Commentary on the Readings
3rd Sunday of Easter – Year C
A lot of fuss for nothing
In the Christian community we elaborate ambitious pastoral programs, in the family we implement the latest psychological techniques to better educate the children, we make every effort, make plans, and yet—we know—even the most laudable efforts are not always successful. The child enrolled, with many sacrifices, in the most famous Catholic school, the English course, swimming, music, trained in the traditional religious canons; one day he disappoints all expectations, he says he has no ideals and thinks of enjoying life. Why?
Something similar happens to us like what happened to the seven disciples. After Easter, they started to fish: they were trained, experienced, willing people. They have worked for a whole night, but have not achieved anything. Many efforts thwarted: they acted in the dark without the light of the word of the Risen One. Sometimes this word seems to give absurd guidelines, far from any logic, contrary to common sense: building a world of peace without the use of violence, turning the other cheek, love your enemy, refuse competition, being poor… these are absurd suggestion like that of casting the nets in broad daylight. But the choice is between to trust and getting a result and to scramble without accomplishing anything.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Without you, Lord, without your word, we cannot do anything.”
The Christian community, from the very first years of life, had to face the opposition of the spiritual leaders of Israel who condemned Jesus of Nazareth as a blasphemer. After his ignominious death, for Annas and Caiaphas the case was finally closed; also because the disciples gave no sign of courage and had escaped hastily.
Instead, a short time passes and these disciples become fearless; they organize themselves in a new and dangerous “sect” that dares—as the Teacher did—challenge the undisputed religious authority of the leaders of the people. One day, these leaders decide to arrest the apostles and to make them appear before the Sanhedrin. After having them questioned, the high priest recalls the provision he has given not to teach in Jesus’ name and rebukes them: “You intend charging us with the killing of this man” (vv. 27-28). Notice how Caiaphas avoids even pronouncing the name “Jesus”; he calls him, “that man.” In no way daunted, Peter, in the name of all, replies: “Better for us to obey God rather than any human authority” (v. 29).
Jesus was an uncomfortable person for those in power, both political and religious. The apostles were equally uncomfortable for the powers that be, that was why they were persecuted.
Christians incommode by nature. They were and will always be a bother to defenders of unjust situations, incompatible with the Gospel. They have disturbed and will always disturb those who want to perpetuate intolerable traditions, damaging human dignity. They will not leave in peace those who encode practices that violate human rights.
The second part of the reading (vv. 30-32) contains a short speech summarizing the entire Christian message about the resurrection. Peter makes a dramatic contrast between God’s action and that of the Jewish religious authorities. He says: “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus whom you killed.” The one that the people condemned as a dangerous person, as an enemy of the established order, God exalted as Leader and Savior.
There are questions which people cannot answer: Why is there pain? Why are there lucky people in this world, and unlucky ones who, through no one’s fault, are unhappy? Why is an innocent child suffering from an incurable disease? Why are there wars, earthquakes, disasters? Why is there death? And after death? The existence of people on earth seems to be wrapped in darkness, like a mystery book that nobody can decipher.
At the beginning of chapter 5 of Revelation, the author describes a solemn and grandiose scene: the Lamb that was slain is approaching the throne of God, takes from his right hand the book and breaks the seals. The meaning of the vision is: the Lamb, who is Jesus, is the only one who can open the book that contains the answer to the most disturbing questions of the human heart. Only he is able to make sense of the events of history, to illuminate many dramas and much distress.
The passage taken in our reading starts at this point. The angels, all living beings, all members of the People of God, delighted and grateful to the Lamb who, with his death and resurrection, has thrown light on the deeper mysteries of human life, unite their voices in a song of joy. The inanimate creatures join in this praise proclaimed by intelligent beings (v. 13).
The song of creation indicates that all the creatures were freed from the slavery of sin. When the people used them for evil they were slaves; they did not serve the purpose for which God had made them. After that, the sacrifice of the Lamb has transformed man’s heart and they finally serve the good. Redemption also came for them, that is why they exult with joy.
If we consider this passage just as the record of a fact made by an eyewitness, there are surely some difficulties. It surprises, for example, that after so many manifestations of the Risen One, the disciples still do not recognize him when they meet him the third time (v. 14). There is even a strong feeling that they have never seen him before. It is also not clear why they marvel at the miraculous catch when Luke says that they had already witnessed a similar incident on the day when Jesus invited them to follow him to fish for people (Lk 5:1-11). Then again, why were Peter and the other apostles in Galilee resuming their lives as fishermen? Have they not completely dedicated themselves to the proclamation of the Gospel after Easter?
These difficulties are valuable because they make us suspicious about the literary genre of the text: we are not reading a news report, but a piece of theology; and the language is biblical, not journalistic. It is therefore difficult to determine what really happened. The evangelist certainly wants to say that the apostles have had the experience of the Risen One, but primarily wants to give catechesis to the Christians of his community.
Last Sunday he told us two manifestations of the Lord: one that occurred on Easter Sunday, when Thomas was absent, and the other, eight days later, when Thomas was present. This insistence on the “weekly” rhythm—we said—was how John wanted the Christians to become aware that every time they gathered on the Lord’s Day, to celebrate the Eucharist, the Risen Lord was in their midst.
Unlike last week’s Gospel, here Jesus appeared on a weekday, not on a Sunday, while the disciples are intent on their work. They have returned to their everyday life. What do the disciples of Christ do during the week? What is the mission entrusted to them and how do they bring it to fulfilment? To these questions the evangelist responds by telling an episode full of symbolism that now we will try to decode.
Let us start with the occupants of the boat. There are seven of them. This number represents perfection, completeness. Peter and the other six represent all the disciples who make up the entire Christian community. The symbolism could go even further to seize the identity of those disciples, an image of the various types of Christians who, despite their limitations and their faults, have still the right to be part of the Church: those who have difficulty to believe (Thomas); those who are a bit of a “fanatic” (the two sons of Zebedee, who wanted to call down fire of heaven against the opponents; Lk 9:54); those who denied the Master (Peter); those tied to the traditions of the past, but honest and open to the signs of the times (Nathaniel); and also the anonymous Christians who are not known by anyone (the two unnamed disciples).
The sea, we have often noted, was, among the Israelites, the symbol of all the forces hostile to humanity.
If being under water means being at the mercy of evil, to fish, then, means to pull out of this condition of “non-life,” to free from evil forces that keep people in death situations. Think of all the slavery that keep us from living with joy, from smiling: the greed of money, grudges, unruly passions, drugs, pornography, anxiety, haste, remorse, fear….
Now it is clear what Jesus meant when he told his disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Mk 1:17). In fact, here they are at work. Peter is back to do his job, material fishing, but in the theological language of the evangelist, it indicates the apostolic mission of the Church committed to the liberation of people. In the Gospel of Matthew the kingdom of heaven is likened to a net cast into the sea, which collects fish of every kind, and when full it is dragged to shore (Mt 13:47-48).
The darkness that accompanies the night has also a negative meaning. “Those who walk at night stumble” (Jn 11:10), “the one who follows me will not walk in darkness” (Jn 8:12)—Jesus said. During the night one cannot act or orient oneself (Jn 9:4). Without light, the “fishing” of the disciples cannot get any results.
Not only light is lacking, but also Jesus, indeed—according to the symbolism of the Evangelist John—there is no light because there is no Jesus, “the light of the world” (Jn 8:12). Peter and others are committed to the utmost in the mission that has been entrusted to them, but do not get anything. They could have guessed the reason of their failure had they remembered the Master’s words: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).
They are alone, maybe they also feel abandoned in the midst of dangers and difficulties. They think they have to carry out their mission as “fishers of people” relying solely on their ability and their strength. They do not see Jesus; they do not perceive his presence because they look tarnished by lack of faith. They cannot even recall his reassuring words: “I will not leave you, I am coming to you. The world will see me no more, but you will see me” (Jn 14:18-19).
The Lord is not in the boat—it is true—he is ashore; he has already reached the mainland, that is, the final condition of the resurrected. It is this land that the disciples are intending to go.
At last the dawn breaks (v. 4) and with the new day, the light comes, the real light “that enlightens every person” (Jn 1:9), that which “comes from on high as a rising sun” (Lk 1:78). It is Jesus. He can be seen and recognized only with the eyes of faith, because he is the Risen Lord. His voice is sharp and perceptible; his word comes from the shore and guides the activities of the disciples. As long as they trust his words, a miracle happens: against all human logic, against all reasonable expectation, they get an amazing result.
John wants the Christians of his community to come to understand that Jesus, while being on the “shore,” that is, in the glory of the Father, is always beside them every day and continues to resonate his voice, calling, talking, indicating what they should do.
The result of the mission of the church is shown by the extraordinary amount of fish caught: 153. This number has a symbolic meaning. It follows from 50×3 + 3. To the Israelites the number fifty indicated, all the people; the number 3 represents perfection and fullness. Not even a fish escapes!
The sense of this curious detail is as follows: the Christian community will accomplish with great success her mission of salvation. All the people, all humanity, will be freed from the bonds of death that hold her captive and bring her to ruin, as the rushing waters of the sea drag, even the most skilled swimmers, to the bottom. The disciples will succeed in this huge undertaking—today’s Gospel ensures—on condition that they always allow themselves to be guided by the voice of the Risen One.
Peter pulls the net with fish to shore. Jesus had said: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself” (Jn 12:32). And now he fulfills the promise through his disciples. No one will escape the work of salvation carried out by his community. The net does not break, despite of the large amount of fish. This seemingly trivial detail contains a significant message: Peter manages to hold firmly and fully the unity of believers despite their numbers and the consequent diversity of culture, of ideas, of language.
The banquet, which closes the story of the miraculous catch of fish is the symbol of the conclusion of salvation history. Jesus expects his disciples on land, in heaven. He has fish (v. 9): it is the product of the work he has accomplished in this world. We remember, for example, the good thief that he brought with him to heaven (Lk 23:43).
Like the seven disciples at the Sea of Galilee, so also the entire Christian community is asked to present the fish, the fruit of the apostolic work. Bread instead is always offered for free by Jesus; it is not carried by people. It is the Eucharist! It is the bread that the Risen One breaks and wants all brothers and sisters to share until the day the sacramental sign will be made full by final and definitive union with him and with the Father.
The last part of the passage (vv. 15-19) describes the mission of Peter. Throughout the story this apostle has occupied a prominent position. It was he who took the initiative to go fishing. Then, despite having recognized the Lord after the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” he was still the one to take hold of the net full of large fish and, without breaking it, drag it ashore.
The symbolic significance of these details is undeniable: the primacy within the Christian community—so to speak—of the “sensitivity” is up to the unnamed disciple, but presiding the apostolic work and the unity of the church is undoubtedly Peter’s. Although Peter systematically arrives “late” and often earns the reproaches of Jesus, he remains the reference point of church life. He is asked to shepherd the Lord’s flock.
The image of the shepherd arouses not only positive resonances; being compared to the lambs, perhaps unable to think and to decide responsibly, he is not liked by everyone. But this is not the meaning of Jesus’ words. He has not conferred upon Peter the power to command, to give orders like a shepherd with sheep and, less still, to be a privileged caste and detached from the community of brothers and sisters. Peter—we remember him—was not immune to this temptation. He got to the point of rejecting the gesture of the Master who wanted to wash his feet because one day he hoped to be able to lord over the flock.
Asking him to look after the sheep, Jesus demands from him a complete conversion, a radical change in his way of thinking and acting. He wants him to manifest a capacity to love unconditionally, superior to that of all others. To look after means to feed the brothers and sisters with the food of the Word of life.
It will not be easy for Peter to understand and accept this proposal. For a long time yet he will keep on clinging to his beliefs, his dreams. Only with the passing of years, after much hesitation, he will arrive to full conversion. In today’s Gospel the end of his journey in following the Master is envisioned. During the passion he did not have the courage to be with Jesus. But one day—he was told—he will be placed in a position to give his life; he will experience coercion, imprisonment (“another will put a belt around you, and lead you where you do not wish to go”) and finally he will die on a cross (“you will stretch out your hands”).