Fisher of mortal men, them that the saved be,
Ever the holy fish caught up from the depths of the sea,
Out of the world’s tumultuous sea of sin
Enticed into thine embrace, forever to be held therein .
(Clement of Alexandria)
Post-modern man seems wholly afraid of being caught –caught in an embarrassing situation, caught off guard, caught in the act, caught red-handed, caught short of something. The fear is caused by a lack of inward and spiritual integrity that leaps out of a world whose vision can rise no higher than the emotional and psychological peaks of pandemic adolescence. When those will higher hopes denounce it as immature or disordered, it is met with the juvenile gibes of derogatory derision. For the adolescent, judgment moves in one direction –away from the self, onto others, and into Hell. But fortunately for us, today’s Gospel turns us around, and encourages us to move us in a better direction, to be self-consciously caught out in our sinful condition so that we might be caught up and into the net of Jesus Christ. For whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth; And scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. (Hebr. xii. 6)
Prior to today’s Gospel reading, St. Luke tells us that Jesus had been healing those who were sick with divers diseases. (St. Luke iv. 40) Exhausted, He then went into a desert place (Ibid, 42) to pray, only to be interrupted by the multitude who would have kept Him from leaving them because they were caught up in the healing power that He brought into their midst. He said, ‘I must preach the Kingdom of God to other cities also’. But they nevertheless followed Him. Today we read that As the [same] multitude pressed upon Him to hear the Word of God, He stood by the lake of Genesaret, and saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. (St. Luke v. 1) This crowd pursues Jesus so persistently, passionately pressing upon Him to hear the Word of God, that He is nearly driven to take refuge in the sea! The sinful world they inhabit can offer no healing, refuge, defense, or release from their sin. And so with all zeal, alacrity, and dispatch, having spent their lives caught by the short hairs in the devil’s lair, they are determined to be caught up into the salvation that Jesus brings.
But the zeal and passion with which men press upon Jesus must be tempered and moderated. When we press upon Jesus overzealously or impetuously we run the risk of being caught up in own unfulfilled earthly desires. Zeal must be converted into spiritual love, and thus sober detachment is needed to discover it apart from our passions. The crowd is quieted, Jesus is silent, the sea is still, and the only activity we discover comes from fishermen who were gone out of their boats and [were] washing their nets. (Ibid, 2) There is something about the daily drudgery of fishermen that we all ought to caught up in. These are men whose worldly success and failure depend upon the unpredictable movements of the wind, the stirring of the sea, and concomitant migration of fish. In them all heartfelt hope hovers uncomfortably over the sea in the company of proximate failure. Isaak Walton says, Blessings upon all who hate contention, and love quietness, and virtue, and angling. (The Compleat Angler) Angling is fishing, but with A. K. Best we must remember that often the fishing [is] good, but the catching [is] bad. And that, They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. (Ps. cvii. 23, 24) The surging and shrinking of the great deep aggravate the fisherman’s art of following and catching his elusive prey. Two motions blend to confuse and confound the fisherman’s science of the seas. Walton says that Angling may be said to be so like mathematics that it never can fully be learnt. (Idem) Driven by persistent curiosity and wonder, fisherman aim for a precision they never obtain.
So we read that Jesus entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land: and He sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. (Ibid, 3) Jesus doesn’t force Himself upon any man. Archbishop Trench reminds us that the work of the fisher is one of art and skill, not of force and violence. (Miracles, p. 106) So He prays or asks Peter to thrust out a little from the land in order to draw spiritual fish into the net of His preaching. He has no pulpit, and thus, as Matthew Henry reminds us, must ask St. Peter for the loan of his fishing boat. (Comm: Luke V) The multitude –the hoi polloi, must learn of the distance and differentiation between their condition and that of the fishermen. The multitude had zeal and passion, but the conscientious diligence and habitual humility of Peter and his fellow fishers –James and John, prepared them sooner for being caught up in the net of Christ.
Jesus commands Simon Peter: Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draft. (Ibid, 4) Simon responds, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing….(Ibid, 5) The nighttime art of fishing had brought Peter and his companions no closer to a catch. They pressed on, washed their nets, and cleaned theirs boats hoping for a better return on the evening next. Oddly enough, Jesus takes them out now in the clear light of day. He will take their art, their science also, and use it to reveal His spiritual power and desire. Peter is curious and now full of wonder. We know that we are fishers, but is Christ a fisher also? Christ presses upon Peter. Peter presses upon Christ. Peter is docile, acquiescent, and obedient. Nevertheless at thy Word, I will let down the net. (Idem) Peter the fisherman may distrust his profession and despair over its yield, but he does not doubt his Lord. He and his fellow men have already been caught out and seized by the consciousness of their fallen condition. Now they are caught up and into the commands of their Christ. Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. (Ps. cxxvii.1) Peter’s hope for accomplishing anything on his own has been thrown overboard; but he knows that they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. (Is. xl. 30, 31) And when they had this done, they enclosed a great multitude of fishes, and their net brake, and they beckoned to their partners in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both ships, so that they began to sink. (Ibid, 6,7) The word of Jesus is obeyed and God does what no man can do for himself.
But what is the real miracle? Is it a temporary relief to a temporal deficiency alone? The answer can be found in the response of St. Peter. As Isaac Williams explains, [St. Peter had] no thought of his own profit at such a supply, no sense of relief after having so long toiled in vain occurred to him, but all was lost in the feeling of God’s presence and of his own sinfulness. (I. W. ‘The Peaceable Ordering of the World.’) Peter falls down before Jesus and says, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he was astonished, and all that were with them, at the draught of fishes which they had taken. (Ibid, 8,9) Archbishop Trench writes, Peter, while drawing the multitude of fishes into his net, has himself fallen into the net of Christ, taking a prey, he has himself also been taken a prey, and now the same man as ever after, yielding as freely to the impulse of the moment…can no longer, in the deep feeling of his own unholiness, endure a Holy One so near. (Idem)
St. Peter can do little by his own ingenuity and effort. Man’s artistry and craftsmanship can produce only unpredictable and impermanent gains in comparison of what God in Jesus Christ can do for us. There is a miracle of fishes. Jesus’ power if manifested. There is a greater miracle. Because Saint Peter is overwhelmed by the presence of God’s power before him, he is drawn and caught up into Christ’s net. His heart sinks, as he discovers the wisdom and love that alone can draw the migrating soul back out of the tempestuous seas of human sin into the net of that love that can reconcile all men to God. Peter senses the loss of himself; he is drowned in the sea of spiritual death. The miracle is twofold: Peter dies to himself, and Peter, reborn through the knowledge of who Christ is, comes alive. Father Mouroux reminds us that man must realize that [he] is dust and ashes before his God; however much he abounds, he is always a poverty-stricken thing hanging on the Divine Mercy, and however much he may be purified, he is still a sinner face to face with Holiness. (The Meaning of Man, p. 217)
The fish which the men have caught are still alive –flailing, thrashing, and thwacking with all their might to return to their life in the sea. Peter falls down, resists no longer, and begins to die one of many deaths to himself before truly embracing the new life that Christ promises to bring. But Jesus says, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. (Ibid, 10) At the conclusion of our Gospel we then read that when the [Apostles] had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed Him. (Ibid, 11)
The Apostles were on their way to becoming fishers of men for Jesus. Their forsaking all is a spirit of self-renunciation. To be caught up in the net of Christ requires nothing short of treating our fallen human condition as dead. If we would become Apostles of Christ, in ourselves the contradiction [must be] felt between the holy and the unholy, between God and the sinner. (Trench, 102) For then we shall become spiritual fish out of water, caught up into the net of Christ, so that other men might see that even the postmodern sea of pandemic adolescence is not beyond the art of the Fisher of Men. So let us close by singing along with Mr. Walton, not only caught up by Christ into His net, but also pressing upon Jesus that we too might become fishers of men!
The first men that our Saviour Dear,
Did chuse to wait upon Him here,
Blest fishers were, and fish the last
Food was, that He on earth did taste.
I therefore strive to follow those,
Whom he to follow Him hath chose.
(The Compleat Angler, Modern Library, p. 112)