Commentary on Luke 5:1-11
This is Luke’s version of the first call of Jesus’ disciples. It differs significantly from the parallel versions in Mark and Matthew and is a combination of passages from Mark and John.
We are told that Jesus was standing by the shore of Lake Gennesaret. The other gospel writers call it the Sea of Galilee and John twice refers to it as the Sea of Tiberias.
Because of the large crowds pressing in on him to hear the word of God, Jesus was forced to borrow one of two boats moored near the shore where their owners were washing their nets. “He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon” and “remaining seated, he continued to teach the crowds from the boat”. As we saw in the synagogue at Nazareth (and also in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew), sitting was the usual teaching position. From a practical point of view, by preaching from the boat Jesus could avoid the pressure of the crowd and yet be close enough to speak to them.
It is a simple, straightforward statement and yet there is a symbolism here. Jesus gets into Simon’s boat and teaches from it. The boat, in the Gospel, is frequently a symbol of the church community. It is very meaningful to say that Jesus stepped into that boat, that it was Peter’s boat, and that he taught from there. It is a symbol of what is to come in the near future.
Now comes the lesson and the revelation. At the end of the teaching, Simon is told to go out into the deep water and start fishing. (He will not be called Peter until the next chapter.) “Master, we have been hard at it all night long and have caught nothing; but if you say so, I will lower the nets.” There is here something of the condescension of the expert towards the amateur. “We know there are no fish there but, just to make you happy, we’ll let down the nets.”
But their nets were hardly in the water when they were so full of fish that they were on the point of breaking. They (Peter and those others with him in the boat) had to call their companions in the other boat to come to their help (they do not seem to have caught any fish; only Simon’s boat does). But the two boats together were now so full of fish that they were on the point of sinking.
Peter, just now so arrogant and all-knowing, is totally overcome. He knew there were no fish there. So there was only one explanation. The man standing before him was Someone very special: “Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.” It is the reaction of a person in the awful presence of God’s overwhelming power and goodness. We see similar reactions by Abraham (Gen 18:27), Job (42:6) and Isaiah (6:5).
Peter did not belong there; the expert realises he is nothing in the presence of this man. Instead, he becomes so aware of his shortcomings. Paradoxically, it is the saints who are most ready to acknowledge their sinfulness. And his companions, James and John, were equally amazed. There is no mention of Andrew in this version of the story because he would have been in his brother Peter’s boat. And the passage indicates that Peter was not alone in the boat (“We have worked hard all night…”)
Some commentators feel that Luke may have borrowed this story from John’s account of the disciples going fishing at the end of that gospel. It has been noted that Simon calls Jesus ‘Lord’, a post-resurrection title and refers to his sinfulness, which makes more sense after his triple denial during the Passion. It also looks forward to Peter’s leadership which is confirmed in the same chapter of John.
Jesus then reassures Simon and his companions: “Do not be afraid.” They are words they will hear again. Because he is calling them to be his partners in the work of building his Kingdom. The huge catch of fish made by the boat in which Jesus and Peter were is a sign of a much greater catch of people to be made by the new community led by the Spirit of Jesus and under the leadership of Peter.
Unlike the other gospels, Luke has a period of teaching and miracles precede the call of the disciples. This makes their unhesitating response less surprising and more plausible.
They heard the message, they accepted the call and “with that they brought their boats to land, left everything, and become his followers”. In Mark and Matthew they left their nets and boats. In Luke’s gospel especially, the following of Jesus is understood as absolute – one must leave everything and throw in one’s lot totally with Jesus wherever that will lead. Those boats and nets were the security on which the lives of Peter, his companions and their families depended. But they left them and everything else. This is faith, this is trust. Without it, the mission cannot succeed.