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Commentary: Luke 5:1-11

This text appears to be a collation of what were once two separate accounts: A call narrative in which Jesus selects certain fishermen to become his disciples (cf. Mk 1:16-20) and a nature miracle regarding a miraculous catch of fish (cf. Jn 21:4-8). Combination of the two stories was no doubt facilitated by the common theme of fishing and by the common concern with the role of Simon Peter.
In any case, the result of the merger is what must now be classed as an "epiphany-call narrative." In such a narrative, people encounter the power of God in the context of their daily lives and, as a result of that encounter, discover that their lives and vocation are forever changed. As David Tiede notes in his Augsburg commentary on Luke, the call presented here is of a piece with numerous Old Testament occurrences. For Moses, the divine encounter came while tending sheep (Ex 3); for Gideon, it came while threshing wheat (Jg 6); for Simon, it comes while fishing.
Luke's attachment of the miracle/epiphany to the story of Simon's call gives that story a new focus. In Mark's Gospel, the fishermen appear to follow Jesus without motivation. The word of Jesus summons them, and that is all (Mk 1:16-20). Here, discipleship is presented clearly as a response to the activity of God. Yet the disciples do not simply follow Jesus as a wonder worker. Rather, the content of this particular miracle is specifically tied to the call that accompanies it in two ways. First, the miracle symbolizes the potential success of the new undertaking to which Jesus calls them. Second, the dramatic demonstration of divine providence that the miracle entails provides the assurance the disciples need if they are to leave everything behind to follow Jesus (v. 11). The miracle engenders the sort of trust in God that overcomes anxiety as to one's own sustenance and enables one to seek first God's kingdom (cf. 12:22-31). This attitude, Luke holds, is a prerequisite for discipleship.
Vv. 1-3: This is the only instance in Luke's Gospel of Jesus teaching by the lake, something that he does often in Mark. The content of his teaching is "the word of God," a typically Lukan expression found also in 8:11, 21; 11:28; and fourteen times in Acts. The Greek expression can mean either "the word from God" or "the word about God." Luke specifies that the boat that Jesus sits in when he teaches the people belongs to Simon. Earlier, we were told that the house Jesus used as a base of operation in Capernaum also belonged to Simon (4:38). The impression is that Simon is not a "poor fisherman," but a fairly well-to-do citizen. Luke may emphasize Simon's middle-class status in order to make his subsequent renunciation of possessions (5:11; 18:28) more dramatic (cf. 5:27-29).
Vv 4-7: The miracle itself is related with a touch of humor. Jesus tries to tell Simon, a professional fisherman, how to do his job. Simon apparently thinks that Jesus would do well to stick to preaching, but is willing to humor the Master nevertheless. Only Luke uses epistates ("Master") for Jesus, and the term is limited to use by persons who regard Jesus favorably (8:24, 45; 9:33, 49; 17:13); "Teacher," by contrast, is used by friends and foes alike. The overabundant supply of fishes resembles in some fashion the multiplication miracle in Luke 9:12-17. Both demonstrate Jesus' authority over nature with specific reference to provision for human need.
The details of the story need not be allegorized (boat = church; sea = chaos, etc.) to appreciate its symbolic relevance for evangelism. Following the direction of Jesus and trust in his miraculous power are at least as important for success in mission as hard work ("we have toiled all night and took nothing," 5:5). Furthermore, Luke is not the least bit shy about presenting missionary success in quantitative terms. In Acts, it becomes clear that numerical growth is one indication of the Spirit's support (2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:1, 7; 21:20).
V. 8: Confessions of unworthiness are typical in call narratives (cf. Is 6:5). Simon's confession ("I am a sinful man") is particularly appropriate for Luke's narrative, in which such humble self-perception is always a plus. Peter's recognition of his sinfulness parallels the attitudes of the prodigal (15:21) and the publican (18:14), both of which Jesus considers exemplary. In Luke's Gospel, one of the greatest obstacles to faithfulness is self-righteousness (16:15). Jesus, however, is a "friend of sinners" (7:34). Peter's identity as "a sinful man" in no way disqualifies him from Jesus' company. Before this chapter is through, Jesus will declare that sinful persons like Simon are precisely the sort of people he has come to call (5:32).
Vv. 9-10: The expression "catching people," like Mark's "fish for people" (1:17), is a figure of speech that should not be pressed too hard. Neither Jesus, Mark, nor Luke meant to imply that evangelism consists of snaring people against their will.
The image, rather, is like that of the harvest used elsewhere by Jesus (Mt 9:37-38; Jn 4:35). The evangelistic mission is portrayed as an ingathering of those who belong to God. The Greek word used here for "catching" means literally "to take alive." Fish, of course, are only caught so that they can be filleted. But from now on Simon will be engaged in a vocation that involves the collection of something more precious than fish--human beings, for whom being "caught" by the Gospel portends not destruction but salvation.
Vv. 11: The concluding comment that Simon and the others "left everything" and followed Jesus touches on another typical feature of discipleship in Luke (see 5:38; 18:22, 28). In this Gospel (only), Jesus states explicitly that those who do not renounce all that they have cannot be his disciples (14:33).
We see, then, three marks of discipleship highlighted in this pericope: (1) acceptance by Christ in spite of personal unworthiness; (2) employment by Christ in mission to the world; and, (3) renunciation for Christ of all that might prevent the accomplishment of that mission. All three of these traits are presented as the fruit of a divine encounter in which Christ takes the initiative in showing the believer the potential for such a life.