Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
“If You Say So”
I had a phone conversation this week with an old friend, who called to let me know that a big life-change is ahead. She’s younger than I am, in the prime of her career. She’s spent more than a decade in a settled position where she has built a thriving program in a large community. Everywhere she goes, she sees the fruits of her labor. She is well loved and appreciated in that familiar context, but for some time she has felt a restlessness, a hunger, that she hasn’t quite been able to name.
I knew before she called that she had been testing the waters, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that a move was imminent. What I hadn’t expected was that she would be trading a bustling campus—where her future is secure—for a nearly empty building, void of guarantees. My friend and her family will be moving hundreds of miles to work with a community that has experienced deep loss and longs for rebirth.
I’ve thought a lot this week about that friend, because today’s passage from Luke is all about what God can do with empty places.
The encounter begins as Jesus spots an empty boat. It’s empty because the night of fishing has concluded. It’s empty because not a single fish was landed. It’s empty because the fishermen are now washing their nets and readying their hearts for home. Skilled fishermen have given it their best—but come up dry.
Do you have those days? When the hours you spend tending tasks and relationships leave you with little to show but your own weariness? As the passage opens, Peter must be ready to pack it in.
But Jesus doesn’t ask for Peter’s permission; Jesus just gets in the boat and asks to be taken out a little way. He needs some distance from the crowd in order to be seen and heard—calm, cool water acts as a natural amplifier for sound waves. The empty vessel is just what Jesus needs, if the word of God is to be shared that day.
To be fair, had Jesus asked, it’s hard to imagine Peter refusing. The way that Luke tells the story, this isn’t the first time these two have met. Visions of an earlier night would have been fresh in Peter’s memory—things he had seen in his own home. First, his mother-in-law, taking care of guests after Jesus cured her fever; and then, as the night wore on, Jesus laying hands on nearly the whole community, as one form of suffering after another met its match. Peter knows why the crowds press in.
But in this new day, as the sun rises higher over the lake, Peter must assume that they will return to the shore as soon as the teacher finishes speaking. The night has been long; their work is done; the nets are stowed. Surely rest is at hand.
So it must startle Peter when Jesus turns, after addressing the crowds, and says to him “Now put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” This boat, this body of water, Peter knows them like the back of his hand. He and his friends were out all night and caught nothing; what would be different in the heat of the day?
This is Peter’s moment of decision. Will he trust his own assessment that the time for fishing has passed? Will he return to the safety of the shore and claim the rest he surely needs? Or, will he yield his weary body to the teacher’s instructions, and see what happens next. Ultimately, Peter responds: “Master, we have worked all night long and caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.”
What happens next is fascinating. The catch exceeds Peter’s wildest hopes. But the weight of the haul threatens first the nets, and then the fishermen’s very survival. Even when a second boat arrives to help, success threatens to take them all down. Undone by the miraculous catch, Peter sinks into the writhing mass of fish and says he’s had enough. He asks Jesus to leave him alone. He is an ordinary man, who, in the presence of Jesus, has lost all pretense of control. Not surprisingly, Peter is afraid.
I don’t know if or where this story lands in your lives. I don’t know what form of emptiness gnaws at you. Desolation comes in many guises: relationships falter; illness overtakes, addictions threaten, minds weaken, loved ones die, depression and anxiety stifle our living, good work is hard to find. I do not now what void makes it hard for you to breathe. I do not know what your heart most desires. I do know that this little story is not about how wonderful life would be if only those desires were answered. This story offers a snapshot of what can happen when God’s holy presence transforms our desires.
It’s easy to fixate on the fish and miss how this story ends. When the fishermen finally make it to shore, with the most bountiful catch they have ever made—they are at the pinnacle of their professional careers. Yet they dumbfound both the crowd and the reader by turning and walking away from their boats and from their haul—they leave it all behind.
Somehow, Peter and his partners have discovered a desire deeper than physical hunger and a source of life more sustaining than the fish on which their diet depends. They can no longer imagine life apart from this holy man. Jesus says they won’t be catching fish anymore, they’ll be drawing people to God.
What do you think? Can we stop here? Are you left wanting more from this passage? Does it leave you vaguely unsatisfied? If so, you may be right where Luke wants you.
He’s a careful storyteller, and I can’t help noticing that he failed to share with us the content of Jesus’ teaching to the crowd—the teaching Peter overheard in the boat. Luke tells us that the crowd pressed in to hear the word of God; we pressed in, too, but we didn’t get to hear that particular word.
As readers, we won’t be privy to extended teaching from Jesus until the next chapter, the portion of scripture assigned for next week. It may be that Luke wants us to sit with our dissatisfaction for a while before we hear Jesus say to the crowd “Blessed are those who hunger for more. Blessed are those who know they are in need.”
In the meantime, Jesus says that we are not to be afraid. In the words of one commentator, sometimes “emptiness [is] a necessary precondition for the kind of fullness that can change a life.”
As we move closer to the season of Lent we are invited to pay attention to empty places, in our own lives and in the world around us—to envision Jesus climbing into the boat with us, to listen carefully for the word he brings, and to practice responding “If you say so, I will…”
 The lake of Gennesaret is a local name for the Sea of Galilee; by using that colloquial label, Luke informs us that they are in the portion of the lake near Capernaum, Peter’s home territory.
 Jennifer Morrow, Ekklesia Project, “The Case for Emptiness,” http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2019/02/the-case-for-emptiness/