Fish Story

Luke 5:1-11 describes the audacious way Jesus calls Peter to be a disciple. The scene opens with a mention of the empty nets Peter is cleaning – a bit of foreshadowing of the important role those nets will play later in the story. We can imagine Peter’s face, complete with bags under the eyes of this professional fisherman who has spent all night on the lake without a lick of luck. We can picture those eyes widening as they watch Jesus hop into Peter’s boat without bothering to ask for permission. The eyes might roll just a little when Jesus asks Peter to keep the boat steady just offshore for use as a floating pulpit.

Once the sermon from the sea is complete, Jesus makes a ridiculous request:

“Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”  – Luke 5:4

Here’s Mr. Dry Land Carpenter giving orders to a guy who fishes for a living about when and where to catch fish. And everybody knows that the time to catch fish in the Sea of Galilee is at night, when the fish are feeding and when they can’t see your nets. And everybody knows that most of the fish are found along the shore near the spots where fresh water flows into the sea.

I love Peter’s response. He basically says, “Jesus, this isn’t going to work. But because you are the one telling me to do it, I’ll humor you and give it a try. Even though deep water fishing in broad daylight is silly. Even though we’ve established that the fish aren’t biting. And even though fishing isn’t really your area of expertise.”

I wonder how long it takes for Peter to figure out that Jesus is expert in more areas than he realizes? When he does what Jesus says and lowers his nets, he catches enough fish to break nets and swamp two boats!

Peter’s immediate reaction to the miraculous catch of fish is not excitement and gratitude – it is fear and shame:

“When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.’”  – Luke 5:8

Peter is painfully aware of his unworthiness to be with someone like Jesus. He is shaken by Jesus’ holiness and power. Someone who is so connected to God that he can get fish to do what he wants is clearly out of his league. Peter figures that someone as holy as Jesus would not be willing to tolerate someone as unholy as himself.

Peter assumes (along with the rest of the first century Jewish world) that if something clean comes in contact with something unclean, the unclean thing will defile the clean thing. He doesn’t want to risk his sinfulness rubbing off on someone as pure as Jesus. But Jesus believes in reverse contamination – he knows that his cleanness will purify the uncleanness it touches. His holiness is contagious.

This passage includes the first use of the word “sinner” in Luke’s Gospel, and the scene establishes the key theme that Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is not what we would expect. Jesus is a friend of sinners.

Peter’s reaction to holiness in this call story echoes that of Isaiah the prophet in his call story recorded in Isaiah 6. When Isaiah encounters the unfiltered holiness of God, he assumes he’s a goner because of his own uncleanness. But instead of obliterating Isaiah, God purifies him and gives him a job to do. Jesus does the same with Peter. Jesus knows that Peter is sinful. But his response is not to say, “ew, gross,” and shove Peter overboard. His response is to embrace Peter and put him to work.

Jesus’ first words after the miracle are a reassurance that Peter has no need to be afraid. Though Peter tries to push Jesus away out of fear that he doesn’t deserve to be with someone so holy, Jesus refuses to depart. Jesus knows that with him is exactly where Peter needs to be. So he tells him not to be afraid, and then he offers him a promotion:

“From now on, you will fish for people.”  – Luke 5:10

Jesus says that Peter’s fishing skills will still be needed, but for a different kind of catch.

Our instinct may be to assume that Jesus’ holiness is something to fear. Because he is so pure, and we are so flawed, we might try to stiff-arm him like Peter did as a matter of self-preservation. But the holiness of Jesus isn’t repelled by our sinfulness. His righteousness is stronger than our wrongness, and it is wrapped in astonishing mercy. He wants to be with us. He wants us to follow him. He wants us to join him in reaching out to others.

Want to explore further?

1. Examine some other key moments in Peter’s journey with Jesus by reading Matthew 14:22-33, Matthew 16:13-20, Matthew 26:69-75, and John 21:15-19.

2. Read Luke 5:12-16, the passage immediately following the story of Peter’s call. Notice how Jesus reinforces the theme of reverse contamination by touching a leper.

3. Ponder the reality that Jesus has expertise with regard to your job, just as he did with Peter’s profession of fishing. What would it look like to follow his instruction at your workplace?

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