Commentary on Luke 5:1-11
This short passage is complex in that it mixes several genres, or, better, progresses through several genres.
Due to his popularity, he climbs into Simon’s boat to teach those on the shore.
The story then shifts from the focus on Jesus’ teaching ministry to a miracle story. Jesus instructs Peter to go out deeper into the lake and drop his nets. Peter and his partners have caught “nothing” after a night of labor, but when Jesus commands the nets be dropped there is suddenly enough fish caught to tear nets and fill two boats to the level that they begin to sink!
The story then shifts one more time from a miracle story to a call story, ending with Jesus delivering the concluding line that he will make Peter and his partners (James and John) catch people.
Narratives work inductively with the emphasis coming at the end, just as in jokes (a form of narrative) the movement is from set up to punchline. Preachers will most appropriately focus on the call element of the text as the focus of the sermon. Because Luke’s version of the call of the first disciples is so different from that of the other Synoptics, however, preachers will want to keep the above progression in mind as they build to this focus.
In Mark 1:16-20 and Matthew 4:18-22, Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee and calls to Simon and Andrew and to James and John to follow him to become fishers of people. They do so. While both versions of this story are preceded by a summary of Jesus’ teaching of the advent of God’s reign (Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 4:12-17), neither version makes a connection or even implies a connection between that summary and the response of the fishermen. In other words, Mark and Matthew (following Mark) present the fishermen as responding obediently simply on the basis of Jesus’ authoritative call. There is no indication in the narrative that they have ever heard Jesus teach or have even heard of Jesus before he calls out to them.
Luke, on the other hand, seems to structure his progression of elements in this passage precisely to present the first disciples as responding to Jesus’ call because of what they have seen. They have heard Jesus teach and they have seen him perform a miracle. The decision to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow, then, is a sensible one: they have witnessed evidence that Jesus is worthy to be followed, and thus they follow.
That said, however, Luke adds in a complicating factor of his own. Upon hearing Jesus’s teaching and participating in the miraculous catch of fish, Simon does not say something to the effect of, “What wisdom, power, and authority you have! Let me follow you. Send me out to do your will.” Completely the opposite. Upon hearing Jesus’ wisdom, and especially upon seeing his power and authority even over fish in the lake, Simon tries to send Jesus away.
Such a response may seem odd to our modern ears, but it is a natural and appropriate response to divine presence in the ancient world. In the tradition of the Hebrew Bible describing faith as “fear of the Lord,” Simon and his partners are astonished/afraid. So, the one who will come to be called “Rock” falls to his knees, trembles, and says, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (5:8). It is a moment of true humility.
Congregations and individuals usually think of confession of sin as being offered to God in order to receive grace. This story offers a counter view. Upon receiving grace from Jesus in the form of a catch of fish he could not accomplish on his own, Simon confesses his sinfulness. Instead of trying to persuade God to address the fact that we are woefully and painfully mired in the human condition, when we realize God has addressed our condition we are able to confess where we are mired.
It is at this moment — this very moment following Jesus’s teaching and miraculous catch of fish in which Simon names his unworthiness to even be in Jesus’ presence — that Jesus calls him to begin catching people instead of fish.
Luke’s version of the call of Simon and his partners has much to offer a contemporary homiletical reflection on the nature of Christian vocation, the call and ministry of the baptized. In today’s world, we often think and speak of contributions we make to the ministry of the church in terms of our innate talents. We connect people with the music or finance ministries of the church because they have exhibited gifts in those areas. There is, of course, wisdom in operating in this fashion.
But Luke looks at calling from a very different angle. As Peter himself acknowledges in this scene (verse 5), he and his partners are failures at their job. They have fished all night and have caught “nothing.” The very reason Jesus can commandeer Simon’s boat is because there are no fish in it — plenty of seat room available! Jesus does not call these men because they have exhibited gifts and graces for apostleship (or even for fishing). Jesus calls them after he has shown that he can catch fish through them when they cannot do so on their own. Simon is not called to “catch people” (verse 10) because he will be good at it, but because Jesus can do it through him.
And so it is with us. The moment when we humbly recognize that we have nothing worthy to bring into Christ’s presence for the ministry of the church may be the very moment when Christ begins to use us in ways we never could have imagined.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord Jesus of fisher folk,
You taught your disciples to cast a wide net — not for fish, but for people. Teach us the fishing craft. Make our fingers nimble so we may handle hearts and hands gently; make our minds quiet and patient while we wait for those who are not yet ready to receive you; and make our hearts hungry for your word, for the sake of the one who has captured our hearts already, Jesus Christ. Amen.
God is seen, Alice Parker