Fish Tales for the Faithless: Religious Demands and Righteous Responses

They had been followers of a fiery preacher from the wilderness with a proclivity for water. It was a time of revival. The man in the camel hair coat called them forward to receive the ritual bath of repentance in the river. And they came: brothers, partners, fishermen. Theirs was a simple and devout life filled with family, work, and the rhythms of Jewish worship. And then he came.

Andrew heard it first. He had seen the Nazarene baptized along with many others the day before. His teacher had hesitated when the man had asked for baptism, but finally complied. The following day, as the man walked by, Andrew heard John say, “Look, the Lamb of God!” The Lamb of God? The Baptizer had been preaching that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, but did he mean now? Andrew and another of John’s disciples followed the man. Sensing he was being pursued, the Nazarene turned and asked what they wanted. “Rabbi, we want to see where you live.” “Come and see,” he said and they spent the day with him.

One day with Jesus was all it took for Andrew to be convinced that he was the Messiah. He found his brother Simon and brought him to the rabbi. Jesus looked up and said “Simon, son of John?” Simon glanced at Andrew. Andrew smiled his I-told-you-so smile. “We’re going to call you Peter,” Jesus said. It should have been clear to Simon from this point on who had the initiative in their relationship, but he would have to be reminded over time.

Jesus was all the buzz among John’s disciples. He had been saying for a while that he was simply laying the ground for someone else. To many of his disciples, who that someone else was had become clear. And following Jesus had its perks. John didn’t take them to weddings. Jesus did. John didn’t drink wine. Jesus didn’t let it run out. The day he turned water to wine was the day his disciples became believers.[1]

Jesus walks in the wilderness for forty days. He preaches in his home town and slips through their hands as they try to throw him off a cliff. He moves to Capernaum and shakes up the synagogue with authoritative teaching and effective exorcism. He heads to Simon Peter’s house and heals his mother-in-law of a fever. He heals all the sick in town that come to Simon’s house. Then he leaves for a while.[2]

After a teaching tour of the Galilee, he came back to the Capernaum shoreline where people pressed upon him to share the word of God. Deciding it was better to float in a boat than be pushed into the water; Jesus got into Simon’s craft and asked him to thrust out from shore. Simon wasn’t overly excited about the idea. He, Andrew, and the Zebedee boys had been out all night fishing and had nothing to show for their labor but dirty nets. They were busy cleaning them when all the commotion started and he was past ready to be home. But it was Jesus asking, so he got in the boat and rowed out a bit.[3]

When the Master finished teaching, he looked over at Simon and said, “Take us out to the deep part of the lake and put your nets out for a haul of fish.” Simon eyed him. He looked to the shore at his brother rolling up their nets, James and John stowing theirs. “We’ve fished all night, Rabbi, and caught nothing,” he sighed, “But for you, I’ll put out a net.” Andrew wasn’t much happier than Simon when he got into the boat.

Far enough from shore to appear compliant, the brothers let the net out and began their drag. It was well past late morning. The sun was bright. The quicker they got this done, the sooner they would be home. They pulled in concert, hand over hand, expecting a speedy draw through the water as they had done a hundred times the night before. Only this time, the net fought back – hard. Simon’s expert hands felt the tremor of the net cords starting to give way. He bellowed toward shore and Zebedee’s rushed to the rescue. As the net came up out of the water, the fish poured into the hulls. It wasn’t until Simon realized that they were sinking under the weight of their catch that he came to himself. He fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Leave me, Lord. I’m a sinful man!”

His reaction is understandable, particularly in light of all that had transpired before. The man who had turned water to wine asked Simon to put his nets out for a catch of fish. Simon went out with one boat and one net and nearly lost it all. His actions showed his distrust and unbelief. Confronted with a miracle that more than made up for his morning’s labor and night’s loss in spite of his incredulity, Simon is appalled and ashamed and tells Jesus that he is not worthy of Him.

Have you ever been there? Has the Lord’s goodness ever appeared in your life just at the moment when you were tired and toiling and just going through the motions, not really expecting his grace and sure you were doing him a favor? I know it has happened to me. And my reaction was much like Peter’s: I am not worthy, best you leave now. After all, that’s what religion demands. Righteousness responds much differently.

“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said. “From now on, you will be a fisher of men.”[4] In the face of faithlessness, Jesus responds with a promise of greater responsibilities. To a man who says, “Get away from me, I’m not worthy” Jesus says, “Come along and work with me.” It is not what most of us expect. But it is how Jesus acts.

Peter walks with Jesus for three and a half years. He sees multitudes baptized, taught, and feed. He watches his Master heal the sick, cleanse lepers, raise the dead, and cast out devils. Then he and his companions do the same.[5] He goes to a mountain top and sees Jesus transformed to the brilliance of lightning and hears God speak from the glory cloud. He walks on the water to meet Jesus in the storm and is saved by the same. He stares dumbfounded as Jesus heals the ear of the high priest’s servant that he cut off. He witnesses Jesus being beaten while he denies ever knowing him. He watches him die under a dark sky, his blood pouring out until none is left. He runs to find an empty tomb and is confronted by Jesus while locked in a room. He sees him repeatedly while in the company of others, truly alive and all he ever said he was. And then Simon said, “I’m going fishing.”[6]

Simon’s declaration as recorded in John 21:3 is more than a recreational invitation to his friends. It is a declaration of going back to his old profession. What else was he supposed to do? He had denied the Lord in the face of accusation. He doubted Mary Magdalene when she told them that she had seen Jesus alive. And Jesus appeared to be in no rush to reestablish the kingdom of Israel. It was time to fish. At least he was good at that.

They fished all night and caught nothing. As the sun rose, a man called out to them from the shore, “Hey kids, do you have any fish?”[7] “No,” they said, perturbed they couldn’t sell to their first customer. “Throw the net out on the right side of the ship; that’s where the fish are,” the man called out. As they hauled in the catch, John realized who they were dealing with. “It’s the Lord!” he said to Peter, who promptly threw on his coat and dove for shore.

For men who had decided to abandon the ministry of catching men for the simpler enterprise of netting schools, Jesus had made breakfast. “Come and eat,” he says and serves them. It’s not what we expect when we abandon him. Somehow, we think he is going to berate us, cut us off from supply, sit back and wait for our devotion. But that is not how Jesus is. He filled their boat, he filled their stomachs, he filled their hearts.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” How could we not?


[1] John 2:11. This narrative is a composite of the Gospel accounts. When the record of John is laid alongside the details given in Matthew, Mark, and Luke it becomes apparent that the wedding feast of Cana occurred prior to Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. I believe Matthew 4:11 happens after John 2:11. Mark’s “immediately” (Greek, euthus) in Mark 1:12 is a rhetorical signature of his writing. Of 56 uses of the Greek euthus in the New Testament, Mark uses it 42 times.

[2] See Luke 4

[3] The narrative is now squarely in Luke 5.

[4] This is the sense of the Greek and the phrasing of the Spanish. There is an exquisite near pun in the Reina Valera version (which I tend to think of as the Spanish equivalent to the King James) of Luke 5. Simon says he is a sinful man, hombre pecador in Spanish. Jesus says he’ll be a fisher of men, pescador de hombres.

[5] Matthew  10:1-8

[6] The narrative is now squarely in John 21.

[7] John 21:3 from the NIV – Nik’s Improvised Version.


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