Commentary on Luke 5:1-11
Most scholars think that Luke did not simply record a biography of Jesus when Luke wrote about 80-90 CE, but shaped the story of the Gospel and the Acts to address circumstances in the church of Luke’s time.
Consequently, we should attend to the call of the first apostles in Luke 5:1-11 from the viewpoint of how Luke intended this passage to function in the larger narrative and purpose of the Gospel and the Acts.
Two important issues in the community to which Luke wrote are in the background of Luke 5:1-11: authority and mission. Authority: who should the community believe? Mission: what should the community do in its context? These questions were important, as Luke’s congregation was in a network of competing claims and tensions regarding traditional Judaism, the Roman Empire, and within the congregation itself.
Luke has introduced Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet whose mission is to announce the coming of the Realm of God and to invite people to repent and join the movement towards the Realm (Luke 4:14-30).
Leaders in antiquity often gathered followers who could further the leader’s mission by learning the content of the leader’s teaching, the way of life appropriate to it, and how to adapt the leader’s teaching to fresh circumstances. Jesus chose twelve such figures whom Luke designates “apostles.” (For Luke the term “disciples” refers to the much larger group of Jesus’ followers among whom the twelve play a special role.)
The first four apostles were in the fishing business. With their own boats, they were similar to middle class business owners today. They had no particular religious credentials to commend them to Jesus. Instead, they were typical representatives of the broken old age — living under Roman oppression, including taxes, and beset by other forms of social conflict and economic distress. Many Christians in the historic denominations today can identify with the situation of the apostles.
Today’s listener wants to know, “Why did Jesus choose these twelve?” For Luke, Jesus evidently chose them under prophetic inspiration. Since Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, he could still work through the apostles through the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1: 1-11; 7:56).
The earliest church expected the second coming to occur soon, but it was delayed. Luke uses the figures of the apostles to represent the continuation of Jesus’ authority in the church in the delay. Jesus directly calls the first four apostles in Luke 5:1-11. This call authenticates the twelve as authorities for the church in Acts and, consequently, for the church in Luke’s later day.
Luke portrays the apostles in Acts as guiding and authorizing the church’s responses to Judaism, Rome, and its own internal conflicts. For example, Luke uses the figures of the apostles to offer the paradigm for witness and common life (Acts 2:1-47); they set the pattern for responding to Jewish criticism (Acts 4:1-22); they organize the congregation (Acts 6:1-7); they legitimate the gentile mission (Acts 10:1-11;18), and they certify Paul as great missionary to the gentiles (Acts 15:1-29).
Jesus directed Simon to put down their nets in the deep water. Simon’s response begins with an old age point of view: they had fished all night and caught nothing, so why should they expect anything different? Yet they do what Jesus says to do. In the midst of an unpromising situation, the future apostles let down their nets. When they do so, they catch a super-abundance of fish. Their nets — made of old-age materials — cannot handle the catch and begin to break.
This event helps both establish apostolic authority and model what the apostles — and the church — are to do. The soon-to-be-apostles indicate their willingness to follow Jesus by doing what he said to do. Jesus verified their identity — and demonstrates the nature of the Realm — by giving them the abundant catch. Moreover, the four people model what the disciples and the church are to do: they are to do what Jesus says, even in the face of unpromising circumstances.
Why should Luke’s church pay attention to the apostolic tradition as interpreted by Luke? Because that tradition was confirmed in the experience of the apostles from their first encounter with Jesus.
There is a subtle aspect to this narrative connected to the “deep water” (bathos). This theme occurs several times in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Torah, Prophets and Writings) in connection with the primordial sea, a powerful Jewish symbol of chaos (see also Psalm 68:2; Ezekiel 26:20; 32:18-24; Sirach 24:5; 51:5). Luke perceives his world as a chaos: hostility between traditional Judaism and the followers of Jesus, the repressive behavior of the Empire, and conflict within the church.
Luke spells out the mission of the apostles in a well-known image: “from now on you will be catching people.” This image of fishing recalls earlier instructions from God to prophets to bring people together (to catch them) for judgement (see Jeremiah 16:16; Amos 4:2; see Habakkuk 1:14-15). The paradigmatic instance of such fishing is Acts 2:38 where Peter invites the Jewish crowd to repent, to be immersed into the eschatological community, and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke affirms this style of fishing for gentiles in Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:1-29. The ministry of the apostles becomes the model for the disciples and the church: as the apostles pulled their nets from the sea teeming with fish in Luke 5:1-11, so the church in Acts fills its nets (so to speak) with both Jews and gentiles in eschatological community
To be sure the image of “catching people” is troubling today because of its violence and its one way of mode of relationship. Nevertheless, its function is one that the preacher might take as a purpose for the sermon: to encourage the church to drop its nets into the chaos of life today, that is, to witness to the Realm of God and to invite people into the movement towards the Realm. The threat of chaos is self-evident in early 2019 in national politics, relationships among races and ethnic communities, international relationships, and many other places. According to Luke, the church continues the apostolic tradition when it offers individuals, households, and communities the values and practices of the Realm of God as an alternative way of life.