Fishing: reaction

Fishers-of-men-iconThe Reaction. 8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” 9 For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, 10 and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon.

The focus of these verses is on Simon, now called Simon Peter for the first time in Luke’s gospel – even James, John, and the unmentioned Andrew, are referred as partners of Simon. It is here that Luke calls Simon as Peter for the first time, “the Rock,” the name he will later have as the leader of the church. His eyes are opened through his act of faith, and he falls before Jesus. Peter is the first person in the public ministry to call Jesus “Lord” (no longer only “Master”: v. 5). Suddenly we realize that the story has been more than the initial calling of the fishermen disciples. From earliest times the church has seen herself as the “bark of Peter” in which faith in Jesus is tested (Mark 4:35–41; Matt 8:23–27). Jesus chooses Simon’s boat, sending him into deep water and calling for a decision based solely on personal faith. The faith of Simon’s response is what makes him the rock on which the church is built (Matt 16:18).

Simon’s first response to this miracle is worship (falling on his knees before Jesus), unworthiness (“Depart from me”), and confession (“I am a sinful man”). If nothing else, this indicates that Jesus can and does use people who are unworthy and sinful. His response is the response of one who has come into the very presence of God. In contrast to our somewhat easy familiarity today with the sacred and the casual way we tend to seek and treat religious experience and the “presence” of God, Simon’s response was much more closer to encounters with God seen throughout the Old Testament. The realization that one is in the presence of God calls for a response, not of happiness, but of fear and dread and reverence. So Isaiah, in the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, when he encountered God in a significant way while worshipping in the Temple, responded by crying, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5).

Jesus had confronted Simon with his own inadequacies in the very area that defined who he was as a person, his vocation (fishing). The distance between the power of the one who stood before him contrasted with his own inadequacies pushed Simon to self-examination and confession. Again, this picks up a recurring theme from the Old Testament. Moses confessed his impotence, especially his inability to speak well, as he stood before the burning bush (Ex 3:11-4:17, esp. 4:10). As God came to Solomon in a dream, he admitted that he was not wise enough to govern God’s people (1 King 3:7-9). And at God’s call Jeremiah recognized the inadequacy of his youth (Jer 1:6).

Simon was humbled here in the one area of life where he should be in control. His reaction was to push Jesus away so that he would not have to face his own failure and inadequacy: “Depart from me Lord!” It is always easier to push away, or kill, those who bring us face to face with ourselves than it is to face the truth of who we are. This recalls the reaction of the people of Nazareth to Jesus, and anticipates not only the path of Jesus through Luke to the crucifixion but also of the disciples themselves through Acts of the Apostles. Yet in this moment of humiliation, Simon is able to come face to face with himself and confess, “I am a sinful man.” It is this confession that marks a turning point in Simon’s life, and becomes the definition of faithful response to Jesus (cf. 5:32). The text itself marks this moment there in v.8 when, for the time, he is named “Simon Peter.” This is the moment that captures when God claims someone for his own and renames him or her.

In the Lucan narrative this episode serves as a clear counterpoint to the rejection of the Word of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:21-30). As used by Luke, the incident looks forward to Peter’s leadership in Luke-Acts (Luke 6:14; 9:20; 22:31-32; 24:34; Acts 1:15; 2:14-40; 10:11-18; 15:7-12) and symbolizes the future success of Peter as fisher of men (Acts 2:41).

Simon Peter is aware of the distance between himself, a sinner, and the Lord. But Jesus has not come to drive sinners from his presence. He rather associates sinful people with himself in his ministry, if they will put their trust in him. They must leave everything (a Lucan stress: 5:28) and follow him. The three stories following this one show Jesus “catching men” (5:11), involving himself with the outcasts and sinners.

Calling Fishermen? Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” 11 When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.

Many bibles add a small title to this account: “Calling Fisherman.” In the parallel accounts found in Mark 1:16-20 and Matthew 4:18-22, Jesus calls out to the Peter, Andrew, James and John, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Luke’s tradition tells us a, perhaps, more nuanced account.

Upon a close reading, ones sees that Jesus never says “come,” “follow,” or any thing that would be taken as a discipleship command. It is not that Jesus does not take such direct action in Luke’s gospel. Later Jesus will give the command, “Follow me,” to Levi the tax collector (5:27), who like these fishermen, “leaves everything and follows him” (5:11, 28). Rather Luke seems to intend something other than a call story here. It is really a proclamation story. Rather than calling Simon and the others, perhaps Jesus announces to Simon (and only to Simon) what Simon will now be doing (v. 10, “from now on you will be catching men.”). Although the task is similar, the words are different from the call stories in Matthew and Mark.

There are certainly some similarities between the “call” stories of Matthew/Mark and Luke, but there is a major difference in Luke’s context. In Luke’s narrative, Jesus is not a stranger to these men. Prior to this fishing event, Jesus has been to Simon’s house and healed his mother-in-law (4:38-39). Because there is no change in location, we assume that later in the evening when Jesus healed all of the sick and demon-possessed who were brought to him, he was still at Simon’s house (4:40-41). It is not until v. 42 that we are told that Jesus departs, which occurs the next morning. In Luke’s narrative, Simon (and perhaps the others?) have already met Jesus and witnessed numerous miracles before the astonishing / miraculous catch of fish. Certainly a first read might too easily conclude that Simon and the others responded to this miraculous catch of fish, a demonstration of power over nature – and on that basis: “they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.” Perhaps there is more here that a first read would reveal.

As noted above, this story shares a lot in common with an “epiphany” account in which God, the Word of God, comes to people in the midst of their ordinary, work-a-day lives. Also as noted above, within Luke’s overall narrative strategy, the initial purpose of this episode is to secure for Luke’s audience the nature of appropriate response to the ministry of Jesus. Simon’s obedience and declaration of his sinfulness, and especially the final note that Simon, James, and John “left everything and followed” contrast both with the earlier “amazement” of the crowds and with the questions and opposition characteristics of the Pharisees and teachers of the law in the later episodes of this chapter. His further statement, “Depart from me, Lord,” contrasts even more sharply with attempts by people at Nazareth [4:23] and Capernaum [4:42] to keep Jesus to themselves.

Jesus responded, not with condemnation, but the assurance “Don’t be afraid” (v. 10, singular speaking only to Peter). As Peter lay at Jesus’ feet, reduced to the humility of a child, Jesus responded with the grace and love of a parent reassuring a child who has lost all confidence in themselves that they still have value and worth. In that moment Jesus redefined who Peter was. He would no longer be the fisherman on the Sea of Galilee catching fish for a living, but he would now be living to fish for men. The event here was far more than a miracle of fish; it was nothing less than an encounter with God that forever changed who Peter and the other men in the boats would be. And it became symbolic of the mission of God’s people in the new world of the church. Their value and worth would no longer be defined by their own efforts and success at their vocation, but would be defined by the power of God at work in their lives in carrying out his work in the world.

Notes

5:8 Simon Peter: The text itself marks this moment there in v.8 when, for the time, he is named “Simon Peter.” The classic scriptural marker for the point when God claims someone for his own and renames him or her. This renaming is mentioned again in Luke 6:14.

Depart from me Lord: He addresses him as “master” (Greek: epistatēs, a term used for tutors and teachers) at 5:5. But after the miraculous catch, he addresses him as “Lord” (kyrios) at 5:8.

for I am a sinful man: Many commentators have speculated about the similarity between the wondrous catch of fish reported here and the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus in John 21:1-11. In Luke 4:8 Simon addresses Jesus as Lord, a post-resurrection title for Jesus (Luke 24:34; Acts 2:36) and recognizes himself as a sinner; an appropriate recognition for one who has denied knowing Jesus – Luke 22:54-62.

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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