Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 5.1-11
5th Sunday after the Epiphany - Year C

Other texts:


CALLING FISHERMEN?

This text is commonly entitled, "Calling the Fishermen." However, Jesus never calls these fishermen! He never utters a "follow me" to them, like in the accounts of calling the (same) fishermen in Mark 1:16-20 and Matthew 4:18-22! In our text, Jesus only talks to Simon! Later Jesus will give the command, "Follow me," to Levi (5:27), who like these fishermen, "leaves everything and follows him" (5:11, 28).

Rather than a call story, it is a pronouncement story. Rather than calling Simon (and the other fishermen), Jesus announces to Simon (and only to Simon!) what Simon will now be doing (v. 10). Although the task is similar, the words are different from the call stories in Matthew and Mark. More on this later.

At least one commentary refers to this as "an epiphany story." After looking at similar themes in Exodus 3, Judges 6, Isaiah 6, Tiede (Luke, Augsburg Commentary) writes:

These are all epiphany-call stories and their structure indicates their meaning. The human person is located quite precisely, often in the midst of mundane tasks. The display of divine presence is quite dramatic or miraculous. In fact, these displays are so impressive that they may take over the stories, as if the burning bush, the fire form the rock, the transformation of the temple, or the boatload of fish were the point. No doubt these wonders will astonish and delight every new generation which hears about them. But these demonstrations of divine power and presence are consistently focused on the call of the prophet, judge, or apostle. [p. 117]

This call comes not in a "holy" place (the temple or synagogue), but at work. The call comes not to extraordinary, holy people (priests or Pharisees), but to a fisherman -- one who knows his sinfulness.

There are certainly some similarities to the "call" stories of Matthew and Luke, but there is a major difference in Luke's context. As Culpepper (Luke, The New Interpreters Bible) states: "In terms of the characterization of Peter and the other fishermen, Luke's sequence makes their response to his call to discipleship psychologically plausible." [p.114]

Prior to this fishing event, Jesus has been to Simon's house and healed his mother-in-law (4:38-39). Because there is no change in location, we assume that later in the evening when Jesus healed all of the sick and demon-possessed who were brought to him, he was still at Simon's house (4:40-41). It is not until v. 42 that we are told that Jesus departs, which occurs the next morning.

In Luke's narrative, Simon (and the others?) have already met Jesus and witnessed numerous miracles before the fishing event and they leave everything and follow Jesus.

Green (The Gospel of Luke) introduces these verses:

Within his overall narrative strategy, the initial purpose of this episode is to secure for Luke's audience the nature of appropriate response to the ministry of Jesus. Simon's obedience and declaration of his sinfulness, and especially the final note that Simon, James, and John "left everything and followed" contrast both with the earlier "amazement" of the crowds and with the questions and opposition characteristics of the Pharisees and teachers of the law in the later episodes of this chapter. His further statement, "Go away form me, Lord," contrasts even more sharply with attempts by people at Nazareth [4:23b] and Capernaum [4:42b], as it were, to keep Jesus to themselves. [p. 230]

This pericope can be divided into three sections which I present below.

TEACHING THE CROWD (vv. 1-3)

Twice in this section "the crowd" is mentioned. Who are they? They are people who come to Jesus to hear the word of God (v. 1). They are people who are taught by Jesus (v. 3), but are they people willing to leave everything and follow Jesus (v. 11)?

Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Church, describes five groups of people with two different sets of terms:

In our text, there is a difference between the crowd [ochlos] and the fishermen [halieus]. The crowd listens to Jesus. The fishermen act. The crowd stays on the land (ge). The fishermen will go out onto the lake. Could the water represent baptism? Could the water -- especially "the deep" -- represent risk and danger and the land safety? At first Jesus and Simon go out just "a little way from the shore" (ge). Later Jesus will ask Simon to go out to the deep water. Could these be images of different levels of trust in Jesus -- the safety of the land, the slightly more dangers position of being "just a little way from shore," and the quite dangerous position of being out in deep water?

How do we move "crowds" into membership? How do we move members into a more mature faith? How do we help deepen the faith of members so that they will become (lay) ministers? These are some issues that Warren raises in The Purpose Driven Church. While allegorical interpretation of scripture was considered inadequate decades ago, I think that such an approach to this text could reap homiletical benefits.

THE GREAT CATCH OF FISH (vv. 4-7)

Commentaries often spend some time discussing this text and its relationship with John 21:4-8. I don't believe that such discussions are all that helpful when exegeting for preaching. This is the text before us and our people. It is not a resurrection appearance. It is a fishing story -- a miraculous fishing story -- not just about the great catch, but also the way it affects Simon.

Related to what I said above about the different groups of people, Jesus seems to distinguish between teaching the crowd and talking to Simon. Verse 4 states that he stops speaking (to the crowd), before he speaks to Simon. Could this be a proof text for the need to speak in different ways to different audiences?

Although we are told he speaks to Simon, the imperatives at the end of v. 4 are addressed to a plural "you". Who else is Jesus addressing? It is also a plural "we" in the middle of v. 5, but at the end of the verse, Simon response with the singular, "I will let down the nets." Plural forms return in v. 6. Others benefited (and had to work) because of Peter's decision to "let down the nets". While it is a simplistic reading, could Peter's attitude be, "Jesus said it. I believe it. We are going to do this"?

The resources I have don't indicate if fishing in the "deep" was a normal way of fishing. The word used for nets (diktua) is a generic term for any kind of net. There are more specific terms for a round net that was thrown (amphiblastron) and for a large net that was dragged from a boat or from shore (sagene). Both are used elsewhere in the NT.

The word for "catch" occurs only in this story (agra vv. 4 & 9). It is a generic word for any type of "hunting" or "catching". Watch for comments about this word later in the notes.

Simon replies with "Master." This particular word (epistata) occurs only in Luke. (5:5; 8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13). This term was probably understood better by "Most Excellent Theophilus," than the more Hebrew titles: didaskalos or kyrios or "rabbi," ("teacher," "lord," & "rabbi = Hebrew for "my master or teacher") which are used by Matthew and Mark where there are parallels. Epistata has a military usage -- "one who came behind" = "one further back in the ranks"; and a governmental usage -- "one who is set over". It was used in Athens of the "President" of the assembly (ekklesia).

The NRSV's "Yet if you say so,..." I think misses some of the nuances of the Greek, which literally says: "but upon your word (rhema)..." It is in response to Jesus' word that Peter acts. Although logos is used in v. 1 & 15 of this chapter, the two terms can be synonymous. In these two verses, the people are only passive recipients. They receive teaching & healing from Jesus. Peter goes beyond listening; he acts. Jesus said it. Peter does it.

The result of Peter's actions is a catch of fish that the nets begin to break and the boats began to sink. Could this be analogous to splits and difficulties that frequently happen when a congregation begins to grow?

The result of Peter's actions is a catch of fish that required more workers to deal with the abundance that God had provided. Although I am not a fisherman, I would think that it would have taken a whole lot of work to get so many fish into the boats. Couldn't God have made it easier on these fishermen and had the fish jump right into the boats? Aren't there many congregations who think that way about their own "growth"? If God wants us to grow, God will have the crowds flocking to our doors.

When talking about evangelism in one church I served, a member answered, "They know where we are. We advertise our worship times in the yellow pages and when the doors are unlocked." He expected God to make any new members jump through those open doors. That does happen at times. It is much more likely that a large catch of fish or of new members will take a lot of work by those who are already in the boat those who are already members of the church.

It might be a little crude, but I think that this section indicates that when we respond to Jesus' word, we are likely to have to work our butts off. The work will be more than one person (or one pastor) -- or even one crew can handle.

SIMON AND JESUS (vv. 8-11)

Simon's first response to this miracle is worship (falling on his knees before Jesus), unworthiness ("go away"), and confession ("I am a sinful man"). If nothing else, this indicates that Jesus can and does use people who are unworthy and sinful.

I've usually defined worship as a time and place when God comes to us. Using the four-fold division in our liturgies, there are scriptures that indicate Jesus' presence in all of them. We gather in Jesus' name, so he is present (Mt 18:20). The word became flesh and dwells among us (Jn 1:14). With the cup and loaf of the meal we participate in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16). In our sending Jesus has promised to be with us always (Mt 28:20) and is present with the least of those we may serve (Mt 25:40).

If worship, as I have suggested, means being in the presence of God, our responses should run the full gamut as Peter's did. There should be acts of worship and praise. There should be feelings of fear with words of confession and unworthiness. Our assumptions may be challenged. There should be a sense of "release" -- of leaving behind whatever has bound us. (This suggests to me that "praise services" only highlight one response to the presence of Jesus among us.)

Tannehill (Luke) notes: "The manifestation of the holy does not attract but repels, for Simon sees himself as an unworthy sinner, threatened by the holy." [p. 101]

I'm intrigued by Peter's command to Jesus, "Go away from me!" He wants to get rid of Jesus, but Jesus won't go! His sinfulness won't keep Jesus away.

Although Simon is the only one to offer these responses, literally, "amazement surrounded him and all those with him." "Amazement" or "astonishment" may or may not lead one to worship Jesus and repent of sins. "Alarm" is another way this word may be translated if the reaction is more negative than positive. It seems to be the reaction when something sudden and surprising and unusual occurs.

Jesus' first words to this reaction are: "Don't be afraid," or "Don't continue to be afraid" (a present tense imperative) which are addressed just to Peter. (The subject of the verbs is singular.)

Literally, the next line reads: "from the now, you shall be catching alive [zogreo] people." The similar phrase in Mt & Mk reads: "I will make you [to become] fishermen [halieus] of people." (This word for "fishermen" is used in v. 2 of our text.)

The Greek verb translated "catching alive" is a compound word: zoos = "alive, living" + agreo = "capture, catch". (This is a verb closely related to agra used in vv. 4 & 9 about "catching" the fish.) Classically, it also came to mean, "to restore to life and strength, to revive."

The only other use of zogreo in the NT is in 2 Timothy 2:26 where it is translated, "to be held captive" (by the devil). I don't know if people want to "be held captive" or "to be captured alive." Is this a good image of evangelism?

Our text might sound a lot better if it is translated, "You will be restoring people to life and strength." (Look for this sentence a little later in these notes.)

Although we probably don't want to be caught in a net, we do talk about being "caught in his or her love" or "captured" by love. Being caught in this way can make us feel really alive and energized.

Someone suggested that rather than use the word "catch" or "capture," we use "captivated." One can be "captivated" by beauty or charm or excellence. We don't think that that's a bad thing. Can we learn to captivate people with Jesus' love? Can we learn to captivate people with God's life-giving grace? Can we talk about our own discipleship as being captivated by Christ?

It seems obvious that at the end of our lesson, Peter and some of his friends are captivated by Jesus. It's almost like they are "swept off their feet" by him. They leave everything and follow him.

Culpepper (Luke, The New Interpreters Bible) writing on these verses points out that the "fishing" image was not usually a positive one:

The fishermen are themselves caught by Jesus and given a new vocation. In the OT and the Dead Sea Scrolls fishing is used metaphorically for gathering people for judgment (Amos 4:2; Hab 1:14-15; Jer 16:16; 1QH 5:7-8). Seen against this background, the call to the disciples was a commission to gather people for judgment, a theme found in the preaching of John the Baptist (3:7-9). The metaphor of fishing was also common in Greek literature as a metaphor for the activity of philosopher-teachers. In the Gospels, however, the call to become fishers of men becomes a call to gather men and women for the kingdom. [p. 117]

However, as I noted, the Greek word has the sense of "keeping alive." Its use in the LXX is always for a form of CHaYaH -- "to live, to keep alive".

In our evangelical work, this word can remind us that our purpose is to "capture" others in such a way that it is "life-giving" rather than "life-taking". To use more theological terms, to "capture" them with love and grace and mercy; rather than threats and law and intimidation.

Who are they (and we) to "captivate"? The word is anthropos = "people". However, the context might narrow the field a little. Immediately after this fish story, Jesus is confronted by a man with leprosy. Jesus touches him (thus taking on his uncleanness) and heals him. In the next story, some men come to Jesus carrying a paralyzed man (anthropos). Jesus forgives and then cures him. Next Jesus calls Levi, the tax collectors and shares in a feast at his house. A few verses later, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath, a man (anthropos) with a withered hand was there (6:6). Jesus cures him.

Prior to the fish story, Jesus had exorcised an unclean spirit from a man (anthropos) (4:33); healed Simon's mother-in-law, and cured all who were sick.

This suggests to me that: "You will be restoring people to life and strength" is at least part of the understanding of "catching people". Or as Green (The Gospel of Luke) suggests that Jesus is identified "as one who crosses boundaries to bring good news to the unworthy" [p. 234].

The boat returns to land. Those who have experienced Jesus' power on the lake (an image of baptism?), return changed people. They "leave" everything. The word for "leave" (aphiemi) was used earlier of the fever leaving Simon's mother-in-law (4:39), and the noun form (aphesis) twice in the quote from Isaiah: "release to the captives" and "let the oppressed go free" (4:18); but most often these words are used of forgiving sins (for example: 5:20, 21, 23, 24).

Perhaps we can restate the action of the fisherman as "freeing themselves from all things" or "being released" from them. (Note: Levi will do the same thing in v. 28.) Might this also illustrate that forgiveness means being freed or released from our sinfulness? This could mean that we are released from the punishment we deserve for our sins; but, perhaps also, that our sins or sinfulness no longer have to control us and that we are freed from whatever hinders us from following God's call to be and live as God's children.

Tannehill (Luke) presents the economic and social implications of this leaving:

"Leaving everything" means leaving the family (cf. 14:26) and leaving one's means of support. The family was the primary producing unit in antiquity. Whatever economic security there was came through the family. In leaving their families these men were abandoning family responsibilities and their own security. However, we will see later that they moved from an original family to a "surrogate family," the community of disciples (cf. 8:19-21), as the primary group. This decision did not suddenly make the disciples individuals in the modern sense, but it would take some strength and independence to decide against the group to which society gave the highest value. [p. 101]

From what do we need to be "released" so that we can properly follow Jesus? Following Jesus in 9:23 requires denying oneself = release from one's own desires. In 9:57-61, three different people wish to follow Jesus, but following him requires leaving comforts behind and family obligations behind. In 18:22, the rich man is unable to leave his possessions in order to follow Jesus. In contrast, Peter indicates that they "have left" (or "been released from") their own things (idia -- NRSV inserts "homes," but it also refers to "possessions, property") and followed Jesus. Jesus promises that they will get back much more in this age and eternal life in the age to come (18:28-30).

A DIFFERENT QUESTION

Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Church) says: "The wrong question: What will make our church grow? The right question: What is keeping our church from growing?"

He goes on to explain:

All living things grow -- you don't have to make them grow. It's the natural thing for living organisms to do if they are healthy. For example, I don't have to command my three children to grow. They naturally grow. As long as I remove hindrances such as poor nutrition or an unsafe environment, their growth will be automatic. If my kids don't grow, something has gone terribly wrong. Lack of growth usually indicates an unhealthy situation, possibly a disease.

In the same way, since the church is a living organism, it is natural for it to grow if it is healthy. The church is a body, not a business. It is an organism, not an organization. It is alive. If a church is not growing, it is dying. [p. 16]

I think that our text indicates a similar truth about God. The fish are waiting to be caught. Jesus has already prepared them. Jesus has told us that the harvest is plentiful. Jesus has commanded us to go and make disciples. What is keeping us from "capturing" the fish and reaping the harvest and making disciples of all nations? We need to "be released" from whatever is hindering us from following Jesus, from acting on Jesus' word, from putting in the effort to haul in the catch that Jesus promises us.

Warren also points out that God does not want us just to be faithful, but also to be fruitful. Or to use images from our text, we are not just to follow Jesus, we are also to be fishing for (and "catching") people.

What Jesus announces to Simon is not a wish, but a declaration: "You will be catching people." Is that statement also addressed to us -- both as individuals and congregations? If so, what's keeping us from "filling up our nets so that they are about to break"? What's keeping us from having so many new people that we are required to seek extra staff to "haul in" all these people?

As usual, I can come up with a lot more questions than answers. I do believe that when we've gone out into the deep sea with Jesus in response to his Word, we will not come back to the land the same.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com