A look at the gospel reading for this Sunday, February 7, 2010:
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 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. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 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.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
This reading represents a shift in Jesus’ early ministry. Prior to this moment in the gospel of Luke, Jesus had been preaching and teaching in the synagogue. In fact, just a few paragraphs before this text we find Jesus nearly being hurled from a cliff by residents of his hometown because of his teachings in the synagogue (see Luke 4:14-30). Challenging the locus of political and religious power will get you killed, but it also has a funny way of getting you thrown out of the places where the “powers that be” hold sway. Jesus eventually would be faced with a hostile synagogue. The centers of religious and political power would be closed to him. Not coincidentally, Jesus takes to the wilderness to teach whoever will listen.
He finds, of course, a number of wilderness-dwelling types out there around the lake of Gennesaret: fishermen, shepherds, wanderers and outcasts. They aren’t exactly the cream of the crop, but they are hard workers. More importantly, they listen. Despite laboring through the night with nothing to show for it, an exhausted Simon shows no hesitation when Jesus asks that he let down the nets one more time. The result is nothing short of amazing, and the “miraculous draft of fishes” is one of the best-known passages in all of scripture. However, the miracle itself is something of a red herring (or thousands of them), as it threatens to obscure several significant features of this text. Our task is to not let all those fish get in the way of other, more meaningful messages:
Luke locates this miracle story early in his gospel, and pairs it with Jesus’ call of his first disciples. The text simply reads that they “left everything and followed him”, glossing over the drastic change in lifestyle accepted by those who followed Jesus. It isn’t too surprising that they would accept Jesus’ invitation – after all, by this point in Luke’s gospel Jesus had amassed a huge following, and was becoming a well-known teacher and miracle-worker in the region around Galilee. What was surprising was that Jesus called them in the first place. He chose as his disciples simple, uneducated laborers who lived on the fringes of society, people with few discernible gifts for ministry. Yet they were remarkably human, as are we.
Frederick Buechner writes, “Jesus made his church out of human beings with more or less the same mixtures in them of cowardice and guts, of intelligence and stupidity, of selfishness and generosity, of openness of heart and sheer cussedness as you would be apt to find in any of us.” Buechner goes on to add, “The reason he made his church out of human beings is that human beings were all there was to make it out of. In fact, as far as I know, human beings are all there is to make it out of still. It’s a point worth remembering”. (Secrets in the Dark, p. 147)
The old adage says that God does not call the equipped; he equips the called.
Faced with a religious establishment that simply wanted to throw him over a cliff, Jesus took to the wilderness to build a kingdom. If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we in the church all too often emulate the hostile (or at the very least misunderstanding) religious establishment, and little kingdom-building is done through us. Nevertheless, God finds a way. Shane Claiborne, in The Irresistible Revolution, tells the story of living with a large group of homeless people in an abandoned church. Many of the surrounding churches took it upon themselves to send donated food and items to the church in order to help care for the group’s needs. To his amazement, Claiborne opened a box donated by a local church only to find microwave popcorn, which was completely useless due to the lack of a microwave or electricity in the abandoned church. Meanwhile, the local teamsters union flooded the church with food, clothing, blankets, and bicycles for the children. We make a serious mistake if we assume that God only works through the establishment.
Jesus famously tells his first disciples that they will be catching people, a metaphor for his work and ministry that permeates the gospel accounts. For those of us who seek to follow Jesus today, this is an important reminder that we are to be about people. Those first disciples were fishermen who spend long nights around fish. They searched for them. They worked hard for them. They undoubtedly smelled of them. We who follow Jesus are to be no less connected with people in their times of happiness and sorrow, celebration and distress, life and death. Being a follower of Jesus is less about doctrine or theology than it is about reaching out to people with grace, compassion, and love.
Yes, it’s difficult to ignore the miracle in this text. While it’s not meant to be the central feature of the story, it nevertheless presents an important message. It was precisely at the moment of exhaustion, the moment at which Simon’s entire night had been spent relying on his best knowledge and hardest work to no avail, that a miracle occurred. It is an echo of a tone that sounds throughout scripture: on our own we can do nothing. It is upon God’s blessing, God’s strength, and God’s power that we depend, not our own. Lest we think we are the center of our own world, God reminds us in not-so-subtle ways that we are to be focused not on what we ourselves are capable of doing, but rather on what God can do if we simply listen, and act.
First Look is a weekly reflection on the upcoming gospel lectionary text, and usually will be posted on Mondays. Be sure to come back next week!