Commentary on the Readings
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
We bring a great treasure in earthen vessel
Today’s readings present some characters who are called to carry out a mission of proclaiming the word of God. They all have the same reaction: they feel unworthy, incapable, inadequate. Isaiah declares to be a man of unclean lips. Peter asks Jesus to turn away from him because he knows he is a sinner. Paul says that the Risen One was manifested to him, but “as to an abortion,” that is, as an imperfect being, one born abnormally.
The list of statements of unworthiness could continue with the objections of Jeremiah: “Ah, Lord God, I do not know how to speak. I am still young” (Jer 1:6) and Moses: “But, my Lord, never have I been a fluent speaker. I cannot find words to express what I want to say” (Ex 4:10). Vocations to announce the word of God today are those of the permanent deacon, catechist, the animator of the listening centers.
There’s also—it is true—one who oblivious of his own limitations, feels too sure of himself. But most people, aware of their miseries, jeer; they say they are not up to the task that is required of them. The lack of preparation is not a good reason to hold back. Study, regular participation in biblical and pastoral courses, the setting up of a small theological library can supply what’s lacking. The perception instead of one’s spiritual inadequacy must be overcome bearing in mind the work of God. He purifies his prophets and apostles, and enables them to proclaim his message.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Purify, Lord, my heart and my lips, so that I may announce your Gospel.”
There are experiences of our lives that cannot be told with words. Emotions, feelings, spiritual experiences are not easy to describe. That’s why Isaiah, wishing to present the story of his vocation, can only resort to images. It would be naive to interpret as a report of what is told in this reading; God does not need to sit down, nor cover himself with a mantle against the cold, or be assisted by the seraphims as if they were his bodyguards. Isaiah did not have an apparition, but an inner experience that is told in the form of vision.
One day, perhaps while he was praying in the temple of Jerusalem, he realizes that the Lord calls him to be his prophet. He is shocked; he understands that this is the will of the Lord of the universe, the Almighty, who has his throne in heaven and is supported by seraphim singing without end: “Holy, holy, holy!” (vv. 1-4). He becomes aware of his own weakness and unworthiness and fear of the mission given to him. How could he, a man of unclean lips, speak the word of God three times holy? (v. 5).
The Lord has decided to carry out his work of salvation using people covered with weakness. He purifies them, enables them to convey his message. Isaiah sees a cherub take the sacred fire, touch his lips and erase his iniquity (vv. 6-7). Now he can no longer resist the call of the Lord. He answers, “Here am I. Send me!” (v. 8).
As long as one lives among people—weak and fragile—he does not realize his own sin, indeed, if he is confronted with those around him, he may even feel better, just, honest, blameless. As soon as he comes into contact with the Lord, now the perspective changes and becomes the dramatic experience of his smallness, his own unworthiness and misery. “Even the moon is not bright—the book of Job recalls—nor are the stars pure in his sight, how much less man, a worm” (Job 25:5-6).
This experience—painful, but healthy and purifying—is proven by all those who draw near to God’s word, to that word that “is sharper than any two-edged sword; it pierces to the division of soul and spirit, and judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). It is the feeling of unworthiness of priests, leaders of the communities, catechists who, while explaining the word of God, realize, with regret, that their behavior is in stark contrast to what they teach.
Should they be discouraged? Should they reject the call of the Lord to carry out the ministry of the Word? Isaiah, while feeling unworthy, has no hesitations. He says quickly: “Here I am, send me.” His own sins are not a reason to justify the refusal to assume the service that the community entrusts to each of her member. The fire that gradually purifies those who announce it is the same word of God that is proclaimed.
In Corinth many have received the Gospel as a nice moral doctrine, useful for living wisely. However, even among Christians many people have difficulty believing in the resurrection. They say that, after death, people disappear completely or, at most, their spiritual side lives on, a shadow, therefore, little more than nothing.
Paul reacts so hard against this strain of the central truth of the Christian message. He says: a person who has this kind of faith is believing in vain (v. 2). Then he reminds the Corinthians of the profession of faith proclaimed in all communities: “Christ died for our sins as Scripture says, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (v. 4).
After presenting this “Credo” of the early Christians, Paul recalls the six manifestations of the risen Jesus: to Peter, to the Twelve, to more than five hundred brothers, to James, to all the apostles, and last, to himself.
What is the significance of this list? These “witnesses” are not the same as those who, during a trial in court, present themselves to tell the judge how things happened. The resurrection is not a matter of this world, it cannot be demonstrated by conclusive evidence. It is something that happens in the world of God and, therefore, it escapes our senses.
What could be verified with certainty is the change that occurred in the group of disciples. Before, they were afraid, and then they lost all fear, even in the face of those who threatened them to death, they declared that Jesus is alive. Paul from persecutor became an Apostle and considered “junk” all religious certainties that before he possessed (Phil 3:8). The protagonists explain unanimously these radical changes: they are due to their shocking experience of the Risen One.
They have not arrived to this faith neither suddenly nor quickly. They arrived gradually, guided by Scriptures and enlightened by the Spirit. Presenting us their unique and unrepeatable experience, Paul urges us to make our own journey. He suggests taking up the Scriptures, to hear the word of God proclaimed in the Christian communities; he invites us to open our hearts to the light of the Spirit. So it will be possible also today to make not an identical experience but similar to their’s.
Like the Lord, the Christian is also “a lover of life” (Wis 11:26), desires life, commits oneself for life. “I have come that they may have life, life in all its fullness”—Jesus says, referring to his mission among people (Jn 10:10).
How can one fulfill his mission today? What responsibility has he assigned to his disciples? Luke does not respond to these questions with reasoning, but with a story: the call of the first three apostles.
The episode takes place on the Lake of Gennesaret. Jesus is pressed by the crowds and, seeing two boats of fishermen, goes into that of Peter, asks him to put out a little off the ground, sits down and begins to teach the people (vv. 1-3). The frame is not realistic (think how uncomfortable it is speaking from a boat to a large crowd). The scene is deliberately idealized to transmit a theological message. We notice above all the context in which it is set: on the shore of the lake and on a weekday, while people are engaged in their work, while they are sweating to earn a living.
It is not only during the liturgy on Saturday and in the environments and places of worship that Jesus proclaims the word of God. He proclaims in all contexts, in those sacred and profane ones, because it enlightens, inspires, guides all activities of people.
He sits—that is, he assumes the position of a teacher—being in Peter’s boat. The symbolism is obvious: the boat represents the Christian community. It is that privileged place from which we can expect the voice of the Master. It is to him that one who looks for light, consolation and hope is invited to turn his gaze.
Together with Jesus, on the boat there are no exceptional, holy, perfect people! Only God is holy. There are good people, yes, but also sinful. Peter will recognize it also on behalf of others: “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (v. 8). However, despite being occupied by sinners, it is from this boat that the word of God is proclaimed.
Action follows the proclamation of the Word (vv. 1-3). On the orders of the Master, the boat sets sail, venturing on the waters of the sea. There the disciples are invited to cast their nets and to fish (vv. 4-7). It is the Christian community who, animated by the Gospel message she has heard and assimilated, is dispersed through the streets of the world to carry out its mission.
Peter argues, it seems to him that the order given by Jesus is senseless: that is not the appropriate time to fish. But he trusts. He is the first person who, during the public life, manifests his faith in the word of the Master.
It is a big risk that Peter is willing to take. He knows that, if unsuccessful, he is exposed to ridicule and jokes of the colleagues. Human logic would suggest him to give up, but he prefers to obey. After a moment of uncertainty, he decides and sets to work. He believes that the word of Jesus can accomplish the impossible. He has already experienced the power of this word when he saw his mother-in-law cured instantly from fever (Lk 4:38-39).
The result is amazing, the amount of fish caught is huge and the evangelist emphasizes highlighting the various details: the nets are going to break, he should enlist the help of his friends, the boats are fully loaded and in danger of sinking.
At this point Luke introduces the reaction of Peter and those who witnessed the miracle. Simon throws himself at Jesus’ knees and declares his own unworthiness: “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”—he says, while others are caught by surprise (vv. 8-10a).
It’s the way the Bible tells of the encounter with the Lord: Moses covers his face because he is afraid (Ex 3:6); Elijah covers his face with his mantle (1 K 19:13). Like Isaiah—we saw it in the first reading—Peter also feels sinful. Not because he, until then, had led an immoral life, but realizes the distance that separates him from God and confesses his own unworthiness.
This brings us to the central theme of the passage (vv. 10b-11). The main reason why Luke recounts the episode is to make it clear to the disciples of his community which is the task to which they are called: to be fishers of people.
The fish, we know, are fine in the water and are not at all happy to be pulled out. In the water, however, people are not equally at ease, especially when it comes to the immense, deep, dark, agitated sea. The fish pulled out of the water dies, but people instead live. Jesus uses this symbolism to explain to his disciples what is their mission. He does not invite them to “take people with fishhooks,” but to get them out alive, with the net, from the crashing waves from which they risk being overwhelmed, submerged, dragged on to the bottom.
The verb used by the evangelist to describe this mission is not really “to fish,” but to take alive, “take to keep alive” (Nm 31:15.18; Dt 20:16; Jos 2:13; 6:24…) and therefore to bring to life.
In the Bible, the waters of the sea are a symbol of the power of evil, the forces that lead to death. People who must be “caught,” that is, helped to live, are those who feel overwhelmed by their vices, who are at the mercy of their idols, their unruly passions, who are only capable of doing harm to themselves and others. “Fish” to be pulled out of its hopeless condition is all of humanity that is likely to be engulfed by violence and hatred, war, moral corruption …
Saint Ambrose said: “The tools of apostolic fishing are the nets; they do not cause the death of those who are caught, but they keep them for life. They draw them from the depths to light and from the bottom to the surface those who were submerged.” This mission is not entrusted only to the priests, but to the whole Christian community.
A final element is emphasized in this symbolism of the passage and it is the ministry entrusted to Peter. He is the one who drives the boat to the place indicated (v. 4); it is he who proclaims his faith in the power of the word of Jesus (v. 5), it is he who recognizes him as Lord (v. 8); it is to him that the invitation to be fisher of people is directed (v. 10).
All these elements indicate that Peter has a particular task to carry out in the Church: to listen attentively to the word of the Lord and then to lead, together with the other disciples, not where their professional experience and abilities would suggest to go, but where the Master tells him.
The passage is not intended to solicit those in the Christian community to carry out the ministry of the presidency to claim for themselves the right to command, to impose or even to make themselves masters over the people of God (1 Pet 5:3). It is an invitation to verify the way of exercising the charisma of authority. Do they have full confidence in the Master’s voice? Do they know how to recognize this voice? Are they able to distinguish it from the “wisdom of the world,” the “common sense” and human calculations, their insights, their personal beliefs?
Every Christian is called to do this examination of conscience. Each one should be concerned if it happens that no one ever consider him an illusion, a dreamer, one who is also ready to “fish at midday” if the Teacher asks him.