Today’s gospel (LK 5:1-11) is one of those fish stories that you might expect an uncle or a grandpa to tell. Interesting that not only does Peter catch a lot of fish, not only is he assigned to start catching people, but I presume it isn’t lost on him that he himself has been hooked and reeled in by Jesus.
This gospel story of Peter’s interaction with Jesus after a miraculous catch of fish looks like it parallels the story at the end of John’s gospel, but it is interesting to see how Peter interacts with Jesus in each. Here in Luke, upon making such a large catch, Peter wants Jesus to leave him for, as he puts it, “he is a sinful man.” In John, upon seeing the catch of fish, Peter, who has just denied Jesus a couple of days before, jumps in the water and goes racing toward him, although he is quite obviously still a sinful man! What is going on here? Peter knows that this catch of fish is not simply Jesus’ way of paying for letting him sit in his boat while he teaches the crowds, not simply a “thanks for all the fish, Jesus” kind of thing. If this were just about getting a great catch of fish where previously he had none, he would tell Jesus to stick around and have the revenue keep pouring in, but instead he begs Jesus to leave him alone. Why? Presumably because he knows what’s coming, which is a call to follow in some dangerous footsteps, and which is not where he wants to go. Perhaps I am going way out on an exegetical limb here, but perhaps these fish do something like what the owls do at the beginning of the Harry Potter series, or the white rabbit does in Alice in Wonderland: they call Peter into a new realm that takes him away from the security and stability of home. There is something really scary here, because all of the efforts to manage one’s own life get shot to pieces, and being thrown into this kind of unknown means that there is nothing tangible to count on. Rather like another famous fish story, that of Jonah in the belly of the beast, this kind of encounter takes your ego in a direction it doesn’t want to go. We want to be at the helm, but the reality of life is that we aren’t, and despite all our attempts to manage our reality, God calls us to something beyond the control and techniques of our voracious egos. Joseph Campbell puts it this way in his study of heroic figures in myth and literature: “The divinity itself became his terror; for, obviously, if one is oneself one’s god, then God himself, the will of God, the power that would destroy one’s egocentric system, becomes a monster.” (Campbell 60) This is just what Jesus points to in the parallel fish story, when he tells Peter, “‘when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’ He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God.” If Peter would have known about all that at that first fishy encounter, perhaps he would have been less likely to bite the hook that Jesus threw out for him.
Let me try to draw this fish story together with the photograph on the left side of this blog. This was taken by Thomas Merton in the late 60s. He jokingly titled it, “The only known photograph of God.” The image, playful but serious, is that God is always throwing us a line, hoping we’ll bite, whether through our classes or family or through communities of faith like this one. Such morsels of bait often contain within them a sharp edge, usually involving being drawn out of our little fishbowl into new and scary situations of undercutting the image of ourselves that we want to project and believe in. The call is to become more concerned with prophecy than survival, more about following the path of the cross than the path of my secure plan for myself, to become more deeply conformed to Christ, emptied of self, clarified into men and women of peace and compassion.