Studying Luke 5 1-11

Jesus shows up and changes the lives of Simon, James and John dramatically in Luke 5:1-11, the text we are studying for Sunday, January 10. I usually think of this as Luke’s version of “calling the disciples,” but we may want to ask ourselves whether that’s accurate. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are continuing in Luke’s gospel – meaning we might be on the look out for specifically Lukan themes like the activity of the Holy Spirit, openness to Gentiles, Greek cultural presuppositions, and poverty.

This episode takes place near the beginning of the gospel, but some important things have already happened, so we know a lot about Jesus by now. We know about Jesus’s family connections, his miraculous conception and birth, and some amazing things about his infancy and childhood. Jesus has been baptized by John in the Jordan – and by the way, we know a lot about John’s preaching, and his “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and what living that out would entail, more than we would know if we were reading one of the other gospels. We know about Jesus’s special relationship to the Holy Spirit and to whoever is behind that voice from heaven saying “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

We also know that Jesus knows Scripture, isn’t afraid of the devil and stands up to the devil with confidence and good exegesis, teaches in a way that is making him famous around Galilee, has identified himself with the anointed one in Isaiah, has made some enemies in Nazareth, and was well-known to the demon he cast out in the synagogue in Capernaum. We know Jesus can heal people, because he has healed Simon’s mother-in-law – something possibly curious, that we might want to keep in mind. He goes off by himself, has a clear sense of his own mission, and it involves proclaiming the good news of the kingdom widely.

And he is engaged in a preaching tour of the “synagogues of Judea.”

The episode in Luke 5:1-11 will establish that after this Jesus is going about this teaching and healing ministry in the company of other people, with names – Simon, James, and John. Up until now, we could have had impression that he is all alone, except for the crowds who are already, it seems, starting to follow him around.

I’m stressing some of these details about chronological order because it seems to me that Luke’s way of telling the story is “out of order” from what I have in my head – which is, I think, the order of events as told in Matthew. We can decide whether we think this is worth thinking about, that is – why this order? At a minimum, it seems to me as a reader, that we are meant to have the idea that Simon, James, and John already know something about Jesus by the time he steps into Simon’s boat: he’s got a reputation in their area, he’s taught in their synagogue, and he’s healed Simon’s mother-in-law and presumably eaten at their house, for heaven’s sake. By implication, they already have some kind of relationship …

The story has covered a lot of geographical territory so far, too – from Jericho to Galilee, specifically Nazareth and Capernaum, and then Judea … This story takes place on the “lake of Gennesaret,” aka Sea of Galilee, and we’re likely to assume around Capernaum, since we already know “Simon’s house” is there.

map of Palestine in the 1st century CE showing political divisions
Palestine in the Time of Jesus, in Charles Foster Kent, Biblical Geography and History, 1926, online at Project Gutenberg

This text is in the lectionary, for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C (the “Luke year”), along with Isaiah 6:1-13 as the Old Testament reading, which makes sense: Simon’s response to Jesus in Luke echoes the prophet Isaiah’s response to the vision of God in Isaiah 6.

We know some things about the kind of boat Simon probably had, based on an archeological discovery at the Sea of Galilee in 1986.

[On this: here’s a link to a FASCINATING lecture by Dr. Shelley Wachsmann, formerly Director of Antiquities for the State of Israel, now a professor of archaeology at Texas A&M, given at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, about the excavation of this boat. The lecture is a little over an hour long, and way better than Netflix or History Channel! He tells the story of the boat’s discovery, excavation, conservation, dating, a little about how it might have been used, and how they pieced together the (sparse) historical evidence about the kind of boat typical for the time and place with what they had to work with.

There’s a picture of the scale model reconstruction built at Texas A&M at about 59:00, and some discussion of how people would have used seine nets for fishing a bit further on. Luke does not actually use that specific term for “nets” in our text, but a more generic one. Wachsmann also has a dry sense of humor that takes a second or two to register – e.g., “no one had ever excavated a boat in Israel before, certainly not on land …” Four stars!!!!]

Fishing on the Sea of Galilee involves technical knowledge (see the slide show on fishing at Free Bible Images, or these images of fishing from Ferrell Jenkins), and was a political economic reality (see Alicia Batten, “Fishing Economy in the Sea of Galilee”), all of which might tell us more about these soon-to-be disciples.

According to these sources, the kind of fishing that people would have done at night would have been done with “trammel nets,” which are a kind of cross between a cast net and a seine. It’s done at night so the fish don’t see the net, and the fix they’re about to get themselves into. That seems to fit the situation described in the text – and to add something to the drama, because the massive catch described in the text seems to occur in the daytime, adding another amazing feature to an already amazing event.
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CLOSER READING: Apparently, we need to decide what we think the very first two words amount to in English. Moreover, apparently what we will decide depends on whether we already think Luke is actually telling us anything here about chronology. The text seems to leave the translator’s/reader’s options open here.  The question in my mind is whether I should be thinking this is “the next thing that happens” in a chronological account, or could be thinking this is something that happened at some unspecified point during all this activity of Jesus’s. KJV settles on “And it came to pass,” and NET “now”; to me, those sound chronological. NRSV has “Once,” NIV “One day”; to me, those sound more vague, more like “and at some point during all this.” I started to read up on how to understand “de” in Greek, which is part of the issue, and it made me cry so I gave up.

Does it matter? I think it might. I think it makes a difference from a human standpoint whether we understand the events of Luke 4:31-5:11 to have occurred over a short period of time, or a longer one. What I imagine Simon to be going through is different in those two different situations. Is he being confronted with Jesus’s authority and power over and over again in a short period of time, creating a crisis that he has to respond to NOW? Or, has he been coming to realize Jesus’s full importance over a long period of time, and NOW finally has to face what this person might mean for him? Honestly – I don’t think the text pins that down. Maybe, on purpose.

I also notice that the text nowhere contains any actual “call” language. Jesus asks Simon to take the boat out a little – after he’s gotten into it, which he just does, without asking. So, either that’s normal, or not, again, we readers get to decide. Then, Jesus says to Simon – in other words, tells him – to take the boat out into the deep and let down the nets. And after all the amazement of the giant catch, Jesus tells Simon not to fear and that from now on he’ll be catching “men” or “people.”

Jesus never specifically asks or tells Simon to “follow” him. But Simon and James and John do that, after “having left it all.”

I am left thinking a lot about what is going on with Simon here, and about how Simon’s reaction to Jesus is like the reaction of the demon Luke describes in 4:34, as well as the reaction of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6:5, and about how those two reactions are different, and about what happens between verse 8 and verse 11, and about whether people have experiences like this today.
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Image: “St. Luke mosaic, All Hallows, Allerton,” by Rodhullandemu, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to “Studying Luke 5 1-11”

  1. Fascinating observations! Thanks. I’m getting ready to preach on this, and I find your point that Jesus never actually called anyone to follow him in this passage, despite the fact that the heading in my NIV Bible says, “The Calling of the First Disciples”, to be quite interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Steve – and OF COURSE it does, eh? Because that really is how we all think of this story! I had to go back and re-read what I’d written because I thought “did I say that? … erm, am I in trouble?” So I’ll stand by that, upon review, but it just goes to show that we pay a lot of attention to those headings in our Bibles. And that the text will continue to surprise us if we read it! Best wishes for Sunday, too 🙂


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