A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After The Epiphany: February 10, 2019: Luke 5:1-11

1    It happened
         when the crowd pressed upon him
             and to hear the argument of Elohim.
         He was standing beside the lake, Gennesaret
2    He saw two boats standing by the lake.
          (The seamen,
               going away from them,
          were cleaning their nets.)
3    He got into one of the boats
          (which was Shimon’s).
     He asked him to put out away from the land a little.
     He sat.
         Out of the boat he was teaching the crowds.
4    As he paused speaking,
     he said to Shimon:
         Put out into the deep.
         Let down your nets
             into a catch.
5    Shimon answered,
     he said:
         Boss,
             through the whole night
                 we worked.
                     Nothing we caught.
            At your word,
                I will let down the nets.
6    When they did this
          they enclosed a great multitude of fish.
              They were ripping their nets.
7        They motioned to their partners in the other boat
               in order that they came to help take hold together.
         They came.
         They filled both boats
              so that they were sinking.
8    Shimon Peter (Rock) saw,
     he fell to the knees of Joshua.
     He said:
         Go away from me:
             A man,
                  non-observant,
              I am,
              haShem.
9                 For amazement had seized him
                      and all those with him
                  at the catch of the fish that they took.
10                   Likewise also Yaakov and Yochanon
                          sons of Zebedee (Gift of Elohim)
                              (who were partners with Shimon)
         He said to Shimon
         Joshua did:
             Stop being afraid.
                 From now
                     people you will be taking prisoner

  (or brought back to life)
11    They brought the boat to the land.
       They left everything.
       They followed him.

A Question or Two:

  • What does teaching have to do with fishing?

Some Longer Reflections:

Three little things:

First: You probably noticed that I do not translate Ἐπιστάτα in v. 5 as “Master,” though this is the customary translation. That is a perfectly good translation, but it sounds awfully religious in my ears. And the “religious” aspect tilts interpreters toward reading Peter as deferring to Jesus’ better judgment. He is the savior of the world, after all.

I translate Ἐπιστάτα as “boss.” Hear the scene carefully. Peter earns his living by fishing. Jesus is the son of a builder, apparently, which means when the task at hand is fishing, he is the best carpenter in the room.

Jesus has just told Peter to do something pointless. Peter knows it because he knows his trade. Peter says, “Boss….”

Did you ever work for a boss who repeatedly told workers to do useless things? I have. More than once. When I made my living as a meat cutter, I heard old, experienced butchers respond to inexperienced store managers (rookie managers ALWAYS have great ideas). I have heard people who knew their trade say, “Whatever you say, boss, but that won’t work.”

You earn the right to speak that directly. And sometimes you get fired for it, even though you had more than earned the right.

In such responses, the word “boss” has a particular edge to it. If you’ve heard it, you know. “Sure thing, boss,” says the worker who only does stupid things when she is ordered to do them. “Sure thing,” says Peter. Listen for the edge in his voice. He knows what he is talking about.

Second: When Peter sees the amazing result of doing something impossibly stupid, he asks Jesus to go away, because he is (in Greek) ἀνὴρ ἁμαρτωλός. This is usually translated as “a sinful man.” That, again, is a workable translation. The problem arises because our imaginations ordinarily go wild when we hear that someone is sinful. To be sure, our imaginations traditionally get really wild when the “sinner” is a woman. We let men off easier, in my experience.

But even if we just engage in theological imagination, the word “sinful” drags unhelpful elements into the story. At the least, interpreters make Peter “by nature sinful and unclean.” At worst, we foam at the mouth as we visualize God’s implacable wrath in the face of inescapable human sinfulness. Sometimes we even imagine that God has to kill us because “he” loves us so much.

In my estimation, our theological imagination goes rancid whenever we fixate on imagining God’s anger.

The thing to remember is that this is a Jewish story. Jesus is Jewish. Peter is Jewish. Everyone in the scene is Jewish, including the storyteller. And in a Jewish story, ἁμαρτωλός is best translated as “non-observant.” That COULD mean that Peter is a notorious criminal, but it most commonly means nothing more than that he did not keep kosher.

A dear friend of mine, Murray Haar, tells the rabbinic story of a shopkeeper who was distraught because his business situation made it necessary to open his shop on sabbath. He apologized to his rabbi, telling him that he wanted to be fully observant, but he had Gentile customers who shopped on Saturday morning, and he had to be open. His family needed the money.

The rabbi asked him, “So you’re NOT open all day on sabbath?”

“No,” said the man,”only for four hours in the morning.”

“So,” said the rabbi, “on sabbath you work for 4 hours, and rest for 20. Maybe next week you can rest for 21 hours?”

My friend and colleague then notes that the rabbis sometimes ask why it is that God has given us 413 commandments.

When I first heard that there were not just Ten Commandments, but 413, I was a college student. My teacher, a notable Lutheran, explained that “Jews were in such terror of the wrath of God that they multiplied commandments to make a fence around the Commandments.” This explanation works best if you have never read the rabbis.

According to my friend, the reason given by the rabbis for so very many commandments is simple: there are 413 commandments so that, no matter who you are, there will be at least one that you can keep.

Think about that.

This is not a terrified theology. Behind such a theological understanding is a God who gets it: human beings are not perfect. No kidding. God’s grace does not look for perfection. But maybe there’s at least one thing you can do that will point to the lovingkindness of God? Good. Do that.

So why does Peter tell Jesus to go away?

That leads to the third thing: the amazing haul of fish is a not just a sign that EVERYBODY will be having fish for supper (and breakfast and lunch). The amazing haul is a sign, just as the amazing harvests in 2 Baruch are signs, signs that God is finally turning the world right-side-up, finally setting it free from futility.

By the time of Jesus, Jews had been expecting God to finally turn the world right-side-up for many generations. Peter knows that his great-great-grandmother had looked for the Creation to be freed from futility. He knows that her great-great-grandmother had died looking for that liberation. Such long waiting makes hope holy. Peter’s immediate reaction makes perfect sense. All of his grandmothers had waited and waited, aching to see justice and flourishing. He sees the haul of fish as the eruption of their hopes in the midst of his very ordinary life. His first words are: “This is too holy for a regular guy. My grandmothers should see this, not me.” I get that.

So this scene starts with a regular guy who knows his trade reacting to a rookie suggestion. “Whatever you say, boss,” he says. But then he sees a sign that old hopes are suddenly blooming. And this regular guy is overwhelmed. I pay attention when regular guys are overwhelmed. I trust them.

4 thoughts on “A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After The Epiphany: February 10, 2019: Luke 5:1-11

  1. Beautifully written Dr. Swanson. I especially like the way you’ve ended it, I pay attention when the regular guys are overwhelmed. It inspires such awe toward Jesus. Someone who can go from Mundane to majestic. Thanks.

    Like

  2. Beautifully written Dr. Swanson. I especially like the way you’ve ended it, I pay attention when the regular guys are overwhelmed. It inspires such awe toward Jesus. Someone who can go from Mundane to majestic. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “so that, no matter who you are, there will be at least one that you can keep.”
    “This is too holy for a regular guy. My grandmothers should see this, not me.”
    Thanks!
    Oh, to even be a regular guy!

    Liked by 1 person

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