On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon's, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.
(Luke 5:1-11 ESV)
There are little things in the narrative of Scripture that we mostly pass over in our reading. I read the paragraph twice before it occurred to me that the crowd was pressing in on him not in order to be healed or in order to hear Jesus preach, but quite specifically to hear the word of God.
What it seems to me is that Jesus was probably sharing rather simply a series of Old Testament Scriptures, most likely from memory. The people in attendance that day badly wanted to hear which Scriptures the rabbi would pick. They pressed in on him because they were out of doors and wanted to hear. That’s when Jesus got into Peter’s boat and put out a little way from the shore.
What we miss in our haste to read about a miraculous catch of fish or to hear Jesus’ comment on soul winning, is that Jesus sat down in the boat and taught. The little things of this passage clue us in that he has recreated – out of doors – the format of what happened in synagogues throughout Israel every day. A reader would take the scrolls and read a passage, then the rabbi, or perhaps a visiting scholar, would sit down in a chair behind the table where the scrolls were and preach. Jesus had done exactly this. He has “spoken the word of God” on the beach, that is, he had read Scripture to them. Then he had distanced himself a bit from where the reading occurred, and sat down to give a sermon interpreting what was read.
Now I’m going to muse out loud and say, what if. What if the passage Jesus had read on the beach was Isaiah 6?
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Jesus had taken the synagogue to Peter’s work place. The holiness of the moment could not have been lost on Peter. This was his boat, his nets. This was the place where Peter, as a Jewish fisherman, met with God all day long. Or did he?
The problem with us humans is that it is a very short step from “God, in your mercy and love you supply all my need,” to “I have worked hard and supplied all my need.” The fish become an idol to us. Our work becomes an idol to us, even to those of us who are (I hate this term) “professional clergy.” If your pastor begins to refer to the fellowship you are part of as, “my church,” you might want to offer a humbly worded warning that the church is the Lord’s. The boat is the Lord’s. The fish are the Lord’s.
When the net was so full it began to break and Peter was now knee-deep in the catch of a lifetime, Peter, like Isaiah before him, saw the depth of his idolatry. I can almost see the tears streaming down Peter’s face as he turned and fell at Jesus’ feet weeping, “The fish are yours! The fish are ALL yours! Oh God! I have sinned.”
If, in fact, Jesus had been reading from Isaiah that day, Peter undoubtedly had also heard the rest of the passage: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.’”
““Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to Peter, “from now on you will be catching men.”
Oh God. The fish are yours. The boat is yours. The men and women are yours. The church is yours. Catch what you will, Lord, as you have caught me.