Yesterday, in our review of the gospel for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Simon and his companions caught more fish than seemed possible. Nets were ripping, boats were tipping and they had to call to their friends to assist in pulling in the catch – all at the word of the carpenter’s son giving commands to this crew of experienced fishermen. Carpenter or no – the result is a phenomenal catch of fish. Many scholars give lots of attention to the parallels with John 21:4-8 and, while interesting, is distracting. The Johannine setting is after Jesus’ Resurrection and points to the mission of the Church. This Lucan scene is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and points to the initial reception of those who would be disciples.
Jesus tells Simon to put into deep waters (v.4), but following that, all Jesus’ words are in the plural, directed to those in the boat along with Peter – yet it is Peter (his boat?) who responds. At the most simple level this scene captures an ancient Christian understanding: the Church as the “bark of salvation” and Peter in command – where even if others doubt, Peter’s attitude is “Jesus said it. I believe it. We’re doing this.” Simon shows what St. Paul will call “the obedience of faith.” It was certainly not reason or experience that motivated him to cast his nets back into the water at the instigation of this carpenter from the hill country. Fishing was best at night; if nothing had been caught, daytime fishing was pointless.
Reason and experience aside, why does Simon follow Jesus’… his command, suggestion? There are many translations that say “Yet if you say so…” (NRSV) which misses some of the nuance of the Greek, which literally says, “But upon your word.” (Recall v.1: While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God). Simon acts as a response to the Word of God. The result was a tremendous load of fish, so great that the nets wearing tearing (v.6) and its weight even threatened to drag under the two boats.
Joel Green  advises avoiding the temptation “to find symbolic, allegorical, and mythological meaning in this episode, with reference to the size of the catch, the boat(s), and so on.” He is among the scholars who see this episode as a type of epiphany account. Characteristics of such accounts are that the person is in the midst of ordinary tasks, the display of divine power is dramatic (burning bush, Transfiguration), but the focus of the account remains on the prophet – or in this case, the apostle. The “stages” of epiphany events are: the reveal (vv.4-7), the reaction (v.8), the reassurance (v.10), and the redirection from ordinary life (v.10). Green sees striking parallels with the call of the prophet Isaiah (6:1-10) who also responds to the Word of God.
8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” 9 For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, 10 and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon.
The focus of these verses is on Simon, now called Simon Peter for the first time in Luke’s gospel – even James, John, and the unmentioned Andrew, are referred as partners of Simon. It is here that Luke calls Simon as Peter for the first time, “the Rock,” the name he will later have as the leader of the church. His eyes are opened through his act of faith, and he falls before Jesus. Peter is the first person in the public ministry to call Jesus “Lord” (no longer only “Master”: v. 5). Suddenly we realize that the story has been more than the initial calling of the fishermen disciples. From earliest times the church has seen herself as the “bark of Peter” in which faith in Jesus is tested (Mark 4:35–41; Matt 8:23–27). Jesus chooses Simon’s boat, sending him into deep water and calling for a decision based solely on personal faith. The faith of Simon’s response is what makes him the rock on which the church is built (Matt 16:18).
Simon’s first response to this miracle is worship (falling on his knees before Jesus), unworthiness (“Depart from me”), and confession (“I am a sinful man”). If nothing else, this indicates that Jesus can and does use people who are unworthy and sinful. 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 worshiping in the Temple, responded by crying, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5).
Jesus had confronted Simon with his own inadequacies in the very area that defined who he was as a person, his vocation (fishing). The distance between the power of the one who stood before him contrasted with his own inadequacies pushed Simon 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).
Simon 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: “Depart 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 of the Apostles. Yet in this moment of humiliation, Simon 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). The text itself marks this moment there in v.8 when, for the time, he is named “Simon Peter.” This is the moment that captures when God claims someone for his own and renames him or her.
In the Lucan narrative this episode serves as a clear counterpoint to the rejection of the Word of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:21-30). As used by Luke, the incident looks forward to Peter’s leadership in Luke-Acts (Luke 6:14; 9:20; 22:31-32; 24:34; Acts 1:15; 2:14-40; 10:11-18; 15:7-12) and symbolizes the future success of Peter as fisher of men (Acts 2:41).
Simon Peter is aware of the distance between himself, a sinner, and the Lord. But Jesus has not come to drive sinners from his presence. He rather associates sinful people with himself in his ministry, if they will put their trust in him. They must leave everything (a Lucan stress: 5:28) and follow him. The three stories following this one show Jesus “catching men” (5:11), involving himself with the outcasts and sinners.
- Joel B. Green, “The Gospel of Luke.” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997) 230- 35
- Scripture quotes from the New American Bible (NAB)