boat as well as a context for the call of the first disciples.
Verse 2 Two boats bring to mind Simon and his brother Andrew, although Andrew is not mentioned in Luke’s account. He is named explicitly after Simon in 6:14.
Verse 3 The unquestioning assistance hints at the immediacy of response to the call later. At the centre stands Jesus the attractive bearer of God’s word, the prophet.
Verse 4 Advice to a fisherman from a carpenter! There is no motive given for this advice, because we, the readers, do not as yet know that they have not been successful. In later Christian reading, the invitation to “put out into deep water” is read metaphorically (quite fittingly).
Verse 5 The fact of failure and the readiness to obey are both in the one verse. Peter trusts the word of Jesus and responds. Word is rhēma, a frequent word for Luke (68 in the New Testament; of which 33 in Luke-Acts). Cf. Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word (rhēma).” (Luke 1:38) “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing (rhēma) that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15) More sharply: The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word (rhēma) of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” (Luke 22:61)
Verse 6 The miraculous event is immediate and overwhelming. The verse can also be read metaphorically. In the Acts, so many are coming and going that more help is needed. Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:1) Cf. Lk 10:1-2 and Acts 11:19-26).
Verse 7 This verse also can also be read at another level to speak to current experience.
Verse 8 Peter is both drawn and over-awed. This moment fulfils exactly the reaction to the mysterium, a reaction of awe and spontaneous unworthiness.
Verse 9 “They” includes the unnamed brother.
Verse 10 This is Luke’s reading of the call story. Cf. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17) The reassurance is part of all theophanies in the Bible.
Verse 11 The call story itself is a response to the previous “from now on you will be catching people”. Because Jesus is a prophet powerful not only in word but also in deed, the utterly open and unreserved response makes sense.
Pointers for prayer
1. The invitation from Jesus to put out the net again, with surprising results. Have there been times when you had little hope of results, but decided to try once again and were pleasantly surprised by what happened?
2. “Put out into the deep water”. When have you found that blessings, or progress, came when you had the courage to venture into unfamiliar waters, where you felt uneasy and insecure? What, or who, helped to give you that courage?
3. Simon had a profound sense of a power at work that he could not understand. When have you had a sense of the divine breaking into everyday experience?
4. The disciples “left everything and followed Jesus”. This step was preceded by their experience of the concern of Jesus for them, the attraction of his work, teaching and actions. Recall the story of key decisions or turning points in your life. Who was Jesus for you in those situations?
Most holy God, the earth is filled with your glory and in your presence angels stand in awe. Enlarge our vision, that we may recognise your power at work in your Son and join the apostles and prophets as heralds of your saving word.
Grant this through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.