"Miraculous draught of fish" by Peter Paul Rubens
Today's Gospel lectionary reading is from Luke 5:1-11....To my mind, there are so many pictorial details in the picture of this scene that I cannot help but believe that this Scripture is based upon an eyewitness account. We can see Jesus teaching by the Sea of Galilee with the crowds pressing in on him to catch every word. The press is so strong that Jesus looks for a way to gain some distance. He sees a fishing boat and commandeers it, asking the owner, Simon, to push out a little way from shore. From that safer vantage point, Jesus continues to teach the crowd.
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, 'Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.' Simon answered, 'Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.' When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, 'Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!' For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, 'Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.' When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
All of this could almost be considered a normal, everyday affair. But then Jesus performs a miracle--a miracle different than any other in the Gospels (other than the one at the end of the Gospel of John which is a repeat of this one). Jesus tells Simon to put out into the deep water and let down his nets for a catch. Simon is incredulous. He is a fisherman. He has been fishing all night and caught nothing. Jesus is not a fisherman. What does he know? But to be polite (Jesus is some sort of rabbi after all, and an interesting one at that) Simon follows Jesus' instructions.
Again, at this point, we have more eyewitness detail. Simon catches so many fish that his nets are beginning to break. He signals to another boat for help. The other boat comes and they fill both boats so full of fish that the boats are close to sinking.
Simon's reaction to this is one of awe. Who is this man who knew there were fish to be caught in the deep waters? Simon says, "Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man." His response is similar to that of Isaiah who, upon seeing the Lord in the Temple, says: "I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips." (Isaiah 6) In the presence of the holy one we realize our unholiness. Rudolf Otto, in his book The Idea of the Holy, calls such moments as these encounters with the numinous.
Jesus' response to Simon is similar to many in Scripture. "Do not be afraid" is the frequent command of angels and God to human beings when the latter encounter the divine.
Then Jesus says something strange: "From now on you will be catching men." Simon could not, at that moment, have fully known what Jesus meant. We as readers know what Jesus means, that Simon will catch men for the kingdom. But Simon finds something simultaneously fearful and attractive about Jesus. Otto calls the latter response our fascination with the divine. In fact, Simon is so attracted by Jesus that he leaves everything to follow him.
Once again, this story, along with so many stories in the Gospels, begs the question: "What is our response to Jesus?" And maybe another question is also appropriate: "Have we met Jesus?"
Certainly today we do not meet Jesus physically as Simon did by the Sea of Galilee two thousand years ago. But the whole of the New Testament is rustling with the rumor that we can meet Jesus spiritually through reading about him, through prayer, through church, through fellowship with other Christians, through prayer, through Holy Communion, through a myriad means of grace.
What is our response when we meet Jesus? Is it awe, fear, a sense of our own sinfulness? Do we move beyond those reactions to be fascinated with Jesus, enough to want to follow him? What might "leaving everything" look like for us?