Epiphany 5: 10 February Luke 5:1-11
To reach 5:1-11 we have skipped 4:30-44, the four sections which Luke has taken over from Mark 1:21-38. They had shown Jesus doing the things which in his synagogue declaration he announced were his mission. In 5:1-11 Luke goes back to Mark 1:16-20, but, as with his use of Mark 6:1-6 in 4:14-30, he has expanded the story.
Luke knows a story told about Simon Peter in which Jesus helped Simon reverse his fishing fortunes. The writer of John's gospel also knows the story and tells it in conjunction with Jesus' appearance to Peter in Galilee after his resurrection (21:1-11). In Luke's version there are two boats, Peter's (Andrew goes unmentioned) and that of James and John. The pair come from Mark's story. Both boats become filled with fish. Luke concludes with a word to Simon: 'From now on you will be fishers of people' (5:10). James and John and Peter leave their nets and follow Jesus (5:11).
The story is clearly symbolic. In John we are tantalised by being told there were 153 kinds of fish - 153? - yes? Guess. We do not really know. The story may reflect legend building or may be a wonder experience now stylised for its symbolic role.
Simon (Peter; 5:8) is the first to be called to leadership according to Luke. This is not Luke's invention. It reflects Peter's prominence elsewhere. According to Luke the disciples first became convinced of Jesus' resurrection because he appeared to Simon (24:34). Paul quotes a tradition which affirms the same: 'Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, he was buried and on the third day arose from the dead in accordance with the scriptures and appeared to Cephas and then to the 12' (1 Cor 15:3-5). Matthew knows of a tradition according to which Jesus declared Peter the foundation stone of the church (16:16-18). Even Mark, who records no resurrection appearances, hints at Peter's key role when he has the angel tell the women to instruct Peter and the disciples to go to Galilee where they will see him (16:7). Luke has special instruction given to Peter during the last meal: Satan wants to sift him like wheat, but Jesus will pray for him and when he has got himself together again, he is to strengthen the others (22:31-32).
This is about as close as we get to legendary status for the first apostle, but he is far from Jesus' successor. He denies him at the last. Mark portrays him as inept. Paul finds him shallow and unconvincing. John respects him but has him outrun in insight by the beloved disciple. Nevertheless he was the leader - all seem to agree; that appears to be the case partly because of his prominence as a witness after Easter and partly because he must have been a leader during Jesus' ministry. His name 'Peter' (Aramaic, 'Cephas') meant a "stone" or "rock", and lent itself to story building - however it came about (John 1:42; Matthew 16:16-18). The profession also lent itself to symbolism. Perhaps John's account of Peter's original call, which has nothing to do with fishing, is right, but equally possible was a setting in a fishing environment.
The fishworker called to fish for people! The story of a miraculous catch had to fit somewhere here: either at the original call, as in Luke, or, as in John, in the renewed call after Easter. The imagery of harvest forms the wider framework of thought. While initially it was as much about burning the weeds, as it was about gathering the sheaves, as John the Baptist indicates, it became a favourite image for mission. It spawned the parable of the sower, the mustard seed, and, more like John the Baptist's emphasis, the wheat and the weeds in Matthew (13:24-30,36-43). Fishing is also harvesting. Matthew brings us the parable of the fishing net (13:47-50).
In itself fishing was no more positive an image than it is today. When we hear of someone fishing for something, it arouses suspicion. Biblical tradition tended to use it negatively, reflecting a fish's perspective! In Amos God's fishing is God's judgement (4:2). It may indeed belong to Jesus' sense of humour that he uses the image. It sounds like one of his quips, a play on the image. As such it needs the broader context of Jesus' ministry where more adequate images will unveil a mission that is based on compassion and love.
Without the broader context of Jesus' teaching the image is of ambiguous value. It deserves reflection in settings where preaching the gospel has degenerated into a numbers exercise - counting the fish (not counting just the diversity). People do sometimes feel like hooked fish, scalps.
In reality Luke is portraying for us what he knows is central to the church's memory: Peter as representative leader and the role we share with him. The fallible Peter has always had fallible human beings as successors, bearers of the tradition, formal and informal, structured and unstructured. Despite signs of legendary development the bearers of the Jesus tradition never divinised Peter. He remained one of them, one of us; leadership by grace. The best traditions let it remain so. They also affirm his role and the continuing role and need for leadership and its accountability in the church. Ultimately Luke is linking that leadership to Jesus' own leadership and mission declared before his home town synagogue. It is a leadership that sets free.