Piles and Piles of Floppy Fish

I’ve recently been studying the biblical story of Jesus calling his first disciples, in Luke 5:1-11. And there’s been one question in particular that’s been stuck in my craw: Why did Jesus have Simon Peter go out to catch fish that day?

Was it kind of like paying “rent” for his use of the boat as his ad hoc pulpit? Was Jesus hungry — looking for a small smackerel of mackerel? Was it a demonstration of power in Simon Peter’s fisherman “language?”

Think about it. Simon Peter and his partners had this massive, potentially-historic haul of fish… And then, presumably, they left all the fish flopping by the side of the sea to rot or for others to take to market. Because the text itself seems to indicate that neither Jesus nor Simon Peter, nor James, nor John benefited from the bounty of fish. It says that, “as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus.”

I’ve been thinking about this image of the flopping fish all week. It feels wasteful. It feels weird.

I think Simon Peter may have been wrecked by it, too. The text says directly that “he was awestruck.” But you can see it, too, in the way that he falls down on his knees, asking for Jesus to go away, and confessing, “I’m such a sinful man.” Simon Peter didn’t seem messed up by the wastefulness or weirdness of the flopping fish (like me). He seemed to be more bothered by what the flopping fish said about him as a person.

Simon Peter had just been going about his everyday life, probably doing the same thing he’d been doing six days a week since he was a boy, apprenticing in the family fishing business. He didn’t ask for Jesus to come into his space. But Jesus did come into his space. To the point that I even wonder if Jesus’ arrival felt a bit rude and abrupt to Simon Peter. Jesus presumed to use his fishing boat for his pulpit. And then, when he was finished with his sermon, he gave Simon Peter, the fisherman, instructions about fishing. I feel like I can hear some frustration in Simon Peter’s voice, when he says, “Master… we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so…” If I was in Simon Peter’s shoes, I’d be like, “Listen. I’m the expert here. I don’t need no fishing lessons from no rabbi, or carpenter, or whatever-you-are.”

But something about Jesus was more powerful than Simon Peter’s doubts. Maybe it was social convention, like a duty to be polite or accommodate a religious teacher… Maybe it was a certain charm or charisma, like a twinkle in Jesus’ eye… Or maybe it was the Spirit of God at work in his heart…

In any event, he went along with Jesus. He spent a little bit of time on a boat ride with Jesus, and he took little steps of obedience to follow Jesus.

He dragged his freshly-washed nets, his weary body, his skeptical mind, and his weary crew — and he sailed, or rowed, out to the deep part of the lake. He dropped his nets into the water, where Jesus said he should drop his nets. And then, all of a sudden, he had more fish than he knew what to do with. He had to call for back-up from his business partners, and even then they filled two boats until they were both overflowing with fish. To the point that they were on the verge of sinking!

Jesus came into Simon Peter’s space. And after the historic haul of fish came along with him, Simon Peter recognized that any previous presumption of superiority and self-control was silly. His weaknesses and limitations were overshadowed and overwhelmed by God’s power. And in that moment, he realized, “It’s not about the fish.”

The power and presence of God are far more significant than any individual’s successes or failures. This is significant for us, too. Not just for people inclined to count their successes and failures in terms of fish.

It goes for the state of my mental health (or illness). It goes for my physical abilities (or disabilities). It goes for my relationships (or estrangements). We’re often inclined to look towards God as one to meet needs, grant wishes, and fix problems. I know that I do this, anyway, when it comes to my insufficiency… my insecurity… my failures… my loneliness… my “lack of fish.”

And there’s something to this. Jesus can meet needs, solve problems, drive out demons, and bring in a bounty of fish. But it’s not so we can prosper in our everyday lives. It’s so we can know Him and walk with Him. And this calling is so total that we must leave all other forms of our identity and “expertise” behind.

It’s not about your college major or career choices. It’s not about how much money you have, or what your relationship status might be. It’s not about where you live or what team you cheer for. It’s not about how strong your Instagram game may be. Believe it or not, it’s not even about what kind of mark you make on history or what kind of legacy you leave behind. When Jesus calls us to follow him, just as he called Simon Peter, we have an opportunity. Not just to get good stuff. But to get God Himself.

And that changes everything.

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