In today’s Gospel, we hear, “So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish.” Scholars have speculated on all kinds of reasons for the number “153.” It is perhaps simply the number that was there, it might be the number of known fish species in the world (at that time), or perhaps the number of known nations. Who knows.
One enthusiast went through all the gospels (not just John) and counted the number of people that Jesus personally blessed. According to his/her sleuthing, 153 is the number of people that Jesus personally blessed in 48 separate encounters. Another person noted that 153 is a prime and hexagonal number, as well as forming a truncated triangle. That part of mathematically interesting (to some) – but the rest of the analysis skidded away from reason into the incomprehensible.
I am always reminded of a visit I made to a family in the far west of Kenya. There were of the Kuria people (Abakuria), one of the smaller tribes in all of Kenya. Their lands border Tanzania on the south side of Lake Victoria and is tough country. But the Wakuria are tough people. The primary marker of wealth among the traditional Wakuria is cattle.
During the course of the visit, the patriarch (mzee) of the family, a very elderly man with several wives and many children, was the guide. He did not speak Kiswahili and I did not speak Kikuria, so one of the sons translated. Of course he talked a lot about his cows. He seemed to know each by name, their lineage, and more. He knew how many people to whom he had loaned cows or sold cows for future payment. He knew cows and was justifiably proud of the very large herd acquired and cared for over his lifetime.
Several times I asked about his many children and grandchildren and he was equally proud of them, knew them all by name, and was very much aware of what each was doing and their plans for the future. When I asked how many children he had, his son did not translate the question. When I asked again later, again there was no translation. But at that point the mzee realized my question was not being passed on and he inquired about what I had asked. When he heard my question, he smiled – but it was not the smile of “Ah yes, my children….” It was the smile of someone who was going to let this breach of manner go because I was a visitor and outsider. It was a smile of compassion and wisdom.
As best I remember, this was his reply:
“Cattle are the lifeblood of my people. From an early age we are taught to care for them and nurture them. I know all my cattle. I know how many I possess. I know how many are owed to me. I know all my cattle. I worked hard for them; the success of this herd is the fruit of my labor and efforts.”
“I know my children. I love my children and their children. But I never count them. They are not fruit of my labor and efforts. They are a blessing from God. God owes no one a blessing. They are gift. One never counts God’s blessings; one never counts the gifts one receives. One only gives thanks to God.”
There is a deep wisdom to his words.
The story doesn’t give any insight into the meaning of the “153” …. or maybe it does.