Summary: Peter meets the Holy, and wonders what he should do.
Welcome to round 637 of “Fights over stuff that’s not as important as everyone thinks it is.” Older translations have Jesus telling Simon he will now be a “fisher of men,” while newer ones say he will catch or fish for people.
Folks who prefer the older version point to the rhythm of the words and the way the phrase sounds when read aloud – those versions were designed to be read that way, so the phrasing has a kind of majesty to it. Those who prefer the newer version point out that we don’t usually use the word “men” these days when we mean “people,” and Jesus was telling the disciples about their roles as evangelists to the whole world.
To both sides, I say, “You’re right,” as well as, “So what?” This story is about how these fishermen had an encounter with Jesus that showed them something about his nature as the Christ and Lord. There’s a lot more here than worrying about whose sensibilities will be scratched up because translating Greek into English isn’t an exact science. Do we want to overlook the impact of this encounter between the human and the divine in order to hash out our problems about gender and language?
Obviously, I don’t, so let’s look at what happens here. Jesus has drawn a crowd to the shores of Lake Galilee, and in order to teach them so they can see and hear him, he borrows a boat from Simon, a nearby fisherman he’s met before. Simon’s got little else to do, since the day’s fishing has been poor.
After he finishes teaching, Jesus tells Simon and his partners to put out into the lake for a catch. Sure, Mr. Carpenter, Simon may think, we’ll drop nets in the hottest part of the day when any sensible fish is asleep, but he agrees. The catch is tremendous, and Simon knows he’s encountered something fantastic, even miraculous.
He combines what he knows about Jesus with what Jesus has taught, as well as this miracle, and he understands that Jesus somehow represents the God he worships. That’s why Luke uses the word “Lord,” which Greek-speaking Jews used instead of risking blasphemy by actually saying God’s name. Remember, Luke, our writer, knows a lot about the Jewish faith and he knows which word would get Simon’s meaning across to his Greek-speaking audience.
Somehow, Simon has figured out who Jesus is – not all of it, because as we know, the whole crucified and risen part will escape him for awhile. What he does know is that he is in the presence of the sacred, the holy.
Well, his religion teaches him there’s only one possible outcome when something not-holy or profane meets the holy. Holiness can’t coexist with unholiness, and the power of God’s holiness is so great that it will destroy any unholiness it might meet. Even Moses could only see God after he passed by, because it was too dangerous otherwise.
Even if that won’t happen, Simon knows he’s not holy and he’s ashamed to be in the presence of someone who reminds him of that.
Now that I can relate to. Like Simon, I’m a part of this not-holy world, which makes me not-holy, or profane, to use another word. When I encounter the holy, my profane nature is all too clear, even to me. “Don’t touch me, Lord,” I might cry, as Simon did, not wanting the purity of God’s holiness stained by my sin.
And here comes the twist. Jesus has come to do exactly that, to take on the stain of our profane human sin – and make it clean. Contrary to the experience of mothers, Sunday clothes on young children and mud puddles everywhere, when Jesus’ unstained purity touches our stains, we become clean.
So he tells Simon not to be afraid. He’ll explain the whole thing as it goes, but it’s enough for him to know now that he’s in no danger, nor will Jesus’ holiness be somehow damaged by meeting a smelly fisherman’s sinfulness. In fact, that holiness will begin such a transformation in the smelly fisherman that one day he will stand in front of thousands, proclaiming to them that though they, too, are a part of this profane and stained word, they can be made a part of the sacred world of God. For that sacred world, in the person of Jesus Christ, has broken through into our world and begun to transform it, one heart and one person at a time.