Commentary on Luke 5:1-11
Prior to the reading of the Gospel for the Day — the call of the first disciples in Luke 5:1-11 — the congregation will have heard two other texts which relate quite directly to it.
The First Lesson is the majestic text from Isaiah 6:1-8, the call of the prophet Isaiah. The Second Lesson is from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in which he alludes to his own call as an apostle (1 Corinthians 15:8). He speaks more fully of that in Galatians 1:15-16.
The call of the first disciples appears, naturally, early on in the ministry of Jesus. Up to this point, the main events have been Jesus’ baptism (3:21-22), his temptation in the wilderness (4:1-13), his inaugural sermon and rejection at Nazareth (4:16-30), and a series of healings (4:31-41). More immediately, there is a series of events that includes his going to a deserted place to be alone, his being sought out by crowds of people, and his teaching in synagogues (4:42-44).
The story opens with Jesus beside Lake Gennesaret, which is another name for the Sea of Galilee. He borrows a boat on the lakeshore that belongs to a fisherman named Simon. From there he teaches crowds of people. They will not leave him alone, for they want to hear “the word of God.” As the story unfolds, Jesus asks Simon to go out to the deep water and to put down the nets for a catch. Simon does so; there is a great catch of fish; the catch is so great that others have to help bring the nets ashore; and the story ends with Jesus’ recruiting Simon and the others as disciples.
The names of those on the scene are provided. Simon is mentioned by name five times over (5:3, 4, 5, 8, 10), and on one of those occasions he is called Simon Peter (5:8). The use of the name Peter is a bit early here, for according to Luke himself, Jesus gave him that name at a later time (6:14). Nevertheless, it makes sense that it appears here, so that the reader of the gospel knows who Simon is. Missing from the account of those present is Andrew, the brother of Peter, who is called at the same time in the other two Synoptic Gospels (Mark 1:16//Matthew 4:18). In the Gospel of John he is actually called earlier than Peter (1:40-42). Other persons on the scene are James and John, sons of Zebedee, who are “partners with Simon.”
Clearly the main figure on the scene, apart from Jesus himself, is Simon Peter. It is his boat that Jesus uses. It is he to whom Jesus speaks first, asking him to go into the deep water. Conversely, Simon Peter is the only person who speaks to Jesus. He addresses him as “master” (Greek: epistat ēs, a term used for tutors and teachers) at 5:5. But after the miraculous catch, he addresses him as “Lord” (kyrios) at 5:8. Likewise, Simon Peter is the only one whom Jesus addresses directly, both when he tells him to go into the deep water (5:4). And, interestingly, even at the end of the story when he says “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people” (5:10), for in Greek the verbs are second person singular.
Incidentally, the “fish for people” (or “fishers of men” in the KJV, RSV, and NIV) metaphor does not appear in Luke, but only in the parallel accounts (Matthew 4:19//Mark 1:17). Luke’s verb is zōgreō (simply “to catch”), while in the other accounts a noun is used, alieis (“fishermen,” plural), addressed to both Peter and Andrew. The status of Peter is obviously important in Luke’s account, and that is not surprising. Not only was Peter prominent in the traditions that Luke received concerning the earthly Jesus and his companions, but Luke knew that Peter was an important leader in the early church, as he narrates in Acts 1-11.
There are features to this story that resonate with other significant biblical motifs. One is that, when Simon is called, he resists, as do Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, to name but three (Exodus 3:11; Isaiah 6:1-11; Jeremiah 1:6). Simon objects to Jesus’ command to go out to the deep water, but then he does as he was told to do (5:5).
Another is the exclamation of Simon, saying that the “Lord” should depart from him because of his being a sinful man (5:8). It is a common biblical motif for a person to feel unworthy in the presence of the divine (Exodus 3:6; 33:20; Judges 6:22; 13:22; Isaiah 6:5; Luke 18:13).
Finally, the miracle of the great catch is, like others in the gospels, more than one should expect. The exceeding of expectations appear in other miracle stories too, as in the Healing of the Paralytic (Luke 5:17-26), the Feeding of the Multitudes (Luke 9:12-17), and the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11).
The story of the call of Jesus’ first disciples is fitting for the Epiphany Season, a time in which the church celebrates the gift of Jesus Christ as a “manifestation” (epiphania) of God, and gives thoughtful consideration to his mission to the world.
Jesus has come into the world to reveal God and to redeem the cosmos. But he is known to us only through the witness of his apostles. The call of the first disciples marks the beginning of a movement that culminates in the founding of the church. The church did not come into existence through a group of persons who wanted to start a good, even benevolent, organization. From the gospels, we learn that it had its beginning with Jesus, who called certain persons to follow him. He created a community of disciples who heard him preach and teach, heal, and finally suffer, die, and rise from death on the first Easter.
The story of the church is reflected to some degree in this story itself. When Jesus calls, Peter is hesitant and thinks that what Jesus asks of him is both unnecessary and too demanding. Nevertheless, Peter responds, and he discovers that life has a surprise in store for him. By doing what Jesus asks him to do, he experiences an epiphany of God.
God often becomes manifest in the ordinary, even seemingly unnecessary events of a person’s life — events which nevertheless are in accord with some purpose that is or is not known. Throughout history the church has continued to exist and carry on its ministry in spite of the tenuous responses of its members. The ancient image of the church as a fisherman’s boat tossed about on the sea, but sustained by the presence of the living Lord, is appropriate in every age.
The commissioning of Peter is of particular importance. He became a leader among the Twelve during the earthly ministry of Jesus (as at Luke 9:20, 33; 12:41; 18:28) and also as a powerful preacher and leader in the early church. Although he alone is addressed in this particular story, both he and the other disciples are commissioned by the risen Lord to carry on the mission of Jesus (see Luke 24:48-49; Acts 1:6-11). Finally, the witness of the disciples to Jesus, his words, and his deeds is to extend “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8), and that commission is being realized in the present