Commentary on John 21:1-14
Today we have a resurrection story which is unique to John and is in his final “extra” chapter, which may be a kind of appendix added on later by another author following the Johannine tradition. The text contains peculiarities which are closer to Luke’s style but others which are Johannine. It bears close resemblance to a similar story about a catch of fish in Luke (5:1-11) and another in Matthew where Peter gets out of the boat to go to Jesus (14:28-31). Although it seems added to the original text, the chapter appears in all extant manuscripts of John.
Like most of John’s accounts, it is a story full of symbolism.
We see a group of disciples, seven altogether, seemingly at a loose end with nothing to do. The seven are Simon Peter, Thomas the Twin, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons (James and John) and two others of his disciples. Nathanael, who is only mentioned in John’s gospel, appears in John 1 as one who was called by Philip. This is the only mention of James and John in John’s gospel, although they have such a central role in the other three gospels. Some speculate John may be the second of the two disciples called by Jesus in John 1 (the one named is Andrew) but he could also be the Beloved Disciple, not yet ready to be so called. Of the two other disciples in the boat, one is presumed to be the Beloved Disciple who appears very soon in the story. The number seven suggests the fullness of the community. (John likes the number seven – seven signs performed by Jesus and seven ‘I AM’ statements.)
Peter, the leader, decides to make a move. “I’m going fishing.” It is what he knows best. The others go along with him. Is there an implication that the great enterprise that Jesus began is over and they return to their old way of living?
After a whole night on the lake they get nothing. (Aristotle tells us that night-time was favoured for fishing.) Is there also an echo of words spoken at the Last Supper, “without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)?
As the light of dawn breaks Jesus is standing on the shore but, as usually happens in these post-resurrection scenes, they do not recognise him. He asks the question fishermen do not like to be asked, “Have you caught anything?” Reluctantly they have to admit, No. He then gives them some suggestions. On a natural level, it is possible he could see a movement of fish that was not visible from the boat but the real meaning is deeper. He will lead the fish to them as he will lead people to them later on.
After following Jesus’ instructions, they make a huge haul of fish, so many that they cannot be brought into the boat. The exact number is given: 153. Is that an actual memory or is there a special symbolism in the number? St Augustine thought the latter and made his own speculations. St Jerome saw it as an expression of the universalism of the Christian mission saying that the Greeks believed there were altogether 153 kinds of fish. The number is also the sum of the first 17 digits: 1+2+3…
The main point, however, is to emphasise God’s generosity, recalling the amount of water changed into wine at Cana, the amount left over after feeding the crowds in the desert, the abundance of life that the Good Shepherd gives and the fullness of the Spirit, life-giving water that guarantees we are never thirsty…
And the net was not broken. The net itself is, as in other texts, a symbol of the Kingdom of God.
This is all clearly a parable, a symbol of their future work as fishers of people, a work whose success will originate in the power of Jesus behind them and in their following what he tells them to do.
A similar incident had happened during Jesus’ earthly life and the “disciple Jesus loved” immediately saw the connection. He is the one with deeper insight into the presence and the ways of his Master. “It is the Lord!” he exclaims.
But if the “other disciple” was the one Jesus loved, it was Peter who was the one who loved Jesus. And it is Peter, the impetuous one, who reacts first. He was not wearing any clothes* so he throws something around himself and jumps into the water to get to Jesus, leaving the others to bring the boat and fish to the shore. Such is his anxiety to be close to his Lord. Says the New International Bible: “It is curious that he put on this garment (the word appears only here in the New Testament) preparatory to jumping into the water. But Jews regarded a greeting as a religious act that could be done only when one was clothed.”* Peter is responding to the call “It is the Lord” and hears it as pointing to Jesus as Someone special.
On the shore they find that Jesus has lit a fire. There is bread and some fish cooking. (Where did these fish come from? It is the kind of question we do not need to ask when reading a symbol-full passage like this.) “Bring the fish you have just caught.” “You”??? Yes, literally they had pulled the fish in but where had they originally come from? The same goes for much of what we claim to do. It is important to acknowledge God’s role in our actions, especially our “successes”.
In response to the command, it is Peter, the leader – now and in the future, who alone brings in the huge catch from the boat by the water’s edge. Peter alone dragging the net in is an image of the Kingdom coming (compare the parable in Matt 13:47ff). It also signifies the special position of Peter in the mission of the Apostles. Just now the whole group together could not haul the net into the boat.
Jesus then invites them to come and eat with him the meal he has prepared for them. Here, too, there are eucharistic overtones. Now as they stand close to the friendly stranger, no one dares to ask “Who are you?” because they know quite well it is the Lord, the risen Jesus. Again we are being taught to find the presence of the Lord in all those who are kind to us, who do good to us in any way and especially in those who share the eucharistic meal with us. Just as we are called to be Jesus to everyone that we encounter.
His identity in a way is now confirmed by his taking the bread and the fish and giving it to them to eat. He broke bread, he celebrated a Eucharist with them.
We have here then some central pillars of our faith:
– recognising Christ in the kindly stranger and playing that role ourselves;
– expressing our love and solidarity with each other through our celebration of the Eucharist and breaking bread together;
– working with the power of Jesus to fill the net that is the Kingdom, becoming truly fishers of people.
‘Not wearing any clothes’, that is, naked. Some of our translations use all kinds of euphemisms (e.g. ‘lightly clad’ New American Bible) to express this. Does it shock us that the first pope could go around like this? Male nakedness was much more acceptable in Peter’s society. A redeemed people should have no problem with an unclothed body. It was only after their sin that Adam and Eve became ashamed of their nakedness. Jesus reversed that by dying naked on the cross. We need to remember, too, that Peter is still under a cloud after denying his Master three times. Nakedness is only for the innocent. So, the moment he hears the person on the shore is his Lord, shame and guilt make him cover himself. It is possible that all the others were naked also but had no reason to cover themselves. Very soon, however, there will be a reconciliation between Jesus and Peter.