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The Translation of Wonder (John 5:10)

by John Stendahl

John Stendahl is pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Newtons in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

John Stendahl is pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Newtons in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. This article appeared in the Christian Century, January 28, 1998, page 79; copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


"From now on you will be catching people." -- Luke 5:10

This fishing motif has traditionally been regarded as a kind of recruiting slogan. But I confess to thinking that Jesus could have done better. Despite its ghastly ironies, the U.S. Army’s invitation to "Be all you can be" has a lot more going for it. Even a simple "God wants you" or the mysterious authority of "Follow me" seems more stirring. This business of "fishing for people" (Matthew and Mark) or "catching them alive" (Luke’s version) is a rather weak pitch for a vocation of renunciation and discipleship.

Just what does it mean, this offer and vocation? Perhaps its very ambiguity is part of the hook. Perhaps the disciples left their nets precisely because they wanted to find out what these words meant. It may be that it is curiosity as much as any reward or understood promise that draws people down the gospel road.

Or, then again, perhaps this offer is -- as it has especially seemed to Americans -- really a promise about success in evangelism: not just catching fishes anymore but pulling in shoals of people, drawing in netloads of human beings for Jesus. Perhaps we are to think this is the selling point: a promise, quite literally, of attractiveness, to become one of those who would make so great and growing a company from the small band of Jesus’ followers.

Or perhaps, as some exegetes have argued, Jesus is suggesting a more eschatological success: Simon and his mates will pull the nets for the great apocalyptic catch, they will sit to cull the bad from the good, they will be like the angels or the courtiers of God’s kingdom rather than part of the teeming masses to be judged.

Or again, and probably most appealing to my own sensibility, the imagery may speak of that work which gathers and connects, which binds in networks of new and unsought relationships. The church’s nets are often ripped by the strain of so many live fish. Yet the parallel story in John 21 says that the net did not burst, "though the fish were so many." John, so often dualistic, pictures the net as elastic and strong.

Note that Luke does not give us a story of Jesus walking the shore to recruit his disciples with imperative or ambiguous words of call. What engages Simon is not a recruitment slogan, and it may be that all the above speculation on the meaning of Jesus’ words has short-circuited the narrative. "Catching people" may be a powerful description of what Simon will be doing, but it is not what captures him. Luke’s story about the beginning of discipleship is not a story about calling but a story about fishing.

Of course, fish stories are usually stories of prodigious surprise, of unlikely triumphs or amazing brushes with elusive glory. To fish is to depend on the unseen, to be blessed or cursed by what is hidden in the waters. Strange things happen; sometimes the fish disappear, and sometimes the mysterious sea delivers up its bounty where none would have been expected. Sometimes, as in the Johannine version, a foolish suggestion to move a tiny distance can make all the difference.

I am not a fisherman myself, and some years ago my consistent failure in attempts to catch fish prompted me to think that I was not merely up against the operation of ordinary luck; instead it was my fate that was dooming me to catchlessness. This distinction in turn led me to the playful imagination that there might be an even higher or deeper determination, a destiny surprising and sweet enough to overturn the certainty of fate. "Or what’s a heaven for?"

Those who depend upon the sea for their livelihood know the contingency and fragility of life and fortune. Luke 5 is another fishing story about an amazing catch. Yet Simon’s remarkable response to his good fortune is not to exult but to fall at Jesus’ knees in humility. The blessing brings forth his sense of unworthiness. The fish story thus becomes not about luck, but about blessing. It becomes personal, and Simon’s wonder turns from simple and greedy pleasure to deep awe at the unearned gift.

In his lovely book on St. Francis, G.K. Chesterton employs the conceit of Francis as a jongleur, a medieval tumbler, and bids us imagine Francis as someone who sees his world upside down. Such a vision leaves all things the same, except that now they are seen to hang, literally depend, on the grace of God. The very objects that seemed most secure, the heaviest walls and strongest battlements, are revealed as helpless and imperiled. Francis "might love his little town as much as before, or more than before, but the nature of his love would be altered even in being increased. . . . Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards."

Fish stories may be more about contingency than dependency, and Simon is not regarding the whole of the cosmos here. But what he does, like Chesterton’s Francis, is to translate ordinary fortune into humbling wonder. What scary privilege and gift that this should happen, and that I should be here! That translation from luck to grace is what makes a miracle of what might otherwise have been just another fisherman’s tale. And it is, Luke seems to tell us, where the disciple’s vocation begins.

Jesus does not leave Simon on his knees. He bids him leave his fear behind and offers him larger scope for his wonder.


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