This is the first post of a four part series of posts in which David Williams shares some historical and theological observations on the Bible passages studied in the Urbana12 business track. The second post of the series is The Kingdom (Luke 10:1-24). The third post is The Lost (Luke 15:1-10). The final post is The Found (Luke 19:1-10). ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director of ESN.
The Call (Luke 5:1-11)
“Do not fear.” Being called to speak God’s Word and serve God’s world has always been a scary business and most who are called have not felt up to answering. When the Lord called Moses from the burning bush, Moses’ first instinct was to try to disqualify himself. “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent . . . but I am slow of speech and of tongue,” he said. Similarly, when confronted in the Temple with the thrice holy God, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips!” Likewise, Jeremiah, when called declared, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth!”
And so this scene of Simon Peter falling at Jesus’ feet, crying out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord,” should sound strangely familiar to anyone who has spent much time in the Old Testament. (James and John are there too, of course, but Peter occupies center-stage with Jesus in this passage.) Luke, master story teller that he is, narrates Peter’s call for us in such a way as to set him precisely in this long and distinguished line of reluctant prophets. Whereas Matthew likes to say that this or that event in Jesus’ life “fulfilled” this or that Old Testament text and John likes to portray Jesus in terms of powerful Old Testament metaphors like the Good Shepherd or the Bread of Life, Luke’s usual modus operandi is to subtly deploy Old Testament tropes and turns of phrase to situate Jesus’ story within the grand Biblical scheme of things. And, so, here we are again with a reluctant prophet receiving a daunting call.
The story as Luke tells it, of course, has a twist: Peter has been cast in the role of the reluctant prophet, but where we should expect to find a burning bush or a throne encircled with angels, we instead find Jesus seated in a boat and surrounded by tilapia. Thus, the scene’s very narrative framework suggests that there is more than meets the eye to this Jesus, hinting that we are here faced with much, much more than a wonder-working rabbi. Jesus plays the part of Israel’s God calling His spokesperson into His service. Peter, now awestruck, trembling, and vaguely aware of just who it is that he is dealing with rightly no longer calls him “master” but kneels and addresses him with the more appropriate and theologically suggestive title, “Lord.”
“Do not fear,” says Jesus, echoing words which the God of Israel has often had occasion to speak to His people, “From now on you will be catching men.” The image of fishing for men occurs frequently in the Prophets, always with reference to impending judgment. Consider Jeremiah 16:16-18:
Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the LORD, and they shall catch them (Israel). And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them (Israel) from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes. But first I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.
Jesus Himself used fishing as an image of the eschatological Judgment on at least one other occasion (Matt 13:47-50):
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The parable is instructive in that it reminds us of what should have been clear from the context of Luke 5 anyways: the image in view is not of rod and reel fishing, casting about for individuals, but rather it is an image of casting a wide net that ultimately separates the righteous from the evil.
“Do not fear.” As though the idea of being called were not itself scary enough, the idea that Jesus is calling Peter, James and John to somehow participate in the Judgment sounds downright horrifying, gloomy, and dour. But it isn’t, exactly. Bear in mind that the Judgment, that great day when the God of Israel would set the world right, separating the just from the unjust, healing the broken, elevating the exploited and overturning their oppressors, was a day for which Israel, indeed, the whole creation hoped and longed:
With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD!
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:6-9)
For the downtrodden in ancient Israel, the final Judgment and final salvation went hand in hand. Indeed, as Jeremiah 16:15 makes clear, the Lord was going to send His fishers not only to cleanse Israel of their idolatry and iniquity but also to restore Israel to the land of their fathers, reversing Israel’s exile, and ending their long captivity. Thus Jesus’ recruitment of Peter, James and John to be among YHWH’s fishers of men implied the good news that at long last the reign of God was at hand and the redemption of all the earth was breaking in.
We Christians today carry on the prophetic mission which Christ commissioned the apostles to inaugurate, casting wide the good news, drawing men and women into the coming Kingdom, and preparing the ground for the day when God will fully and finally establish his justice and peace on earth. The call to carry on this worldwide rescue mission is and has always been daunting. But he who calls us will never leave us and bids us, “Do not fear.”
About the author:
David Williams serves part-time as an InterVarsity/Link staff on loan to the Oxford Pastorate, an independent evangelical chaplaincy that ministers to graduate students at the University of Oxford. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in Christian Ethics at the University of Oxford, writing on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s, John Henry Newman’s, and Abraham Kuyper’s divergent theologies of higher education and their potential applications to the modern research university. Before moving to England, David served for five years with InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty ministries at New York University. David resides in Oxford, England with his wife Alissa and son Charlie.