This Sunday’s lectionary reading is from Luke 5, the story of the miraculous catch of fish, as we jump forward into Jesus’ ministry before returning to the temptations in the desert at the start of Lent. It is a captivating story in its own right, but it also raises questions about the connections with the account in Mark 1 of the call of the disciples and the story in John 21 of a similar miraculous catch after Jesus’ resurrection.
The narrative is both full of what looks like eye-witness detail, but told in Luke’s distinctive style. The opening sentence runs through verses 1 and 2, and is structured with several subordinate clauses (‘hypotaxis’) in contrast with Mark’s typical paratactical style in narratives (‘and…and…’). There is a vivid sense of the crowd pressing in on Jesus; I cannot think of another place in the gospels where this physical sense of crowding in is expressed in quite the same way. They have come to hear ‘the word of God’, which is Luke’s distinctive term for Jesus’ message of the kingdom (in Matt 15.6 = Mark 7.13 and John 10.35 the phrase refers to the Scriptures). Luke uses the phrase in the gospel where it is not present in the parallel accounts (as in Luke 8.11 and Luke 8.21) and in Acts it becomes a term for the message of the gospel (Acts 4.31, 6.2, 8.14, 12.24 and so on) as it often does in Paul (1 Cor 14.36, 1 Thess 2.13 and elsewhere) thus expressing the continuity between the Old Testament, Jesus’ teaching, and the apostolic proclamation.
Luke (alone in the NT) calls the Sea of Galilee the ‘Lake of Gennesaret’, using the Greek expression derived from the OT name Kinneret (Num 34.11, Josh 13.27) meaning ‘harp’ (-shaped), another detail confirming that Luke is writing for a non-Jewish patron or audience. In Mark 1.16 Simon and Andrew are ‘net-casting’ and Matt 4.18 expands this into ‘were throwing casting-nets’, the amphiblestron being a round net with small weights on the end which would be thrown from the shore over a small shoal of fish. In this account, Luke uses a more general term diktuon, which must refer to ‘seine’ nets that hang in the water and are drawn in from the boat to catch a larger shoal. They were made of linen, so visible to the fish during the day and therefore only used at night, and needed to be washed each morning. Luke’s description of Simon and Andrew’s practice thus fits historical detail precisely.
I love the detail that Jesus sees ‘two boats’ and that he gets into one of them; the other boat then comes into play in the second half of the story when Simon and his companions call on those with the other boat to help with the catch. (Luke also has an interest in numbers, for example in noting the 276 people in the shipwreck in Acts 27.37, a ‘triangular’ number, as well as in numerical composition, so it might be that the ‘two’ boats suggest the reliability of testimony as per Deut 17.6—but that is speculative, and I haven’t found this mentioned in commentaries.) It has been tempting for preachers to talk of Simon as a ‘poor’ fisherman, but this involves imposing a post-industrial configuration of wealth and poverty on an agrarian society. Fishing would fit with other artisan skills and be above subsistence or tenant farming, in turn above hired casual labour, and would not be especially ‘poor’. We see both here and in Mark 1.20’s mention of the ‘hired men’ that these fishermen own their own boats and their business.
This region of the shore of Galilee is characterised by a series of small, curved bays, and one of them is now known as ‘Sower’s Bay’ from the depiction in Mark 4.1 of Jesus telling that parable from the boat (Luke 8.4 doesn’t give the situation). The curved bank of the shore functions like the seating in an amphitheatre, making it easy to hear someone speaking from the edge of the water or sitting in a boat—I know because I have done it!
There are several striking things about the second half of the narrative. The first is that the crowd quickly disappears from view, and we have an almost Johannine sense of personal encounter between Jesus and one individual, Simon. Although Simon’s business partners (referred to in v 7 with the almost technical term metochos, softened to the later ‘partner’, koinonos in v 10) are mentioned, the narrative keeps returning to Simon—his reaction and his commissioning.
Secondly, his practical questioning of Jesus’ instruction (after all, it is Simon who is the expert at fishing!) and yet obedience to the command of the ‘master’ parallels the response of Mary to the angel Gabriel ‘How can this be…?’ in Luke 1.34. But the shape of the encounter overall has a stronger parallel with OT encounters with the holiness of God; Joel Green notes the structural parallel with Isaiah’s epiphany, despite the contrasts in setting:
vv 4–7 (9–10a)
It is notable that Luke recounts this story in a different position from Mark, where in Mark 1.18 the response of the disciples to Jesus’ call seems strangely abrupt. We have been told little about Jesus’ teaching and ministry, his miracles being postponed to Mark’s account of a ‘typical day’ in the ministry of Jesus later in the chapter, including the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. But Luke locates this commission within Jesus’ ministry, so Simon’s mother-in-law has already been healed (Luke 4.38–39) and others have been delivered from demons, which lends this account a ‘narrative plausibility’ which was highly valued by Graeco-Roman rhetoricians.
Thirdly, Peter’s reaction and cry that he is a ‘sinner’ is quite startling. There is no suggestion here that Peter is a particular bad or unworthy person for any specific reason, but he recognises the vast difference between himself and Jesus. The term Luke uses to express the ‘astonishment’ of Simon and his companions in v 9, thambos, is regularly used of the dread that comes over those who encounter the awesome holiness of God. In other words, they are not just astonished at the inexplicable miracle; they realise that they are in the presence of someone who is (w)hol(l)y other. This is Luke’s first use of the word ‘sinner’, and it introduces a theme complementary to the emphasis we have seen previously on God’s honouring the piously devout: Jesus came to ‘call sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.32), a summary statement that gathers this sequence of stories together. This focus emphasises both the difference between Jesus and those he has come to and his boundary-crossing initiative as well as the content of his message, that of the transformation that comes with repentance, a theme we see all through the gospel which reaches a climax in the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19.
Fourthly, the catch of fish, and the whole activity of fishing, becomes a metaphor for the ministry of the gospel to which Simon and his companions are called—though it is worth noting that, in the gospel itself, the disciples are almost invisible, in contrast with Matthew and Mark, since the focus on their ministry will come in Luke’s second volume. (And, sadly, the Greek text does not offer the nice pun we have in English, changing fisher-men to fishers-of-men, as the Greek term is simply halieis who become halieis anthropon in Mark and Matthew—and Luke stays even further away by simply saying ‘You will catch alive [zogreo] people’ in v 10.) We will see the metaphorical boat of the early church filled almost to sinking throughout Acts, as on several occasions thousands come to faith in Jesus at a time, and the structural nets of leadership need expanding and reconsidering, not least when the ‘gentile mission’ takes off under Paul’s ministry.
In the Old Testament, the image of catch and landing fish was mostly negative, sometimes being an image for warfare, but often associated with God’s eschatological judgement:
The Sovereign LORD has sworn by his holiness: “The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks.” (Amos 4.2)
You have made people like the fish in the sea…The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks, he catches them in his net… (Hab 1.14–15)
“But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the LORD, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.” (Jer 16.16)
Although judgement is not absent from Luke’s description of Jesus’ ministry, here the strong association is between the crowd pressing in to hear the word of God, and the extraordinary catch of fish. Jesus’ commission to Simon (and the others) to ‘catch people alive’ is clearly offered as a parallel to his own ministry of teaching and calling people to repentance. Whereas a fisherman catches fish to kill and sell them, Simon will ‘catch’ people from death to set them free into the life of the kingdom. And this moment of grace in the message of the gospel delays the day of judgement and invites response.
Fifthly and finally, there is an unmistakable emphasis on a decisive break with the past. ‘From now on’ they will be doing something quite different, and this means that, pulling their boats up on the shore (another nice ‘eye-witness’ detail) they leave everything—their business, their boats, their livelihood, and even this actual catch which could be sold. Where Mark emphasises the break with family loyalties (‘they left their father…’ Mark 1.20), Luke emphasises the economic consequences of the decision.
Leaving all that has been of value, they will now find their fundamental sense of belonging and being in relationship to Jesus, the community being built around him, and the redemptive purpose he serves. (Joel Green, NIC commentary on Luke, p 235).
As a postscript, I note that commentators from a previous generation who were wedded to form-critical approaches to the text and postulated a long time period between the events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the gospels, in which the oral tradition allowed stories to develop in quite independent directions, saw John 21 and Luke 5 as two re-workings originating from one story. A summary of this is found in the footnotes to the New American Bible (NAB):
There are many non-Johannine peculiarities in this chapter, some suggesting Lucan Greek style; yet this passage is closer to John than John 7:53-8:11. There are many Johannine features as well. Its closest parallels in the synoptic gospels are found in Luke 5:1-11 and Matthew 14:28-31. Perhaps the tradition was ultimately derived from John but preserved by some disciple other than the writer of the rest of the gospel. The appearances narrated seem to be independent of those in John 20. Even if a later addition, the chapter was added before publication of the gospel, for it appears in all manuscripts.
And yet even the most cursory of assessments of the setting of the story, the people involved, the location of Jesus, and theological issues communicated, the reaction of those involved, and the narrative consequences, make this a completely unpersuasive argument.
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