Commentary on Luke 5:1-11
Luke’s story of Jesus calling the first disciples is unique among the synoptic Gospels.
While Mark and Matthew speak of Jesus walking along the Sea of Galilee and abruptly calling Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow him (Matt 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20), only Luke tells the story of a miraculous catch of fish preceding the call.
Luke’s story shares common elements with John’s post-resurrection story of Jesus meeting his disciples at the Sea of Galilee. As in John 21:1-10, we see a futile night of fishing, Jesus offering some unsolicited fishing advice, an overwhelming catch of fish, and a recognition of Jesus’ identity that focuses especially on the response of Simon Peter.
In Luke’s Gospel, this is not Simon’s first encounter with Jesus. Jesus has already been to Simon’s home in Capernaum and has healed his mother-in-law (4:38-39). Perhaps that explains Simon’s willingness to let Jesus use his fishing boat as a floating pulpit.
Simon had been fishing all night with no success, then working from the early morning hours cleaning his nets. Most likely he was exhausted and looking forward to going home and getting some sleep. So it must have seemed a bit of an imposition when Jesus got into Simon’s boat and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Nevertheless, Simon did what Jesus asked (5:1-3).
Luke does not tell us what Jesus taught the crowds that morning. The focus is on what follows. Jesus tells Simon to put out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Simon obviously believes this will be a futile exercise. He is the professional fisherman, after all. We can almost hear the exasperation in his voice when he responds, “Master, we have worked all night but have caught nothing.” But then he continues; “Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets” (5:4-5).
Caught by Surprise
We know what happens next — nets so full of fish that they begin to break, boats so full of fish that they begin to sink. Seeing what is happening, Simon is overwhelmed with fear and wonder, sensing that he is in the presence of divine power. He responds by falling down at Jesus’ knees and begging him, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (5:6-8)
Simon is caught by surprise. In the midst of his ordinary daily grind, and in fact, after a particularly lousy night at work, he is encountered by one who changes everything. Amazed by the power of God displayed in the abundant catch of fish, Simon is immediately aware of his sinfulness and unworthiness. He sees the overwhelming disparity between God’s power manifest in Jesus and his own mortal, compromised life.
Jesus responds to Simon by saying, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (5:10). The Greek word for “catching” used here (zogron) is rare in the New Testament, but means “to catch alive.” Of course, fishing with nets was a matter of catching fish alive, but those live fish would soon be dead. Here Jesus calls Simon and his partners to a new vocation of catching people so that they might live, a life-giving vocation of being caught up in God’s mission of salvation for all.
Although they have just brought in the greatest catch of their fishing careers, Simon Peter, James, and John leave those boatloads of fish behind and follow Jesus (1:11). Their encounter with Jesus has completely reoriented their lives.
This text offers rich possibilities for reflecting on how God calls ordinary people to discipleship and mission. After all, there is nothing the slightest bit extraordinary about Simon Peter and his fishing partners. They are simple fishermen, and they are simply doing what they did every day. They are minding their own business, cleaning their nets after a long, particularly discouraging night of work, when Jesus comes along, enters into their utterly normal, mundane lives and changes everything.
Jesus calls Simon and his partners as they are. Simon is acutely aware of his unworthiness, but Jesus is not put off by this in the slightest. Jesus does not ask Simon to get his act together, his resume prepared, and then come back for an interview. Rather, Jesus encounters him as he is, tells him not to be afraid, and calls him to a new mission of catching people.
Throughout Scripture we see that human sin, failure, and inadequacy are no obstacles to God’s call. God calls imperfect people to do God’s work, people who are aware of their unworthiness and are often doubting and resistant to God’s call (see, for example, Exodus 3:10-12; Isaiah 6:1-6; Jeremiah 1:6-8.) God doesn’t wait for them to shape up. God calls them as they are and then works on shaping them into faithful servants.
Simon Peter’s resistance to Jesus stems not only from his sense of unworthiness. He initially protests Jesus’ instructions to go out into the deep waters and let down the nets because he is convinced that the fish are not biting. They have worked all night and caught nothing. We can hardly blame him for his skepticism.
How often do we resist Jesus’ claim on our lives because what he is calling us to do seems too crazy, too impractical? How often do we avoid putting out into the deep waters of following and bearing witness to Jesus because we are convinced that we will not see any results? What might it mean for us to go deep-sea fishing with Jesus — to trust and follow him outside our comfort zones, to let go of our certainties, to have our lives radically reoriented?
For most of us, this will not mean leaving our current professions behind (although we cannot rule out that possibility). We all are called by virtue of our baptism to participate in God’s mission to the world in Jesus Christ. We all are called daily to reorient our priorities to align with God’s priorities, to use the gifts God has given us in service to others, to share the good news of Christ in word and deed.
Jesus’ mission does not wait until we think we are ready. The need for the gospel in this broken world is far too urgent. We are called right now — even in spite of our frailty, failures, and doubts, even in the midst of our ordinary, busy, complicated lives. Jesus’ word to Simon Peter is also a word to us: “Do not be afraid.” This is Jesus’ mission, and we trust that he will keep working with us and through us, “catching” others as he has caught us — in the deep, wide net of God’s mercy and love. We trust, finally, that the catch is in God’s hands, and that God’s desire is for the nets to be bursting and the boats full.