We have just heard of Jesus inviting fishermen to leave their business and follow him. They were Peter and his brother, Andrew, who were in a fishing partnership with another pair of brothers, James and John. Between them they owned at least two boats and we are told that they ‘left everything’ to follow Jesus. Are we to presume, then, that they folded their business to do this?
Just under 40 years ago, in 1986, a typical fishing boat of the brothers’ period, carbon dated to belong between 140 BC and 40 AD, was discovered under mud, close to the shore of the Sea of Galilee where they fished. The boat is 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and 4.5 feet high. Anthropologists estimate that the average Galilean man of this period was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed an average of 10 stones or 140 pounds. And as such a boat could fit up to 15 men, it could easily take on board the big haul of fish mentioned in the Gospel.
As it is likely that this fishing partnership of Peter, Andrew, James and John flourished, we have to ask: what prompted these businessmen to leave everything and follow Jesus (Lk 5:11)?
After a fruitless night’s fishing – fishermen then fished most successfully at night – and against their better judgement, the brothers went back out fishing in daylight. St Luke says that they were so overcome with the size of their catch that it led one of them, Peter, to say to Jesus: ‘leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’
To grasp what St Luke is telling us about Peter’s experience, we need to look at what happened to Isaiah in the first reading. He experienced an awesome manifestation of divine power, which he could only describe as “I saw the Lord seated on a high throne”. He saw heavenly beings called seraphs singing words of praise to God that we use now in every Mass: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts! Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest!” For Peter, his experience of awesome divine power arose from seeing the huge catch of fish after a night of catching nothing.
In their experiences of divine power, both Peter and Isaiah were overcome with a profound sense of unworthiness. “What a wretched state I am in,” says Isaiah. “I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips, and I liver among a people of unclean lips; and [yet] my eyes have looked up the King, the Lord of hosts!” Peter’s reaction to his own experience of this power is to fall at the feet of Jesus and say, “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Both men were overcome with a sense of profound unworthiness. However, in spite of feeling this way, both were still called to do God’s. work. In Isaiah’s case he felt a seraph touch his lips with a burning coal to ‘cleanse’ or purify him to speak God’s words so that when he hears the voice of the Lord asking for a volunteer, Isaiah is ready to say: “Here I am, send me.” His calling and response are celebrated in the well-known hymn ‘Here I Am, Lord’.
Similarly, Peter, in his state of unworthiness, hears Jesus calling and appointing him: “Do not be afraid; from now on you it is people you will catch.” In other words, Jesus says to him: you may be unworthy but I still want you to do my work. As the saying goes, God chooses not those who are worthy but those whom he may.
Sometimes, like Isaiah, St Peter, St Paul, Moses and others in the Bible, we too can be overcome with a sense of unworthiness when we experience something of God’s presence. When we do, God does not expect us to remain in guilt or remorse. Figuratively speaking, and as with Isaiah, God can touch us and heal us through the death and resurrection of Jesus which wipes away all our sins. The Bible is full of stories of flawed people called to God’s work and remaining flawed throughout their lives. To us, as Isaiah and Peter discovered, God says to us in various ways: “Forget about your unworthiness, you still are important to me. If you want, you can still do good work and be my servant. And however daunted you may feel, I’ll see that you get the support you need.”
So, please, let nothing in your life – past or present – stop you from responding to any invitation from God or your Church to serve or do good for others.
Holy Name, Jesmond
6 February 2022