Call to Mercy: SALT Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Five
Epiphany 5 (Year C): Luke 5:1-11 and Isaiah 6:1-8
1) We’re in the middle of a six-week series of chronological selections from Luke 4 - 9, approaching the season of Lent. The last two weeks included the story of the launch of Jesus’ public ministry, including Jesus declaring the dawn of the Great Jubilee. This week, Jesus begins to call disciples to join him, starting with Simon Peter.
2) Jesus and Simon know each other already: Jesus has stayed in Simon’s house and even healed his mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), and Simon respects Jesus as a compelling teacher (thus he calls him, “Master”). But he has not yet become Jesus’ disciple. Simon’s call unfolds over time.
3) The story of Jesus instructing Peter to let down his nets in a particular location, and thereby to discover a surprising, almost comically abundant haul of fish, is also in the Gospel of John - but John places the story not at the outset, but rather at the end, as the last appearance of the risen Jesus (John 21:4-14). This suggests the story was a prestigious one in early Christian communities, and that it circulated widely in different forms. So - who has it right, Luke or John? As so often in scripture, our ancestors unabashedly include both versions in the biblical library, and far from undermining the Bible’s credibility, this candid, inclusive approach invites us to receive each story with an open mind, humble respect for what we don’t know, and a willingness to listen for the deeper, wider meanings each story suggests in its context.
4) The image of “fishing for people” has an ancient pedigree - but not in the way you might think. In Jeremiah, Amos, and Habbakuk, “fishing for people” refers not to God’s salvation but rather to God’s judgment: the unrighteous and unjust are caught and pulled up by hooks and nets (Jeremiah 16:16; Amos 4:2; Habakkuk 1:14-15). What’s Jesus up to here? As we’ll see below, he’s got a mischievous twinkle in his eye…
5) “Calling” narratives in scripture typically begin with reluctance, either because the task seems impossible, the person feels inept, or both - and this week’s passages are classics in the genre. Confronted with divine glory in the temple and believing himself to be “unclean” among “unclean people,” Isaiah withdraws: “Woe is me! I am lost!” (Isa 6:5). And likewise, confronted with divine glory in Jesus and believing himself to be a lowly sinner, Simon Peter falls at Jesus’ feet: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).
1) The pivot point around which the drama turns in Luke’s story is whether or not Simon Peter will become Jesus’ disciple. He knows and respects Jesus already as a teacher and healer; he’s no doubt heard Jesus declare the dawn of the Great Jubilee; and now, despite his skeptical objections (I’ll do as you say, but I hate to tell you, we’ve been working all night and caught nothing at all), he pulls up an astounding, overwhelming catch, as sure a sign as any - especially for a fisherman! - that Jesus is God’s anointed, and that a new era has begun. And sure enough: Simon believes! He calls Jesus “Lord” - but only as he cries, “Go away from me!” Far from drawing him closer to Jesus, the astonishing sign repels him.
2) What’s holding Simon back? It’s a lack of trust, a lack of faith - but not a lack of faith in Jesus, whom he calls both “Master” and “Lord.” On the contrary, what Simon lacks in this story is faith in himself, in his own capacities and worth, and in the very idea that God would use an ordinary person, a mere fisherman (and not a particularly good one at that, out all night with nothing to show for it!) to accomplish God’s purposes. Moreover, to borrow terms from Isaiah’s ancient story, Simon is convinced he’s unclean in an unclean world, and unless some seraphim comes along and purifies him, he’d better withdraw in fear and trembling. For after all, what does God do with sinners - but punish them? Dreading the worst, Simon collapses at Jesus’ feet.
3) Thus Luke pulls the story’s tension to its maximal point, like an archer drawing back a bow - and now lets the arrow fly. Jesus doesn’t punish Simon Peter. Nor does he merely forgive him. Rather, he recruits him. He calls him to his side. The perfect reversal of expected punishment isn’t simply the absence of condemnation; it’s the presence of communion, friendship, trust, companionship along the way. It’s saying to someone who’s done you wrong, Come, let’s work together. I trust you. Follow me.
4) And so Jesus, ever the student of scripture and lover of wordplay, makes this point by trading on an ancient image from the Hebrew prophets: divine judgment as a kind of “fishing for people,” sinners caught by God (or by some agent of God’s judgment) as if by hooks and nets (Jeremiah 16:16; Amos 4:2; Habakkuk 1:14-15). Remember, what’s holding Simon back is that he fears he’s unworthy, and so Jesus co-opts an ancient image of divine wrath - and turns it inside out. You’re afraid of getting caught in one of God’s nets? Well, I’ll tell you what, from now on you’ll be the one catching sinners! And not so they might be damned, mind you, any more than you’re being damned today. On the contrary, we’re out to catch sinners so they might be saved! Take heart, Simon, and don’t be afraid: the Great Jubilee has begun!
5) Amazed, Simon Peter and the others “left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). And part of what they leave behind, please note, is this extraordinary catch of fish on the shore (two boatloads worth!). We can take this as a sign of the urgency of their mission, of course, or the depth of their devotion. But even more, we can take it as yet another glimpse of Jubilee, the Sabbatical of Sabbaticals, when all crops were to be left alone “so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat” (Exodus 23:11). Rather than cash in on their miraculous haul, the new disciples leave it behind for those who need it most (think of all those others along the shore who worked all night and came back empty-handed), a tangible sign of the abundant realm of God - now at hand!
1) How best to discern God’s call? Taking this story as a model, we can draw out at least three primary themes: first, God works with and through questionable characters like us. No sooner has Simon confessed he’s a sinner than Jesus asks him to join his team! Our feelings of unworthiness and fear, while understandable, are precisely what God wants to dispel. God believes in us, and so we should, too! Second, at first the call may seem impractical, if not downright impossible (We just were out there, working all night, and look, our nets are empty!). Boldness and perseverance will no doubt be required; it takes guts to venture out into “deep water” (Luke 5:4). And third, God’s call is toward abundance amidst apparent scarcity - particularly abundance for the most vulnerable. Think of those two boatloads of fish on the shore, and the region’s poor families enjoying an unexpected feast. God’s call is always a call into Jubilee!
2) We should never cease to wonder at Jesus’ choice of recruits. He doesn’t draw from the supposedly best and brightest, say, from the priests or the scribes (the “well-educated” of the day), or from accomplished political or military leaders, or from the wealthy elite who have renounced their riches. Rather, he recruits ordinary folks near the bottom of the social hierarchy, working class or lower-middle class, we might say (some of them owned boats; others leased them). Questionable, ordinary characters, another example of how Jesus echoes Mary’s song about “lifting up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). And this basic fact - that God calls on regular, real people like us - should continually open our minds and our ears: To what is God recruiting us today? For what mission can we say, with Isaiah, “Here am I; send me!” (Isa 6:8).
3) At its heart, Luke’s story declares God’s abundant mercy. Far from damning sinners, God’s work is to save them, and the whole world besides. How? In part, by inviting sinners to join the movement - and this invitation itself can be dignifying and transformative. God’s call is a call to mercy, beginning with being merciful toward ourselves. Simon, take heart - and stand up. We’ve got work to do. Indeed, Simon Peter’s life is an ongoing testimony to all of this, not only in this story of his call, but also in the story of the cross to come. Remember his brave words, and his three denials? The church is no house of triumphant heroism. It’s a house of mercy. Thank God!