Feb 6, 2016

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time: "Go fishing once more"

"Put out into deep water"
(James Tissot)

Is 6: 1-2a, 3-8
1 Cor 15: 1-11
Lk 5: 1-11

We hear a lot of talk these days about the economy and the employment rate or unemployment rate depending how you want to look at it.  In this hyper-political election year it is on the mind of each candidate and in their speeches of the multiple promises they make and the ability they have to fix everything economic and assure decent jobs for everyone. 

Those decent jobs would imply that workers are paid a living wage, treated fairly and justly, have a clear description of what the job entails, and are able to use their skills productively, with some provisions made for the future such as some savings for retirement and health insurance coverage. There are many hopes this work will be productive. Most people would work over time to move on to something better and with higher pay so it would be foolish to simply walk away from a good job with no guarantee of what the future might bring. You would carefully move forward with some assurance that you were getting into a better position.

Our scriptures this Sunday speak to us of at least three people who were invited albeit in mysterious ways to move forward to a new position far beyond simply job improvement:  Isaiah, Paul, and Peter with his other companions.  For Isaiah it was a mysterious vision of God himself as he offered prayer in the Temple; for Paul it was a vision of the risen Christ who invited him to move from a rabid enemy of Christians to the next Apostle of the new Way, now out to the greater world; for Peter and his companions it was an invitation from Jesus to now engage in another way of fishing after they are astonished by Jesus command to, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets . . .”

On one level I’ve wondered how any one of them could have refused after such deeply personal experiences. Still, on a human level, Isaiah, Paul and the early disciples were invited to move from what was secure and familiar to set out into the unknown. 

Isaiah was called to prophetically preach to a people being attacked on all sides and who’s very national existence was being threatened. 

Paul was called to adopt a new identity and put himself at great risk in setting out to the pagan ancient world to confront attitudes and perspectives that would be greatly fearful for the average person.  Scholars tell us that Paul likely traveled about 15,000 miles in his three missionary journeys and suffered great peril in the process.

Finally, Peter and the early disciples were invited to now, “fish for men (people)” with no guarantee other than a massive display after Jesus’ command to them to try once more. 

What they all have in common is that each invitation, or new prospect, gave none of them any promises or clear job descriptions. This was for them, a call to a new way of living and a mission far greater than themselves.  The Gospel this Sunday is perhaps the clearest example of what each call entailed. 

In the ancient world for one to simply set out on their own would be foolishness.  Supporters and patrons were needed since the so called central government made no personal guarantees of support. Patrons were sought after and it was common for those wealthier or more influential to search out clients who would both help them and to whom they could offer some better way of life. 

As Jesus engaged the crowd in his unique style of teaching, he recognizes potential new clients who have just finished their fishing after a long day of catching nothing.  While they seem to be closing up, he gets into one of their fishing boats and invites them to try once more: “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”  Most likely startled at Jesus’ request nonetheless Peter states with respect: “Master we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.  But at your command, I will lower the nets.”

We can only speculate what Peter may have silently thought or the other fishermen as well: “What does this preacher know about fishing? Still, the crowds seem to love him so we’ll play along.” 

At any rate, what happened next profoundly touched them when the number of fish pulled up to the boat was so overwhelming that it filled two of these large boats nearly causing them to sink!  Imagine for a moment what that must have been like.  The nets were not flimsy but strong ropes tied together to catch and hold any fish unfortunate enough to swim by into the waiting nets below the surface.  The boats, according to archaeological, research held at least ten men plus fishing gear, meaning they too needed to be sturdy vessels.  And all this, at least two boats, filled with so many fish they nearly sank! 

Peter is moved to recognize the power which Jesus had and falls at his feet.  Yet, it was not uncommon for clients to acknowledge the influence their new patron would potentially have.  Just imagine what the fishing trade could now be like with this preacher’ influence.  He could only bring us more wealth and success so let’s follow him. 

With a somewhat cryptic invitation about “fishing for men” these new clients of Jesus leave everything no doubt with great hopes for a better life.  We often read such passage through our lens of faith, however.  Of course that is not wrong as such but to imagine that Isaiah, Paul and these early disciples of Jesus understood the full implications of what was in store for them and what would be the end result, may be putting the proverbial cart before the scriptural horse. 

Undoubtedly, though, what Jesus did moved these men to recognize great potential and so they eagerly accepted Jesus invitation to come and see what was in store.  Over time, and not in one instant, they came to see more fully what it all meant to “fish for people” which has been seen as an image of the Church.

The lesson for us in all these mysterious events is that we too are called to the same trust and humility that we see displayed by Isaiah, Paul and Peter.  Peter’s now profession: “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” is something of what we should feel in the presence of the divine. 

During the celebration of the Eucharist, we are invited to an encounter with both God’s living word and to come and receive his very Body and Blood into our far more weak and broken lives.  We begin each Mass with recognition of our sinfulness and throughout we plead, “Lord, have mercy.”  When we come to receive the Lord, we bow in adoration and leave at the end to engage the message of the Gospel with our brothers and sisters both in our shared faith and beyond.  As priest and celebrant my own personal recognition of sinfulness is never far behind the people I serve.

It’s a tall order for any of us but God promises to take up the task with us.  After all, it is his mission we share in.  

You never forsake the works of your wisdom,
but by your providence are even now at work in our midst.
With mighty hand and outstretched arm
 you led your people Israel through the desert.
Now, as your Church makes her pilgrim journey in the world,
you always accompany her
by the power of the Holy Spirit
and lead her along the pats of time
to the eternal joy of your Kingdom.

(From the Preface,
Eucharistic Prayer 2 for special needs)