Fishing: the Word

Fishers-of-men-iconThe account begins with a wide-angle view: the press of the crowd leading to Jesus’ teaching in a natural amphitheater from a boat on the lake. Quickly, however, events on the boat move to the forefront and the crowd disappears completely from view. The important interaction here is between Jesus and Peter, who represent the ones who respond positively to Jesus.

Catching Fish. . 4 After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” 5 Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” 6 When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. 7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking.

From Culpepper [116]: “Fish was one of the staples in first-century Palestine, where more fish was eaten than any other meat (see Luke 11:11; 24:42) and a thriving fishing industry flourished on the Sea of Galilee. Fish was eaten fresh, processed, salted, dried, or pickled, for export. The fish of the Sea of Galilee are of three main varieties: the cichlidae, a family of large panfish that includes “St. Peter’s fish”; the cyprinidae, or carp family; and the siluridae, or catfish. The Jews did not eat catfish, however, because it did not have “fins and scales” (Lev 11:9–12; Deut 14:9–10).”

“The various types of nets mentioned in the NT were probably similar to the nets used by Arab fishermen until recent decades. These include (1) the casting net (amphiblēstron, Matt 4:18), a circular net that was cast by a wading fisherman; (2) the trammel net (though this word is used generically for various nets [diktyon, Matt 4:20]), or a line of three nets hanging from floats, the inner net having a small mesh that trapped the fish; and (3) the drag net (sagēnē, Matt 13:47), which could be several hundred yards long. Luke’s description of putting out into deep water and letting down nets suggests that the fishermen were using the trammel nets.”

In Mark’s version of the call of the first disciples (Mark 1:16–20), the scene is shared by two sets of brothers. Here the spotlight is on Simon, with his partners in the background (Andrew is not even mentioned by name). Jesus seems familiar with this group and they know him (see 4:38). While the fishermen are doing their morning cleaning of the nets and hanging them to dry, Jesus uses Simon’s boat to distance himself from the crowd a little in order to preach. There are many natural coves that would have formed a natural amphitheater with the water helping to carry his voice. With v.4, the crowd is suddenly gone, and the rest of the scene is interaction and dialogue between Jesus and Simon.

At Your Word. The scene has the carpenter’s son giving commands to this crew of experienced fishermen – the result is a phenomenal catch of fish. Many scholars give lots of attention to the parallels with John 21:4-8 and, while interesting, is distracting. The Johannine setting is after Jesus’ Resurrection and points to the mission of the Church. This Lucan scene is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and points to the initial reception of those who would be disciples.

Jesus tells Simon to put into deep waters (v.4), but following that, all Jesus’ words are in the plural, directed to those in the boat along with Peter – yet it is Peter (his boat?) who responds. At the most simple level this scene captures an ancient Christian understanding: the Church as the “bark of salvation” and Peter in command – where even if others doubt, Peter’s attitude is “Jesus said it. I believe it. We’re doing this.” Simon shows what St. Paul will call “the obedience of faith.” It was certainly not reason or experience that motivated him to cast his nets back into the water at the instigation of this carpenter from the hill country. Fishing was best at night; if nothing had been caught daytime fishing was pointless.

Reason and experience aside, why does Simon follow Jesus’… his command, suggestion? There are many translation that say “Yet if you say so…” (NRSV) which misses some of the nuance of the Greek, which literally says, “But upon your word.” (Recall v.1: While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God). Simon acts as response to the Word of God. The result was a tremendous load of fish, so great that the nets wearing tearing (v.6) and its weight even threatened to drag under the two boats.

Joel Green [222] advises avoiding the temptation “to find symbolic, allegorical, and mythological meaning in this episode, with reference to the size of the catch, the boat(s), and so on.” He is among the scholars who see this episode as a type of epiphany account. Characteristics of such accounts are that the person is in the midst of ordinary tasks, the display of divine power is dramatic (burning bush, Transfiguration), but the focus of the account remains on the prophet – or in this case, the apostle. The “stages” of epiphany events are: the reveal (vv.4-7), the reaction (v.8), the reassurance (v.10), and the redirection from the ordinary life (v.10). Green sees striking parallels with the call of the prophet Isaiah (6:1-10) who also responds to the Word of God.

Notes

5:5 Master: This particular word (epistata) occurs only in Luke. (5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13). This term was probably understood better by “Most Excellent Theophilus,” than the more Hebrew titles: didaskalos or kyrios or “rabbi,” (“teacher,” “lord,” & “rabbi = Hebrew for “my master or teacher”) which are used by Matthew and Mark where there are parallels. Epistata has a military usage — “one who came behind” = “one further back in the ranks”; and a governmental usage — “one who is set over”. It was used in Athens of the “President” of the assembly (ekklesia).

lower the nets: It is not clear whether fishing in the “deep” was a normal way of fishing. The word used for nets (diktua) is a generic term for any kind of net. There are more specific terms for a round net that was thrown (amphiblastron) and for a large net that was dragged from a boat or from shore (sagene). Both terms are used elsewhere in the NT.

Sources

  • R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke.” New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. 9. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994–2004) 112–18
  • Joel B. Green, “The Gospel of Luke.” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997) 230- 35
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com

Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm

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