Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time: I am a Sinful Man
Late again. REALLY late. I actually had the main idea worked out two weeks ago Sunday, and I started writing it last week. But somehow things got away from me. In any event, The theme struck me immediately after reading the readings, and it fits perfectly with the beginning of Lent. I hope it speaks to you.
Two weeks ago, the Gospel reading from Luke marked the opening of Jesus’ public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth. Reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus declared that he was anointed by God to “bring glad tidings to the poor,” to “proclaim liberty to captives,” “to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” In other words, his public ministry was to preach, to teach, and to bring succor to those at the margins of society. Or, as Dorothy Day trenchantly put it when describing her own ministry, following in the footsteps of Jesus, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” with his message.
In today’s reading, we hear about Jesus teaching the crowds. Luke tells us nothing of what he said, though in the passage just before this reading, Jesus tells the people in Capernaum that “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God:” a kingdom in which the words of the prophets would be fulfilled, one in which mercy and love would be the paramount virtues, and in which the lowly would be raised up and the mighty thrown down.
But instead of focusing on Jesus’ teaching, Luke uses this episode to describe Jesus calling his first disciples: Simon Peter, James and John, fishermen working in their boats on the sea of Galilee. After pressing them into service to help him preach to the crowds, Jesus works a miracle, producing of a great catch of fish that nearly swamps Peter’s boat. This can be seen as a reward for Peter, both for helping Jesus and also making up for a long night of fruitless labor. But like the miracle at Cana in John’s gospel, this miracle is a sign, foreshadowing both Jesus’ ministry and the labors of his disciples. Luke is showing us in retrospect what those first disciples could not yet see: that there would be long periods of work with no reward, endless days when they seemed to toil in vain, but in the end the reward will be great. In the fullness of time, the catch will be great, and many will be gathered from the east and west into the Kingdom of God. They would indeed be fishers of men.
Peter’s response to this miracle is surprising. Presented with such a catch, you would expect a fisherman to rejoice at his luck, or pour out his gratitude to Jesus. But instead, Peter falls to his knees before Jesus, confessing his sins: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Peter realizes from this sign, though perhaps incompletely, that he is in the presence of God. He is like Elizabeth, 30 years before, when a pregnant Virgin Mary visited her. Then, encountering God hidden in the womb, she cried out, “how does this happen to me, that the Mother of my Lord should visit me?” But now Peter sees Jesus clearly before him, and inspired by the Spirit recognizes his Lord. He feels himself unworthy: why would God’s anointed come to him, let alone perform such a miracle for his benefit?
Jesus, however, seems to ignore Peter’s confession. Though Luke does not say, one can imagine that he first reached down and pulled Peter to his feet, looking at him face to face. He then gave him the commission that would change his life forever: “Do not be afraid: from now on you will be catching men.” Compare this to the story of the prodigal son, when the father ignores his sons tearful repentance and proclaims a feast of joy. In both cases we see that God looks beyond our human condition, our failings, and reveals the depths of his love. By human standards, Peter, James and John are of no particular importance. But in God’s hands they will become the first witnesses of the gospel.
Like the disciples, like Paul, by our baptism we are called to be witnesses of the gospel. We are called to preach, by our words and actions, so that others might believe “that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.” The gift of faith has been given to us, not to hoard, but to share with a world that needs it more than ever. We need to bring our faith into confrontation with a world that accepts poverty, violence, shallow consumerism, not as sins crying out to God but simply as the way things are.
But like Peter and Paul, or the prophet Isaiah before them, we feel ourselves unworthy. We do not know what to say or what to do. We are distracted by the cares of daily life, embedded in a society where it seems easier to turn away from evil than to confront it, easier to hide our faith than to share it, or even live it openly. But just as God sent an angel with a burning coal to purify the heart and mouth of Isaiah, God wants to make us clean. He wants to give us the grace to make his love manifest. Through the sacrament of reconciliation God will help us stand before him. Even as we confess our sins, in his mercy he wipes them away and embraces us. If we accept God’s mercy, we are able to show mercy to one another.
Embrace this gift of forgiveness! Accept his mercy and become fishers of men. Like the disciples, the labor will seem hard, and the rewards few. But the world needs us. It needs God’s love.