Futile Fishing

This Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Easter. Our gospel describes the Apostle’s encounter with Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias. This after the Resurrection and, as instructed, the disciples have returned to Galilee – and it seems, taken up their former profession as fishermen.

1 After this, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. 2 Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 

Many quickly pass over the beginning of this passage to move to the miraculous catch signaling the presence of Jesus on the shoreline. But to do so would be to miss the “apostolic roll call.” We should be surprised to hear Simon Peter and Thomas on the list, those who figured so prominently after the Transfiguration, before the raising of Lazarus, and in the post-Resurrection appearances. But what about Nathanael – why is he listed? This is his first appearance since John 1:45-50 when Jesus promised him that he would see “greater things,” and certainly Jesus’ appearance signals the fulfillment of that promise. And why are they in Galilee and why are they fishing? The answer that usually arises is that Jesus told Mary to tell the brothers to go to Galilee… but not in John’s gospel. In fact they might be just what they did, waiting for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit given in 20:21. But might not John have a symbolic reason for the fishing scene?

Perhaps it is to return to where the public ministry began in Galilee – Cana where the miracle of the water/wine was prelude to the ministry and now the miraculous catch will be the prelude to the mission of the Church. In both instances, they are miracles of abundance and the means of revelation to the disciples. But then again, some scholars have offered the Galilean fishing event as a sign of the men’s apostasy: “Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived when each of you will be scattered to his own home and you will leave me alone.” (John 16:32)  Simon Peter is back at his old job of fishing? If he had seen the risen Jesus twice before, if he had received the commission “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21), what’s he doing back in the boat? Some scholars see the event as parallel to the other gospels’ call narratives (Matt 4:18–22; Mark 1:16–20; Luke 5:10), here serving also as a commissioning. Perhaps it is just “what-do-we-do-now” aimlessness while we figure things out.

Why ever they are in Galilee fishing, they are having no success: “that night they caught nothing.”

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