LUKE 5:1-11 USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening
to the word of God,
he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.
He saw two boats there alongside the lake;
the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.
Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon,
he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore.
Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon said in reply,
“Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,
but at your command I will lower the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish
and their nets were tearing.
They signaled to their partners in the other boat
to come to help them.
They came and filled both boats
so that the boats were in danger of sinking.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said,
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him
and all those with him,
and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee,
who were partners of Simon.
Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid;
from now on you will be catching men.”
When they brought their boats to the shore,
they left everything and followed him.
Last Sunday’s Gospel reading concludes with Jesus in difficult straits, his synagogue brethren attempting to throw him over a cliff. In the interim between last Sunday and next Sunday, Jesus moves on to a private home which happens to belong to one Simon, who is housing his gravely ill mother-in-law. Yes, this is the same Simon of Apostles’ fame. Joel Green notes that Luke has a habit of anachronizing characters, i.e., bringing them on stage before he identifies them in a later scene, a good example of the old proverb that “even Homer nods.”
That this unfortunate woman lives in Simon’s household indicates that her family is dead or scattered. Jesus expels the woman’s fever in the fashion of expelling a demon, demonstrating in action for her what he had proclaimed in word just previously in the synagogue. She is released from her affliction; as Green puts it, “Jesus’ ministry of release has begun to take shape.” (225) The in-law’s response is the exact opposite of the hostile crowd: she gets out of bed and waits upon Jesus with a deep sense of gratitude. Chapter 4 has set a pattern for all of Luke’s writing: synagogue/temple generally encounter trouble; home settings engender conversion and faith.
Chapter 4 closes with a word description of a massive healing at sunset in the desert on the Sabbath. Green suggests that the attraction to Jesus which is starting to grow in the wilds of the desert is based upon the wonder over his miracles. This desert population wants him to settle there, for obvious reasons, but Jesus is firm that he must stay on the road announcing the Kingdom of God to more synagogues.
As we enter Chapter 5 and this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus has yet to make his first bona fide disciple or follower. In Sunday’s text, Luke addresses the definition of a true disciple while providing his readers with an introduction to those who would become his core community and the inheritors of the mission to bring God’s release to all. There is an interesting little turn in the narrative, in that Jesus had explicitly cited synagogues as his target audiences, but Chapter 5 begins with a preaching episode in the open on the shore of Lake Gennesaret, a fruitful fresh water lake not far from the scene of Chapter 4’s events. The Greek text suggests that Jesus had preached here on at least several occasions.
Given the absence of modern day microphones, there was a natural tendency for crowds to move closer to a speaker to hear him better. As a matter of practicality Jesus borrows Simon’s boat—we know Simon from Chapter 4—to give himself some space and enable him to sit down. The fishermen are on land cleaning their nets. Some points about fishing: Luke explicitly states that Simon owned the boat. These fishermen were not day laborers but part of a family-owned business; neither they nor their community would have thought of them as poor. Scripture scholar David Bivin has gathered evidence (1992) that the fishermen were using trammel nets, a type visible to fish during the day and thus effective only at night.
After concluding his preaching, Jesus asks Simon to take the boats out and drop the nets. This is quite a request—the fishermen are not equipped for daytime fishing, they would normally be seeking sleep at this time, and they had just fished under appropriate conditions and caught nothing. Thus, there has to be an agenda of sorts—some element of faith in this preacher—that would make a tired professional fisherman undertake a request that flew in the face of common sense. Green, I think, captures the situation well. Simon’s reaction parallels Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel’s truly astounding request in the scene we know today as the Annunciation, which Luke previously narrates in Chapter 1. “Everything you are asking flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but I trust you enough to obey.”
The resulting catch is astounding—two boats brought to near sinking with an extremely profitable haul. Luke intends his reader to see this event as a theophany or public vision of divinity. Simon certainly does—he falls to his knees at the feet of Jesus and begs him to depart, “for I am a sinful man.” Because poverty was lumped together with sin in the thinking of the times, it is remarkable for a man who is definitely not poor to declare his sinfulness. Simon has grasped the nature of conversion—a change of the inner man in all circumstances of life—and the same realization comes to James and John, his partners in the business. What a reversal from the crowd at Capernaum whose response to Jesus’ miracles was a plea to stay and do more.
In one of the great puns of the Bible, Jesus assures the three that they will soon be “catching men.” The Greek actually reads “capturing men alive.” Jesus uses the phrase “from now on,” and this is exactly what will happen. With surprising alacrity, the three disciples walk away from their boats (their major capital investment) and the miraculous catch (a financial windfall, we forget) and followed Jesus.
There is probably another miracle here in that Simon somehow survived explaining all this to his wife—and especially his mother-in-law—who thanks to Jesus is now in fine fighting mettle again.