This week’s selection from the Gospels is probably a familiar one, perhaps because it makes for a memorable Sunday School lesson. And, of course, who doesn’t appreciate a good fishing story?
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. –Luke 5:1-11 NRSV
There’s a lot in this story for any preacher or Sunday School teacher. Astute Bible readers may well ask, first of all, why Luke’s account of the calling of Jesus’ apostles differs from a much shorter account in Mark’s Gospel:
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 NRSV
There is some agreement among scholars that Mark’s Gospel was written down sometime around the year 70, while Luke’s account most likely dates to somewhere in the years 80 to 90. It’s quite possible, as well, that the writer we know as Luke even had access to that older, shorter account. Our first inclination is probably to ask which one is right. That, I believe, is the wrong path to go down.
The four Gospels we have in the New Testament were not written as either eyewitness accounts (say, something like a news report) or as balanced, scholarly biographies. They were written to provide a persuasive account of just who Jesus was (and is), what he taught, and how he modeled appropriate behavior. And all of that was viewed and understood through the lens of a particular community.
Luke’s community was situated within a fair bit of chaos. The Jerusalem Temple had been destroyed by the Romans as part of the empire’s defeat of Jewish insurrectionists, Jews were just beginning to come to grips with the end of one era and the beginnings of another–all under increasingly harsh Roman rule. Jewish leaders, by and large, expelled these “Jesus followers” from their synagogues. Jesus, of course, had promised to return after his death and resurrection to inaugurate the new Peaceful REalm of God on earth–but all that was delayed and nobody quite knew for how long. Tensions between Jews and gentiles in the infant, emerging church were still rife. And much of “church life” had to be kept underground because of Roman persecution, often resulting in violent death.
How do you call people to be faithful in chaotic times, when the familiar ways don’t work or make sense any longer? That was a central concern for Luke and, certainly, for those early apostles leading fledgling congregations of believers. In this week’s story from Luke chapter 5, Peter and his fellow fishermen had had no success in doing what they’d spent their adult lives doing: throwing out nets to catch fish. They’d worked hard all night and were discouraged. That’s when Jesus told them to throw out their nets one more time, this time “into the deep water.” It’s helpful here to be reminded that the ancients viewed the earth as under a dome and held up by giant pillars, the purpose of which was to keep out the watery chaos above and below. By sending these fishermen out “into the deep.” Jesus was, in essence, commanding them to risk going out into the chaos so that there God would work out the divine purposes.
Every era has its own version of what chaos looks like. We citizens of the 21st century are no different with obvious political, social, and economic elements. There’s violence and injustice, hunger and conspicuous excess. The institutions and bedrocks of our society (including the religious ones) continue to be buffeted, damaged, and discarded. Nothing appears to make sense anymore. Yet the command from Jesus remains the same for us today: Go out “into the deep” and cast our nets (however we might redefine those terms), then follow Jesus as “fishers of people.”
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.</em