by Fr. Richard G. Cipolla
"But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying: 'Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.'" (Luke 5:8)
This gospel seems straightforward. Jesus wants to teach the crowd from a boat, sees that Simon’s boat is empty, asks him to pull out a little from the shore and starts speaking to the crowd. When he is done, he tells Simon Peter to bring the boat into deeper water to get a good catch. Simon explains that they have been trying all night long with no success. They are tired and discouraged. But Simon does as Jesus tells him and they not only catch a lot of fish, but there are so many fish the boats almost capsize. The allegorical level so far would also seem obvious. Peter’s boat is the Church, and to increase the number of followers of Jesus Christ, the Church cannot stay in the shallows but has to go out into the deep and trust in the Lord and there will be a huge increase in the members of Christ’s body that is the Church.
But the jarring element in this gospel is Peter’s reaction to the amazing catch of fish. Remember that this is how he earned his living. And this was the greatest catch he had ever experienced. Suppose you were a bond trader and one morning you had more trades than you have ever had and you made a huge profit in just an hour. What would your reaction be? Suppose you were a house painter, and one day you received fifty phone calls asking for your services and everyone offered you a payment for your services that was far and above what you ordinarily receive. Suppose you were a real estate agent, and after months of no sales, in one hour fifty homes that were your listings all sold and at a greatly inflated price. You get the picture.
And what would your reaction be to this unbelievable windfall? The answer is obvious. It would not be Simon Peter’s reaction: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." For most of us his reaction is a non-sequitur. It does not make sense to us. He should be happy, very happy. He should have hugged Jesus with a broad smile on his face. But no. Get out of my boat, I don’t want you here because I am a sinful man, O Lord. Notice the 'O Lord'. What is the meaning of this reaction?
What happened to Peter at this moment is first of all his intense awareness of the presence of the divine in this miraculous catch. For the first time he sees Jesus as the Lord, as the presence in some way he could not describe of the divine, of God. Luke says: For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish they had made. Luke, the master of understatement for effect. Peter interprets the great catch, the windfall, the unexpected success, not to the market forces, or to luck, or to personal merit, intellectual or otherwise. Peter immediately knows that what has happened has nothing to do with him. But would you and I think in this way? Would not most of us attribute the windfall at least in part to our own skill, our own hard work, our own insight into market forces or whatever? We would reinterpret the event and would re-interpret ourselves in the light of our great success. And this would be very bad, for it is an offense against reality, especially the reality of ourselves. The Italians say: cose succedono: things happen. But when good things happen, even if we piously say things like, thanks, Lord, we purr with satisfaction at our own triumph. This can be seen in that Calvinistic attitude—whether or not Calvin would have totally approved we do not know—that worldly success is a sign of God’s favor, which interpretation greatly influenced Protestant Christianity in this country. Apparently those who fell into this way of thinking never read the book of Job, which demolishes any such ordinary link.
But with Peter it is deeper than this, for he has a flash of insight about himself, about who he really is, a flash that exposes his sinfulness to himself, and he is appalled and frightened, and recognizes in some way he could never explain that the man in his boat sees him as he really is and that the two of them cannot be in the same place, the sinner cannot abide to be in the presence of the holy. Perhaps Peter sees in this flash of insight where he will be led and the shape of his cross, perhaps he sees his denial of the man in the boat, all in this flash of a nanosecond. Without this moment of truth about oneself, never mind Peter, the truth about you and me, without this moment of insight into who we really are, the boat goes nowhere. And Jesus understands Peter’s reaction, he understands that Peter has had a moment of truth about the reality of himself and that it has shaken him. And what is Jesus’ response: Do not be afraid; from now on you will catch men. No more fishing. No more bad catches, good catches. Nor more ordinary living. To bring the message and reality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world to the world: there is the new job of Peter and the others. And to do this they have to give everything up. They left all and followed him. What does this mean? What happened to Peter’s wife? His children, if he had any? Not gone, surely. But no longer the primary focus of his life. And yet a married man has a solemn obligation to his family, to be a husband and father. But even this is transcended in this calling that requires the total self, heart, body, mind, soul.
But let us back up. The first words. Those are important to Peter and to us. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Those words that St John Paul II said when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s after his election to the papacy: his first words to the crowd: non abbi paura. And Jesus has to say this to Peter and the other disciples, for he knows what it will demand to be his disciple in the deepest sense. He knows the opposition of the world all too well, that opposition that will crucify him. And yet he says those words in the face of Peter’s crucifixion: do not be afraid. He can say this because he is the Lord of world who understands the terrible power of the world, the violent opposition of the world to the truth and therefore to him, and he alone can see beyond Peter’s denial of him and beyond Peter’s crucifixion to the triumph of the resurrection that is the beginning of the triumph over sin and death and the coming of the one who has said and says and will say: "See I make all things new. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end." Maranatha. Lord, come quickly.