Sunday, February 04, 2007
Catch and Release: a Sermon on Luke 5:1-11
“Catch and Release”
February 4, 2007
Politics brings out strong passions in many people. People who would ordinarily be perfectly pleasant, kind-hearted and reasonable suddenly become nasty, suspicious and profoundly unreasonable when the topic is political in nature. And it’s hard to top political operatives in the search for the creative insult. One of the most striking political insults I have ever heard was a description of Democrats from a Republican TV ad during the 2004 presidential campaign. In that ad, Democrats were described as “Brie-eating, chardonnay-drinking, latte-sipping, French-speaking, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading, elite liberals.” Wow. Do you catch the undercurrent there? What is really being said? If you pull apart that string of activities in which Democrats are allegedly involved, you get a picture of spoiled people with too much disposable income and too much time on their hands. What the ad is really saying, in my opinion, is that Democrats know nothing about hard work. They are soft. Interestingly enough, from the other side of the political spectrum, the same allegation is made. The singer Pink currently has a song making the rounds of YouTube emails, “Dear Mr. President.” The emotional climax of the song comes in the refrain, where she sings over and over again, “Let me tell you bout hard work, Hard work, Hard work/ You don't know nothing bout hard work, Hard work, Hard work.” In both these instances, in opinions from the left and the right, the accusation is the same. You people. You soft, spoiled people. You do not know anything about hard work.
I think it would be interesting to hear what social scientists have to say about why this particular insult is hurled so regularly, and why it seems to cut so deep. I suspect it’s because mostly everybody believes that they are working very hard, and that they aren’t getting much recognition for that fact, not are they getting much tangible benefit. People struggle to make Solomon-like decisions about how to spend their time and their money, and no one seems to feel like they are making any headway. And a look at the statistics seems to bear this out. In the United States, the wealthiest one percent of individuals own more than a third of the wealth, while the poorest 40% own, collectively, .2% of the wealth. Or, to look at it on a global scale, the 225 wealthiest individuals in the world—and we can all probably name at least a handful of them—have a combined wealth of $1 trillion. That's equal to the combined annual income of the world's 2.5 billion poorest people. Everybody feels that they are working just as hard as they can, but many suspect that the system might just be unfair.
This is not unlike the situation in which the people described in today’s passage from the gospel of Luke find themselves. We’ve all heard this story. Jesus is standing by Lake Gennesaret—also known as the Sea of Galilee, Lake Tiberius, or in modern day Hebrew, Yam [the Sea of] Kinneret. Jesus is speaking, and the crowd is pressing in on him, to better hear the word of God. Jesus sees two boats there, fishing boats just returned to shore after a long and fruitless night of labor, and Jesus has an idea. (Maybe he has two ideas.) He decides to get in one of the boats, the boat in which Simon is still washing nets. Jesus asks Simon to pull away from shore a bit, so that he can speak to the crowd from the boat. We can imagine his words floating back on the surface of the water. When he finishes speaking, he tells Simon to pull out further, and let the nets down just one more time. Simon reminds Jesus of his futile night of hard work, but he humors the teacher. And the nets are immediately so filled with fish—swarming with fish—that they seem about to break, and they have to call upon their partners in the other boat to help them haul in the catch. All the fishermen are astonished. Simon—who here is first referred to as Simon Peter—falls at Jesus’ feet, and declares himself a sinner, and unworthy. Jesus says to him, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Simon, James and John leave the catch and their nets and they walk away into a new life, a new world. They follow Jesus.
Here we have a story about which I think we need to do a little unlearning before we can do any useful learning. We need to unlearn our preconceived notions about what it was to be a fisherman in Palestine in Jesus’ day. The life of a fisherman has been, to a certain extent, romanticized. We imagine the men setting out early, fathers and sons—before dawn, perhaps—to prepare their nets and to clean their boats. We imagine the fresh smell of the air. And we imagine them as, not wealthy, of course, but as having a certain independence. Entrepreneurs. Small businessmen. Self-employed.
That’s not, unfortunately, the reality of first century Palestine. In Jesus’ time and place, there was no such thing as a free market; the rulers (both the Roman Emperors and their client kings) designed the economy for their own exclusive benefit. As a result, peasants—and this would include fishermen—were kept at subsistence level by a series of taxes, tithes, and tributes. All so-called excess wealth flowed to the top of the pyramid. Here are just a few of the taxes fishermen would have to pay: if they owned their own boats—which was rare—they were taxed on every item used to make and stock the boat, flax for the sails, wood for the hull, stone for the anchors. If they didn’t own their boats—which was far more common—they paid exorbitant rates to lease them. They paid a tax to acquire the right to fish, and they paid a head tax on each fish they caught. There were taxes levied on the transportation of the fish and on its processing. And this doesn’t count the tributes—taxes levied by rulers simply because, they could do so. Moneys that were given—taken, really—to honor them. All this money flowed through the tax collectors—who had the right to publicly and viciously beat anyone who dared to try to evade the taxes—right to the top, to client rulers such as Herod, to regional governors such as Pontius Pilate to the Emperor himself.
In other words the life of the peasant—in this case, the peasant fisherman—was a trap. It was a trap in which they were caught, with little or no hope of escape. It was a life of brutally hard work for subsistence level pay. Add to that the fact that it was a life with no honor or prestige associated with it. Fishermen were listed by Cicero along with fish-sellers, butchers, cooks and poultry-raisers as being the most shameful occupations. I think you get the picture. Hard work. Hard work, and almost no reward for that work. This is the economic reality in which the followers of Jesus lived and struggled.
And along comes Jesus. If there is anything we know about Jesus it is this: he spent his days walking the hills and deserts and villages of Galilee, seeing suffering, taking it into himself, and spending himself in order to end it. Until this moment in the gospel Jesus has been sharing the word of God as he heals people and exorcises their demons. He has been witness to suffering—first a man with a demon, then a woman with a terrible fever, and soon, all those, Luke tells us, in the whole village of Capernaum who were sick with various diseases—and Jesus has reached out to heal each and every one. So why should we be surprised that when Jesus sees other kinds of suffering—in the case of the fishermen, economic injustice—he offers healing for that as well? Why should it astonish us or disturb us that Jesus sees those who are caught and offers them release? This text is often used as a conversation-starter about evangelism, fishing for people, bringing them to faith. And that is fair. But I think we can also read this text as being powerfully, profoundly about the moment Simon, James and John looked at the haul of fish—the seeming answer to their desperate efforts—and realized that they could be free. I think we can see here Jesus encountering the poorest, most marginalized people and saying, “I have another vision. I have another way, a way where there is plenty for all, and not just a few. Don’t be afraid. Follow me, and you are released from your bondage.” This story is about the radical act of refusing to be a victim of injustice, of walking away, of finding a new way to live.
This story from Luke’s gospel invites us to look hard at economic injustice. It invites us to look at it with the lenses provided by Jesus. I know the statistics are overwhelming, but what do we think of a world where 225 people have as much as another 2.5 billion? What do we think about living in a world where the privileged few have enough wealth, in the words of the inimitable Eddie Izzard, to make Solomon blush, while so many others are sharing the literal dregs of the world’s resources? We can look with Jesus’ lenses. And we can approach this terrible problem as Jesus approached it. Jesus didn’t hold out his arms—as he could have, with the power at his command—he didn’t hold out his arms and declare everyone in the whole world healed. He addressed pain and suffering the same way we can, one person, one encounter, one decision at a time. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be overwhelmed. But don’t forget.
It is a short step from leaving the boats to gathering around the table. What did Jesus give us, more than anything, to remind us of our connection to one another? He gave us this table. He gave us the simple meal that graces it… bread, the fruit of the vine…the gifts of God for the people of God, all the people of God. He gave us his own life for our nourishment, to remind us that, as we share that life, we share responsibility for one another. He caught us, caught us up in the net of his love so that we might be released into this hurting world with this good news in our hearts, on our lips, and in our actions. Amen.
Photo courtesy of Jibba Jabba and Flickr.