Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 10, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this reading, but there is available a
This story of the miraculous catch of fish here in Luke is similar to an incident recounted in John 21 (4-14), one of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Some have suggested that these are really the same event, placed in different locations by the different writers. Others contend that there were two incidents. While the details of these historical and compositional questions are really beyond the scope of these short commentaries, we can observe that the canonical function of both stories is similar. In both, there is initially a lack of recognition of who Jesus is, with the catch of fish revealing Jesus' true identity, leading to a commissioning of Simon as representative of the disciples. In this sense, both are Epiphany texts in which Jesus is revealed to the world.
This passage at first glance appears to be somewhat disjointed, composed of three distinct scenes (teaching, 1-3; fishing, 4-7; response, 8-11) that seem connected only by location and circumstance. However, understanding how Luke has shaped his material in relation to the other Gospels will shed some light on his purpose in this passage. Several features of this shaping, as well as aspects of the literary context of this passage, are important clues for hearing Luke's message here.
These verses are actually the introduction to a larger block of material, 5:1-6:17. The previous chapter recounted Jesus' return to Nazareth, his rejection there, and the acceptance of his authority throughout Galilee (and perhaps even into Judea, depending on how the textual variants of 4:44 are read). In the following section, 6:18-49, Luke collects sayings of Jesus into what has been called "The Sermon on the Plain" (containing many of the sayings Matthew places in the Sermon on the Mount, Mt. 5-7).
That defines 5:1-6:17 as a rhetorical unit to be understood in terms of the developing flow of thought within the book. That these verses should be seen together in some way is reinforced by the fact that both the opening (5:1-11) and concluding (6:12-16) sections deal with disciples who "left everything and followed him" (5:11). This theme is reinforced in the middle of this section by the account of the calling of Levi (Matthew, vv. 27-28), who likewise "left everything and followed him" (5:28). There are other themes introduced in this section that will continue to work out in the book, such as the concern for "tax collectors and sinners" (vv. 30-32). But the primary focus in this section is on the response of people who would become followers and disciples of Jesus, and the choosing of the Twelve from that group (6:12-16). It is that feature that provides the overarching context for this entire section.
As we have already noted in previous passages, Luke's own particular shaping of the narratives points to the emphasis he wants to place on the gospel message. This is especially true of Luke's chronology of the early ministry of Jesus, which differs from the other Synoptic Gospels. Matthew and Mark both place the calling of the first disciples, especially the "inner circle" of disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, John), before Jesus began his Galilean ministry (Mt 4:18-22, Mk 1:16-20). However, Luke places this after Jesus has attracted huge crowds of people by his activity in Capernaum and his teaching throughout Galilee.
Also, the location of the calling of the three is slightly different in Luke (Andrew is not mentioned here in Luke; see 6:14). In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus was walking "by the sea of Galilee" (Mt. 4:18, Mk. 1:16), when he saw Peter and Andrew fishing and called them to follow. There is no mention of a crowd, and the only boat mentioned is in reference to James and John who were also called to follow (Mt. 4:21, Mk. 1:19). Even though Peter and Andrew are still fishing when Jesus encounters them, there is no mention of any catch of fish.
In Luke, the fishermen have quit fishing after a fruitless day's work and are cleaning their nets. Luke places this event in the context of a great crowd of people who wanted to hear the "word of God" (5:1), immediately following the account of Jesus' tremendous reception throughout Galilee (4:42-44). This provides a context for today's text and helps establish a theological connection for these three scenes.
The first scene (vv. 1-3) clearly emphasizes the large crowds of people who have responded to Jesus' ministry. Luke notes in other places that the crowds were coming to participate in the miraculous work (power) of Jesus in doing miracles (for example, 4:40, 6:18-19). The Gospels of Mark and John present Jesus' miracles in a somewhat ambiguous light.
For example in the Second Gospel, the "Messianic Secret" is the device whereby Mark affirms the miracles that Jesus performed and their witness to him as the Messiah, but sets them in the context of a developing awareness within the book that they should not be sole reason for people to follow Jesus. The "turning point" of Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi (Mk. 8) marked a shift in emphasis from miracles to discipleship. Likewise in John, the response of the crowds to Jesus' feeding of the 5,000 (John 6) also highlights how easily the people misunderstood the "signs" that should have confirmed who Jesus was and what his mission to the world would require. Instead, they viewed them in terms of their own immediate physical needs (esp. 6:26).
Luke affirms Jesus' miracles in a much less ambiguous way than do either Mark or John. They are simply part of the ministry of Jesus in proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Yet, Luke is careful to emphasize the proper response to the miracles by consistently linking the miracles with the teaching of Jesus, often with a repeated emphasis on the "word of God." "What Luke is doing is to say that Jesus was not simply making empty promises but that his word was corroborated and supported by his deeds" (J. Tashjian).
Luke comes closer here to Matthew, where Jesus' miracles are presented as a demonstration of his authority (e.g., 8:27, 9:8), but are often associated with faith (8:1-4, 5-13) and are overshadowed in the Gospel by the teachings of Jesus that also demonstrate his authority (e.g. 7:28-29). Even in reporting the sending of the Twelve later, Luke links "power and authority" to be exercised in miraculous ways, especially in healing, with the proclamation of the kingdom and the "good news" of the Gospel (9:1-6). Jesus' words and his deeds cannot be separated in Luke.
In this first scene, Luke notes that huge crowds were coming to Jesus to "hear the word of God" (v. 1). This follows Jesus' strong statement of purpose that defined his mission as proclaiming "the good news of the kingdom of God" throughout the region (4:43-44). It is also in the context of the words of Jesus' teaching having authority for the people (4:32), as well as his "utterances" having power and authority over the realm of the demonic (4:33-36). This serves to put the miracles into the context of the teaching of Jesus and the word of God that carries transformative power in God's kingdom.
There is also an emphasis here on the eagerness of the crowds to hear this word of God. We could psychologize about the true reasons why the crowds were pressing Jesus. There is little doubt that some were there only to look for physical manifestations of Jesus' power (cf. 6:19). But that is not the point that Luke is making here, and to go that direction is to leave the text. Luke has already consistently portrayed the people as eager to hear and Jesus as just as eager to teach them. Later, Luke will raise the issue of whether "hearing" alone without appropriate action is enough (6:46-49). But here, the crowds were simply eager to hear the word of God from Jesus and he went to great lengths to teach them.
The reappearance of Simon Peter in the narrative at this point (v. 3; he had first been introduced in 4:38 as Jesus healed his mother-in-law at Capernaum) serves to highlight his importance in the following two scenes. The fact that Jesus uses Simon's boat as a teaching platform, a detail not reported in the other Gospel accounts, serves not only to place Simon at the center of the narrative, it also ties the three scenes together by his occupation of fisherman. Simon Peter will go on to become the most influential of the Twelve apostles and the leader of the early Christian community, so much so that he becomes representative of the Twelve and symbolic for followers of Jesus. That Simon is willing at this early stage to allow Jesus to use the tools of his trade to proclaim the word of God becomes a hint here of the important role Simon will play as his life and that of Jesus become increasingly intertwined.
The second scene (vv. 4-7) recounts a miraculous catch of fish. Several features of this story serve to focus attention. These men owned their own boats and earned their livelihood on the sea; they were professional fisherman and that occupation defined who they were. Yet, they had been fishing all night (the best time to fish on the Sea of Galilee), and had caught nothing. We have already learned that they had been washing their nets (v. 2), which signaled that they had given up fishing for that day.
When Jesus asked them to push out from the shore and try fishing again, there is an interesting response from Simon that moves to the heart of Luke's concern here. First, Simon rather mildly objected that they have already tried that and failed. We might have expected a more strenuous objection from a professional fisherman as a carpenter instructed him how to fish! Yet, Simon was prepared to try again based solely on the word of Jesus ("if you say so," literally, "at your word," v. 5). We are not told why Simon responded so easily. Perhaps it was because of his earlier experience with Jesus in Capernaum (4:38-39). Perhaps it was because of Jesus' reputation. In any case, the text does not directly answer that question; it only portrays the willingness of Simon, "at your word," again to try something he had already tried and failed.
As Simon responded to the word of Jesus, not only did he catch a huge haul of fish, he needed rather immediate help from others to land the catch. This serves to place this whole incident in the context of a wider community; the catching of fish was not a private matter only for those who let down the nets, but the success was so great that others need to be invited to assist in the catch.
The third scene (vv. 8-11) pulls together the first two scenes. It also places this entire sequence theologically in the unfolding message of Luke-Acts. The focus is on Simon Peter and his response, although in some sense he is representative here of the other fishermen, and, indeed, all who would follow Jesus. Here the significance of Luke's reordering of the chronology of Jesus' calling of the disciples becomes significant. In the other Gospels, the disciples were called to follow Jesus, and they responded to that call, based simply on the fact that he had asked them. Here in Luke, the calling of the three men who would later form the "inner circle" of the Twelve is in response to the experience and recognition of the power of Jesus in their midst, as well as the need for help in landing the "fish."
That response is carefully recounted here in the figure of Peter. Simon's first reaction at seeing the large catch of fish was the realization that he was in the presence of no ordinary person, and no ordinary power (note the people's comment in 5:26: "we have seen strange things today"). Like the Israelites who could not believe in God or Moses until they saw the bodies of the Egyptians lying on the seashore (Ex 14:30-31), so Simon does not come to the point of recognizing the power of Jesus until he sees the fish in the nets. We do not have to be sidetracked here by the nature of the miracle or by trying to decide whether this was just Jesus' keen eyesight (Barclay) or a supernatural event. Simon the fisherman simply recognizes in this catch of fish something amazing (v. 9).
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 lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!" (Isa 6:5).
Jesus had confronted Peter with his own inadequacies in the very area that defined who he was as a person, his vocation. The distance between the power of God through the One who stood before him contrasted with his own inadequacies pushed Peter 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).
Peter 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: "Go away 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. Yet in this moment of humiliation, Peter 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).
Jesus responded, not with condemnation, but the assurance "Don't be afraid" (v. 10). 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.
There are two major directions that the Preaching Paths may lead from this text.
First, there can be a focus on the dimension of discipleship. Set within the context of Luke's Gospel, as it moves on into the Book of Acts, this passage is significant for Luke's unfolding theology of the church and its mission that lies at the heart of his writing. In the metaphor of needing help with the large catch of fish, Luke presents the Christian vocation as one of mutual labor in following both the person and the word of Jesus. In that context, the tremendous success of Jesus' ministry, the sheer numbers in the crowds, required help in continuing to proclaim the message. To that end, Jesus gathered around him followers who were willing to leave everything to follow him. For the disciples, this following was not just adoration and wonder at a miracle worker, but was a shaping of who they would become as leaders of the community of faith. They would make the same journey that Jesus would make to Jerusalem. But for most of them, the journey would not end there, but would continue throughout the world.
Yet, to face what they would later face as they proclaimed the good news, they needed to know who they followed, and whose strength would sustain them. Peter was confronted with the power of God that not only called him to self-confession, but assured him of his mission to the world. That power and that mission would result in a large "catch of fish," as the stories about the growth of the church in Acts confirm. The three scenes of this text then unfold three dimensions of discipleship: (1) the recognition of the power of Jesus, (2) the response of confession, and (3) the assurance of mission and success by following God's word. These three dimensions are not only the heart of this passage, but form a major theme of Luke-Acts.
Here we can take Luke's presentation of Simon as exemplary of what a follower of Jesus is called to be and do. There is much work to be done, many "fish" to catch. The role of the church, and of followers of Jesus, is to carry on the work of Jesus in the world, to assist in proclaiming the Good News. As in these early chapters of Luke, the implications and consequences of beginning that journey as followers of Jesus is not at all apparent from the start. But the call is to leave everything and follow. And that call does not just come "out of the blue" for Luke. It is anchored in who Jesus is as the incarnate Son of God, who he is as one who comes in the "power of the Spirit."
Luke will continue to unfold the implications of being a follower, how they are to work out the kingdom of God in the world. There will be the touching of lepers, sayings about the poor, and the call to do more than simply speak. Jesus has already begun demonstrating that words and actions go together, and that the long range mission is nothing short of an upheaval of the status quo (4:18-19). They will continue the journey with Jesus, and put that into practice. But it begins here.
The second dimension of this text can be a focus on worship and response to Jesus. In fact, this whole passage can be a model for worship, in the sense of coming into the presence of God. Of course, that cannot be forced any more than a miracle can be forced. But there is clearly a sense in this passage of a devotional, a worshipful dimension that parallels or even models much religious experience.
The recognition of the presence of God by whatever means often leads to a profound sense of unworthiness, and a confession of sin. It is often dishonest to stand erect in the presence of the Almighty and proclaim, "I am thankful I am not like other people" (18:11). Rather the honest response, modeled so well in this story by Simon (or by Isaiah in the OT reading), is, "Lord be merciful to me, a sinner" (18:13). It is that recognition of inadequacy and sin that is necessary for the transformation of grace. It is only against the background of a true understanding and confession of sin that grace can really have any meaning. Otherwise, as Deitrich Bonhoeffer noted, it is just "cheap grace."
It is in that realization of sinfulness, and the resulting acceptance of God's grace, that true Christian vocation can begin. This suggests that theologically, confession of sin should move into Christian vocation. That is, authentic Christian worship has not ended with the confession of sin, or even the acceptance of grace, but with the transformation that begins the journey of discipleship. And that discipleship is here defined in terms of mission to the world. Of course, that does not just mean going to other countries as a missionary. But it does mean that that an encounter with God leads to a discipleship that emerges in the vocation of sharing the labor so the nets won't break and the boats won't sink. Finally, it is God who gives the catch of fish. But the vocation of Christians, anchored in that worshipful encounter with God, is to respond to God's work by hauling in the catch.
In many churches, there is a tradition of a time of prayer at the end of a service of worship in which people are invited to make commitments to God at an altar of prayer. It is a way to express in a concrete liturgical action within the context of a community of faith Simon's child-like response of falling at Jesus feet and crying, "I am a sinful man!" It is a physical way to declare a decisive break with the old ways and begin a new vocation as followers of Jesus. In following this preaching path through worship that leads to confession, such an invitation to respond to the power and grace of God through Jesus would be an appropriate expression of the spirit of this text.
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