Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Luke 5:1-11 - link to NRSV text
Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
That's our collect for this coming Sunday, and it's a powerful one. It also hints at something that's a major theme for the author of Luke-Acts as well as for Paul: God's people as a people of the exodus, people who have been freed by the God of Israel to be the people of Israel, to be a people who use power as God uses power.
Luke's use of this theme is clear at times, very subtle sometimes, and often surprising. For example, in Luke's story of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah speak of Jesus' "departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" in verse 31. "Departure" is a curious way to talk about what Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem, and it's a particularly odd way for Luke to talk about Jesus' death, but Luke's purpose in doing so here is much clearer from the Greek text of the gospel. The Greek word used for "departure" here is exodus.
For Luke, what Jesus accomplishes in his life, death, and ongoing empowering of God's people through the Spirit, is Exodus, freeing us from oppressive powers and old ways of being and setting us on a journey that we who were not a people could become God's people, that we who shared labors and oppression in Egypt might share God's abundance even in the desert, with the miraculous provision of manna, the bread of the desert that cannot be hoarded. In Luke-Acts, the Christian community sharing goods, that "there was not a needy person among them" (Acts 2:32-37), is an indispensible sign of the Spirit's presence and expression of what Jesus freed us for.
I'm not sure if a direct allusion to God's provision of manna is intended in the miraculous catch of fish in this Sunday's gospel; if it's an allusion, it's one of the more subtle ones. But there is a lot about the passage that reminds me of Luke's other allusions to the Exodus. If you compare it to the call of the first disciples in Mark 1:16-20, there's a lot Luke has filled in here. Contemporary scholar Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary on Luke aptly describes some of the gospel's expansions from Mark's story of the call as providing motivations for the disciples that are left unspecified in Mark (p. 89 of Johnson's commentary). But it seems to me to be more than motivation, in the personal and psychological sense (something which didn't much interest ancient writers).
It's more like a basis. I think here, and in many places elsewhere, Luke is answering a question that I think is on a lot of readers' minds even today, when we see that Jesus' disciples "left everything and followed him," and that question is "what makes that possible?" The same question occurs to me when I read things like Luke 12:22-34. Be anxious about nothing? Who is Jesus kidding? Jesus' culture was one of what anthropologists call "limited good," in which the assumption was that any good thing was in finite quantity. There's only so much to go around, and therefore any good thing you or your family have is something that somebody else doesn't get. It was an intensely competitive culture. And while our culture differs in many respects from Jesus', I think we share some of those competitive tendencies. We may treat the ozone layer as if it were inexhaustible, but we treat every inch of progress on a trafficky commute as if our honor and eternal well-being depended on getting ahead. And sometimes, we treat God's love as if it were a limited good, as if there were less of it for us, or for the "deserving," for every new or "undeserving" person who found it.
Getting ahead is too often our obsession, and the extent to which we indulge that, we limit our ability to experience what it would be like to "be anxious about nothing," to seek God's kingdom and leave everything else behind. We end up in a state of perpetual anxiety, eternally on watch to see who is taking what we think we need. Peter's culture was prone to a similar anxiety. So what made it possible for Peter in this Sunday's gospel to leave everything and follow Jesus? Peter had an experience with Jesus of God's abundance. Like the Israelites in the desert, Peter found that God provides enough, in surprising ways, and with such abundance that we MUST share. In a sea in which able fishers can work all night and catch nothing, God provided so many fish in one toss of the net that Peter's boat would have sunk if he had not had partners to call who could share the abundance.
So Peter's perspective shifts. Instead of anxiously asking, "will there be enough fish?" he can ask, "are there enough people gathered to share God's overwhelming abundance?" Instead of gathering fish, Peter devotes the rest of his life to gathering people. As someone who cried "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!" Peter is becoming the person who says, "Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34) and "God has shown me that I should not call anyone common or unclean" (Acts 10:28). When he pulled in that great catch of fish, Peter wasn't concerned about whether the other fishers he called to were hard workers or lazy, righteous or unrighteous; the urgency of the moment was to find someone -- anyone -- to share God's abundance. That's what Jesus' power does for us.
We can accumulate power in our culture, and it makes us anxious to hold on to what we've got and get more. But when we experience Jesus' power, we are freed to do things differently. We can stop asking "is there enough for me and my family?" and start asking "who's not here? Who can I gather to share in this abundance?" We know there's enough, so we can leave what we've got behind -- there are more urgent matters for us to attend to. We become fishers of people, experiencing more fully God's abundant love for each thing we let go of. That's what Jesus set us free for.
Thanks be to God!