Luke 5:1-11. A Tall Fish Tale

The reading for the fifth Sunday in O.T., cycle C is the call of Peter in Luke 5:1-11.  The image of the fisherman is common in the gospels, and the story of the Galillean fishermen takes place in Luke 5 and John 21. In Luke’s Gospel, the account as placed at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. In John’s Gospel, the account takes place after the Resurrection.

John’s Account (John 21:2-6)

Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.

In the last chapter of John, with Jesus nowhere to be found, the apostle Peter declares his intent to go fishing. Six disciples agree to follow Peter, saying “we will come with you.” Note the Sacred Author’s literary inclusion. In John 1, Jesus tells the disciples to “come and see” (verse 39) and to “follow me” (verse 43).  In chapter 21, it is Peter whom the disciples follow.  The literary inclusion is complete as Nathaniel is a witness to the mighty work of Jesus here in chapter 21, as Jesus had predicted to him in chapter 1, verse 50.

A Work of God, accomplished through the Disciples

The Sacred Author wants to stress that, without Jesus, the initiative of the disciples comes to nothing. Jesus suggests they lower their nets on the right side, though they do not realize that the person giving the advice is Christ. Only after the catch does John recognize Jesus, and then he tells Peter. Interestingly, the success of the catch is not even contingent on faith, since the disciples did not know that it was Jesus giving directions. The success of the catch is simply a work of God achieved through human hands, whether his human agents were aware of it or not.

Luke’s Account (Luke 5:1-11)

While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.

Duc in Altum – Put out into the Deep.

Luke’s account is a little different than John’s. His story is about the calling of Peter. Luke also shows Peter to be obedient. In this account, the successful catch is preceded by an act of faith on Peter’s part – to “put out into the deep” despite having failed to make a catch the entire night.

There is a lot of metaphoric language in the account. First, the haul of fish is a metaphor for the success the disciples will have in their work of evangelization – assuming it is rooted in a faith in Christ, and an obedience to Christ. Secondly, the failure to make a successful catch – during the night, no less – is a metaphor for man operating on his own, or ‘in the dark’ as it were. There is no success to be had when man acts on his own behalf and without the assistance of God. Finally, the charge to “set out into the deep” is a metaphoric order by Christ to be bold on behalf of the mission of evangelization. Christ is telling the disciples, ‘this is no time to be timid.’ And in order to drive home that very point, he tells Peter, be not afraid, for from now on you will be a fisher of men.

3 Comments

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  1. I find it difficult to accept that the John 21 passage is describing the same event as in Luke 5. In John, Jesus is on the shore as opposed to on the boat with Jesus in Luke. Could the John story be a post-resurrection parallel to the early Luke story?

    • I recall from my graduate school years that some scholars argued that the memory of the story of “Jesus and the fishermen” was such that the scholars thought it was the same account placed in two different contexts by Luke and John.

      But there are clear and stark differences in the two Gospel stories.

      In one account Jesus preaches, in the other the attention is entirely on the fisherman. The conversation is not the same: in one account, “cast your net over the right side,” in the other, “put out into the deep.” And of course, in Luke’s account, the disciples quit their day job and follow Jesus; that’s not the point of the Johannine account.

      Sure, I think a fairly strong case can be made that these are two different events. We just have to keep in mind that scholars will continue to argue as to whether these two accounts, one in Luke and one in John, constitute two stories with one single historical kernel, or two completely different events.

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