(Read time: approximately 4 minutes.)
The Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – provide a remarkable look into first century life on the shores of the Mediterranean, and in Israel particularly. They offer fascinating insights into family and village life, religious and political aspirations, and interpersonal relationships.
What the Gospels do best, however, is offer a captivating portrait of Jesus. Albert Einstein, when asked about Christianity’s influence in his life, answered: “I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.” He went on to say, “No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”
One of the many inspiring portraits of Jesus in the Gospels concerns an early meeting between Jesus and the commercial fisherman Simon, whom we know as St. Peter, the leader of Jesus’s apostles. After a long and unproductive night on the lake, Simon and the other commercial fisherman were cleaning their nets and getting them ready for the next night’s operation.
As they worked, they listened to Jesus teaching the people who were crowded around him at the water’s edge. Jesus then got into Simon’s boat and asked him to put it out a little from the shore. Sitting in the bow, Jesus taught the crowds edging the shoreline while Simon and his fellow fisherman worked and listened.
When Jesus was finished teaching and Simon was putting his nets away, Jesus told him to put out into deep water and let down his nets. Jesus had first asked Simon to do a small thing: put the boat out a few feet from shore, which Simon willingly did. Now, Jesus told Simon to do a bigger thing: to put out in deep water and let down his commercial fishing nets for a catch.
This seems to be a pattern with Jesus, who operated by the principle: “Faithfulness in a few things leads to responsibility over many things.” Because this is the way the spiritual life works, people who are always looking for big experiences to sustain their faith end up undermining their own efforts. Faith only grows as it is acted upon, and it is acted upon in small things first.
The text makes it clear that Simon Peter was not anxious to comply. “Master, we’ve worked hard all night. . .” I can imagine that he paused at this point, waiting for Jesus to say, “Oh, I didn’t know. Really, never mind.” But Jesus remained quiet. “ . . and haven’t caught anything.”
Simon wanted Jesus to know that he was tired and that he thought this was a bad idea. He didn’t want to say no, but he was hoping that Jesus would change his mind. But Jesus did not change his mind. Simon sighed and continued, “But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
The result was an enormous catch. Simon would not have understood a lecture on phenomenology or an Athanasian-type explication of the divine nature, so Jesus gave him something he did understand: fish.
This was the wrong time of day to catch fish. Simon understood that. He and the other fisherman were likely using a linen “trammel net.” These nets were visible to fish during the daytime, which is one reason commercial fishermen worked nights. It made no sense to try to fish with a linen net during the daytime. Yet, because of Jesus, these fishermen had their biggest catch ever. That was also something Simon understood.
Jesus speaks to people in ways they understand. He speaks to the poet in meter, to the architect in blueprints, to the child in games and laughter, to the wise in wisdom, to the fool in folly. He speaks to Einstein in mathematical formulae, and to Francis Collins in ribonucleic acids. He speaks to fisherman in fish.
When he speaks to us, it is in a language we understand. This is one of the beautiful lessons the Gospels teach: God comes to us where we are and speaks to us in a language we can understand—and we don’t need to be Einstein to understand what he is saying.