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Besides teaching and miracles, Jesus' ministry centers on his disciples. Luke 5:1-11 details how Jesus confirms the call of four disciples to serve with him. In this passage, miracle, teaching and discipleship form a collage that explains mission and who is qualified for it.
Jesus performs a nature miracle, but the saying in verse 10 turns the entire miracle into a picture of mission. Here event and symbol merge. The event signifies not only what disciples are called to do but who disciples are as they do it. Simon Peter and Jesus represent different sides of the theology that undergirds the community Jesus is forging. Simon, for his part, knows that he is a sinner who is not worthy to experience the benefits of God's power and presence. There is no presumption that God owes him anything. Jesus, exemplifying God's grace, makes it clear that such a humble approach to God is exactly what God will use. Jesus calls these fishermen to fish for people rather than for finned water-dwellers. Luke presents these two truths quite dramatically and vividly.
Jesus' preaching is popular, so he must ask Simon to let him teach from his boat in the Lake of Gennesaret, better known as the Sea of Galilee. If this is an average ancient fishing boat, it would be twenty to thirty feet long (Stein 1992:169; Wachsmann 1988).
Much in this event is ironic. When Jesus tells Simon to put the boat out and cast down his nets, it is a carpenter's son and teacher telling a fisherman how to fish. It is a little like a pastor telling a CEO how to run technical aspects of his business! Not only that, but Simon's response makes it clear that conditions for fishing are not right, since a major effort the night before had totally failed. Yet despite appearances and against his professional judgment, he follows the teacher's command to let down the nets. Simon Peter is responsive to God's messenger and thus an example of faith.
The result is success and near disaster at the same time. The nets are filled to overflowing, and so is the boat! The fisherman is desperate for help to bring in all the fish. The boat is so full it begins to sink. Jesus has guided Simon to a great catch, but that catch is a picture of how he will guide the disciples in other, more spiritual affairs.
Simon Peter realizes he has been brought into more than a successful commercial venture. As nice as it would be to have Jesus as a permanent fishing guide, God's messenger is in their midst, and the fisherman knows enough about God's holiness to know he is at risk. So Simon falls to his knees and confesses his unworthiness, asking Jesus to depart. He understands that sin produces distance between himself and God. Surely God wants nothing to do with a simple, sinful fisherman. It is best that Jesus go. In fact, Jesus is addressed as "Lord," but not because Peter understands that Jesus is God. It will take events in the next few chapters to lead Simon to confess Jesus as Christ (8:22-26; 9:18-20). Rather, Jesus is Lord here because he is God's agent. Nonetheless, Jesus should go, for Simon Peter is not worthy of the agent's presence.
The size of the catch tells Simon and his companions that this event has been no accident. The greatest moment in their fishing career causes them to stop and ponder what God is doing. Jesus has taken Peter's humble faith and scared him to death with God's presence. But in the uncertainty that often surrounds faith comes the divine honoring of its presence and a calm voice that says, "Don't be afraid." Grace is active. Simon Peter, James and John learn that God will take the faith of humble fishermen and ask them to join him in catching other people for God.
Simon Peter represents all disciples. His humility and awareness of his sin do not disqualify him from service; they are the prerequisite for service. Simon's response recalls the reaction of earlier great servants of God like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who also bowed low in humility when they caught a glimpse of God's presence (Is 6; Jer 1:1-10). Jesus does not call those who think they can help God do his work. God does not need or want servants who think they are doing God a favor. Jesus calls those who know they need to be humble before his power and presence. From now on Simon will be casting his nets in a different sea, the sea of humanity's need for God.
A genuine meeting with Jesus alters one's perspective. An encounter with God's power is no reason to draw back from him, but an opportunity to approach him on the right basis, in faith and dependence. In catching fish, Jesus has caught Simon Peter.
The mission is to catch persons alive. The figure involves rescue from danger, since those caught are caught alive (on the term "alive," see Num 31:15, 18; Deut 20:16; Josh 2:13; 2 Maccabees 12:35; on the "fisher" and being hooked, Jer 16:16; Ezek 29:4-6; Amos 4:2; Hab 1:14-17). In the Old Testament this kind of symbolism is usually negative, but for Jesus it is clearly positive.
The response is instantaneous and total. When the boats come in, the former fishermen leave everything behind and follow Jesus. The call had gone to Peter in verse 10, but all those who experience the catch follow Jesus. The fishing expedition has brought in its first catch. Sinners are transformed into servants of God. That is how great God's holiness and grace can be.