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Commentary: Luke 5:1-11

Luke evidently derives his story of the call of the first disciples in part from Mk 1:16-20, but if so he modifies it by combining the call story with a miracle story (a large catch of fish). The miracle story is similar to John's post-resurrection story (Jn 21:4-8), which precedes Peter's restoration and re-instatement after his denial of Jesus (Jn 21:9-19). All three stories place emphasis on "following" Jesus (Mk 1:17,20; Jn 21:19; Lk 5:11). Luke alone stresses Peter's feelings of unworthiness ("I am a sinful man," v. 8), though such feelings may be implied in John's account of Peter's restoration. The lectionary reading from Isaiah shows the prophet responding similarly to a manifestation of the divine presence. Luke's account of Paul's call to be an instrument of the gospel (Acts 9:1-19) may intentionally have similarities with this story of Peter's call.
Luke situates the story of the call of disciples in the context of Jesus' preaching the kingdom (4:42-44), his healing various ills (4:31-41), and his being rejected at Nazareth (4:16-30). The disciples whom he calls have thus had some exposure to the range of his activities and had seen his growing popularity. These factors, along with the miraculous catch of fish, provide psychological realism to the disciples' response to this powerful person. Contrast this picture with Mark's starker one (1:16-20), where there is no indication of prior knowledge which would make the disciples' response more humanly understandable. In Luke, the first disciples know—or should know—what they are getting into when they "left everything and followed him" (5:11).
In his preface, Luke speaks of "eyewitnesses and servants of the word" as the source of the traditions about Jesus that form the basis of the gospel (1:2). The story of the call of Simon and others forms part of Luke's strategy for showing how the message reaches Luke and his readers. The crowds were pressing in upon Jesus to hear "the word (logos) of God" (5:1). Luke uses this expression frequently, four times in the gospel (5:1; 8:11,21; 11:28) and fourteen times in Acts (4:31; 6:2,7; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, 7, 44, 46, 48; 16:32; 17:13; 18:11). The phrase could be understood either as a subjective genitive (the word that comes from God) or an objective genitive (the word about God). Either construction fits Luke's understanding. The word Jesus speaks is the word he receives from God and prophetically proclaims; it is also the word about God and the salvation that God brings through the words and deeds of Jesus. Apart from that word (in both senses) there is nothing for the disciples to be called to and nothing for them to be called for. Simon and the other fishermen enter into an intimate association with the one who expresses the word of God.
The story centers on the call of Simon Peter. In contrast to Mark's account, Jesus addresses the four disciples equally. for Luke, James and John are almost incidental, and Andrew is absent. Even when Jesus addresses his command to go out into deep water and let down the net in plural form, Luke says he directs it "to Simon"; the promise of a future catching humans is made in the singular to Simon. The effect of this narrative is that although Jesus gives a direct commission only to Simon, James and John respond as though Jesus has also addressed them. They join Simon in leaving everything and following Jesus. In Mark's account, Jesus addresses all four disciples (including Andrew) directly.
Simon hears the word of God and thus "from now on," even before the death and resurrection of Jesus, will be engaged in "catching people." That strange metaphorical expression is appropriate only because it derives from the occupation of those called. Luke's term (literally, "you will be taking people alive"), however, is not as strange as Mark's "I will make you fish for people." Other examples of the use of metaphors deriving from fishing suggest gathering people for eschatological judgment (see Amos 4:2; Hab 1:14-15; Jer 16:16), and Mark's narrative could well suggest the motif of eschatological judgment. Luke's term can more easily suggest "capturing" people for living service in the kingdom of God, just as Jesus has captured them.
There is no suggestion that Simon and the other fishermen were called to their new task because their personal characteristics or experience qualified them for it. Neither does Peter's claim of unworthiness disqualify him any more than his personal background qualifies him. The implication is that Peter's (and the other disciples') fitness for what they shall become will derive from their relationship with Jesus and his ministry and not from their past history. Jesus responds to Peter's self-assessment with an act of grace: "Do not be afraid." That reassurance has immediate relevance to Peter's awe, but it also applies to his future life "catching people." As often, divine reassurance suggests that objective cause for fear does exist. The reader of the gospel might well know that Simon's life ended in martyrdom (alluded to in Mk 10:39 and Jn 21:18-19) and would certainly know the dangers of following Jesus. Reassurance promises that God will be present regardless of the circumstances one's discipleship leads one into, not that one's path will be easy.
Other examples of God's calling people in the midst of one occupation for tasks God assigns include Moses (from tending sheep), David (from tending sheep), Gideon (from harvesting wheat), Paul (from prosecuting dissidents). God's call may come unexpectedly, without warning, without specific preparation, whether one is engaged in ordinary pursuits or (like Isaiah) visiting a house of worship.