Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him. (Luke 5:1-11 – NRSV)
Mark – on whom both Matthew and Luke generally depend – has the calling of the first four disciples at the beginning of his Gospel – see Mark 1:16-20. Matthew follows Mark closely – see Matthew 4:18-22. But Luke places the calling here in chapter 5, after he has introduced us to the ministry of Jesus – see Luke 4:14-44. This allows Luke to expand Mark’s account to “reveal something of Jesus’ prophetic power, as well as of Peter’s faith and future role” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 89).
Luke is in some respects closer to John than the other two synoptists in this instance. Luke also situates the calling within the context of the miraculous catch of fish. And this is reminiscent of the post-resurrection account found in John 21:1-16. “Today commentators more rightly regard the Lucan and Johannine scenes as accounts of the same miracle” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes, New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 561). Indeed the subsequent exchange between Jesus and Peter in the post-resurrection Johannine passage is (somewhat) echoed here in Luke.
the word of God: This phrase appears once in Mark – see 7:13 – and once in John – see 10:35 – but apart from that it is almost peculiar to Luke. Luke uses it four times in his Gospel – see 5:1; 8:11, 21; 11:28 – and fourteen times in Acts – see 4:31; 6:2, 7; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24(?); 13:5, 7, 44, 46, 48; 16:32; 17:13; 18:11. Joseph Fitzmyer notes: “In most of the instances in Acts the phrase denotes the Christian message as preached by the apostles; here Luke uses it of Jesus’ own preaching. Thus he roots the Christian community’s proclamation in the teaching of Jesus himself. But, as the phrase suggests, the ultimate root of this preaching/teaching is God himself, for the phrase means ‘God’s word’ or ‘the word coming from God’ (a subjective genitive or genitive of author) rather than ‘the word telling about God’ (objective genitive)” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 565).
the lake of Gennesaret: “Gennesaret is the Greek name of a small, fertile, and heavily populated district west of the lake that some writers refer to as the Sea of Galilee; it lay south of Capernaum. From the district the name was extended to the lake. Other evangelists refer to it as a ‘sea’ (thalassa—the term used of it also in the LXX of Num 34:11; Josh 12:3). Luke uses the more proper name, ‘lake’ (limnē), which is also used by Josephus Ant. 18.2,1 § 28)” (Ibid).
Simon answered, Master: Equivalent to “Lord” (Kyrios) in v.8. Luke is the only Gospel writer to use this term of Jesus. As in the other three Gospels, Simon is a spokesperson for the disciples – see as Simon in 6:14; 22:31; 24:34; and as Peter in 6:14; 8:45, 51; 9:20, 28, 32–33; 12:41; 18:28; 22:8, 34, 54–61; 24:12) and throughout Acts 1–12.
Go away from me, Lord: This is perhaps an experience the medieval guides would later describe as compunction – a complex mixture of fear and remorse on the one hand, and joy and delight on the other. The gift of tears was seen as a normal manifestation of compunction. It is reminiscent of Isaiah’s experience – see Isaiah 6:5. Note also the response of “sinners” in Luke’s Gospel – see 5:30, 32; 7:34, 39; 15:1–2, 7, 10; 18:13; 19:7.
Do not be afraid: Peter is a “type” of the Christian. N T Wright observes: “Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order, is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think—‘Be good’? ‘Be holy, for I am holy’? Or, negatively, ‘Don’t sin’? ‘Don’t be immoral’? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: ‘Don’t be afraid.’” (N T Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, SPCK, 1994, 56.)
If ever there was a living prophet – and saint – it is Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche. He writes: “Christian doctrine on the wounded heart, or original sin, appears to me the one reality which is easily verified. It would be an error to believe that if there were no oppressive parents, if there was no oppressive society, then we would have only beautiful children, loving, happy, integrated within themselves. No, in the heart of each of us, there is division, there is fear, there is fragility; there is a defence system which protects our vulnerability, there is flight from pain, there is evil and there is darkness” (Jean Vanier, Man and Woman He Made Them, St. Paul Publications, 1985, 18). Later in the same book Vanier writes: “When I discover that I am poor, that I am confused, that you call me by my name, that you love me, then there is the moment of transformation” (80). Such a moment of “discovery” is one of the great treasures of life, a moment of sheer grace! The spiritual guides of the tradition have a name for this experience, they call it compunction – from the Latin word pungere meaning to pierce.
In today’s Gospel – Luke 5:1-11 – we witness such a moment. The apostle Peter – like the great prophet Isaiah before him (see Isaiah 6:5) – in the one instant of awakening to the Presence of God, sees himself as never before. He will not be the same no matter how long he lives. It is as if his closed world has been punctured – pierced through – by the love of God. Peter’s world from now on – a world born of compunction – is the world of God’s overwhelming love, embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.
The human journey takes a definitive turn with the experience of compunction. Typically, it is manifest with the gift of tears. Sadly, this is a much-overlooked part of our Tradition. The eminent scholar of medieval Christianity, Jean Leclerq OSB (1911–1993), says that “medieval monastic literature is in large part a literature of compunction, where the aim is to possess, to increase, and communicate the desire for God” (Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, Fordham University Press, 1977, 83). It is not a literature of doctrine – though there is doctrine there – nor is it a literature of moral injunctions or law – though these too are present. It is a literature that, above all, endeavours to communicate the most basic of all the biblical revelations: God is with us (Exodus 3:12) and God is love! (1 John 4:8).
By being pierced through with the slightest taste of that love we are “taken hold of” (see Philippians 3:12). We realize that our “virtues” are no more nor less than manifestations of God’s love, fruits of the Spirit as St Paul calls them. This love is entirely unmerited, incomprehensible, even scandalous in its prodigality and its refusal to be selective. Desire it with all your heart, make way for it, and it will take you by surprise.