Swamped!

10 May

Luke chapter 5 has a series of incidents in the ongoing story of Jesus’ ministry.
The beginning of the chapter presents the first of a number of boat stories: in this case, the story of Peter and his companions making a huge catch, and then Jesus’ call to Peter to become a fisher of people.

There are lots of things to notice here, but the main drama of the story concerns a big haul of fish, and the danger that the boat will sink.
Peter —and not just the boat — is overwhelmed, swamped.
That’s what happens when you take instructions from Jesus!

The basis of the story is common to all the synoptic gospels: Jesus encounters the fishermen on the shore of the lake.
Here, though, there is a sub-theme of teaching. Jesus has been teaching, perhaps as he walked along. Now he asks to use the boat as a sort of platform, with the crowd on the shore as a kind of amphitheatre.
Then comes the story of the big haul: the boat owners are asked to go deeper, and try for a catch.
They complain that they have tried all night and caught nothing.
When urged to try on the other side, they made a big catch, filled both boats and were in danger of sinking.
Subsequently, Peter asks Jesus: ‘depart from me’. He is unworthy.
Jesus says not to be afraid, but from now on Peter will catch people.

1. The challenge to go deeper is made against their experience and expertise.
You can imagine these professional fishermen wondering at a carpenter telling them how to do their job.
In this story, the basic message is: When you go with Jesus, your past experiences and expertise will sometimes be challenged. It won’t always be as you planned it. Going deeper can get you in deeper than you expected!
2. When this happens, you discover how much you need each other. They could only handle the big catch together, and even then they were almost overwhelmed.
3. A natural human response to these experiences is to turn them against ourselves. Peter’s sense of unworthiness is very common. We shy away from the challenge of Christ, the challenge of holiness, or authenticity, or moral uprightness. We know we may not meet the challenge. We don’t want to pretend. We know we are not the goods. Give up now.
4. But Jesus will have none of that. Indeed, it seems to me this is precisely why Peter is ‘called’: he is a person most suited to relate to other people, to share with them the good news of God’s acceptance. He has known it himself. It is not his expertise as a fisherman that equips him, but rather his willingness to go deeper, to accept the reality of being ‘swamped’, and accepting help from others, and his honesty with himself: and his willingness to learn from Jesus. These are his ‘qualifications’ for ministry.

Much more follows in this chapter, to which I will return.
But before leaving this reflection, we have to take account of a peculiarity in this story.
It bears a striking resemblance to the story found in John 21, a post-easter call of Peter. Here, the one who had betrayed Jesus is (again?) called.
So the scholars ask: where does this story belong? When did it really happen? Whose account has  the sequence right?

Here we come to one of the most exciting issues relating to Luke’s theology.
It is noticeable that when Peter asks Jesus to leave him, Peter addresses him as ‘Lord’. It has been suggested that this signifies a post-easter perspective.
Perhaps this is so, maybe not.

Let us for a moment consider the possibility that this is in fact a story whose origin is in the post-resurrection encounter, as John presents it. Perhaps Luke has gathered this story into his account of meeting Jesus and becoming a community of disciples.
What would this signify, in terms of Luke’s view of history and his theology?

In recent months there has been an interesting debate about the writing of history. One focal point for this debate has been the work of noted Australian historian, the late Manning Clark. Specific controversy has been focussed on the various claims Clark made about his own presence in Bonn, Germany, on the very day after the famed ‘Kristallnacht’ —November 10th, 1938. Clark wrote with graphic passion about walking amidst the ruins, that very morning. But in other sources, he wrote of being there some months later. And still other sources suggest that he was not in Germany at all, at that time, though his wife was. And subsequent scholars have found that in Clark’s own accounts, each time he wrote of this experience, he gives a different date for his arrival there.

Controversy has raged. How important is it that he was actually there? In a recent and superb study of these issues, Mark McKenna (in The Monthly, March 2007) has argued that we need to distinguish Clark’s work as historian and his work as artist, writer, and indeed prophet.

McKenna suggests that Clark should be regarded as an unreliable source, as regards historical data. But this was not the nature of his work. Especially in regard to his discussions of Kristallnacht, Clark was writing of his own life. McKenna says: ‘Far from being out of place or shocking, Clark’s misrepresentation of his presence in Bonn on 10 November 1938 is entirely in keeping with the spirit and intent of his life and work. Rather than diminishing Clark, it reveals him. He fictionalised his life, just as he played with primary sources in writing his histories. He lived out the life of his greatest character, himself, the historian whose potential greatness was constantly undermined by his fatal flaws. Both his History of Australia and his autobiographical writings are unreliable as historical sources.  … He created himself as a myth, cultivating a theatrical persona of the people’s priest and sage, telling history as parable. And as the Kristallnacht epiphany reveals, the moral of the parable always mattered more than the facts.
The true story of Kristallnacht reveals the true character of Manning Clark’s voice: the voice of the heart and mind, the inner man speaking "higher truths".’

Here we have a different view of how we should read texts which in part appear to be ‘history’. We need carefully to discern that in some respects we may have some historical data, but some of what seems to be such is historically inaccurate. But in this case this is not the author’s primary purpose. Clark was an artist, a dramatist, and a prophet, not only a ‘historian’. He was a tortured soul, yet also a prophet of hope, calling our nation to what McKenna calls ‘higher truths’. Many of these truths derived from his vision of the person Clark often called ‘the man from Galilee’. Sometimes, again inaccurately, he called him ‘the fisherman from Galilee’.

How then shall we read Luke, or John?

Again the challenge is to see what kind of truth and what kind of knowing is offered here.

My conviction is that Luke is offering us an account of what happens, not merely what happened. When you go with Jesus, like Peter did, and launch out, as Peter did, and when you dare to engage with what is beyond your received wisdom and trusted experience, daring to cast the nets on ‘the other side’, you may well be swamped, and may well need help even to survive, but you may also discover a new destiny.

This is Luke’s reality. When exactly the original story happened, is the lesser truth. There is something else here, out further, in deeper … a much bigger catch, a much bigger life.

One thought on “Swamped!

  1. Jason Goroncy sent me this comment, which I really appreciate:
    Nice post Frank —intertwining Lukan scholarship with contemporary debate about the nature of layered truth, truth as parable, the role of the artist as truthteller, and the nature of artistic truth.
    Also, welcome encouragement to those who feel ‘swamped’ in ministry (i.e. life) – even an invitation to consider such swamping as a sacrament.
    Of course, there are dangers with some strands of conceiving ‘swamping’ as grace that frequently encourage workaholism and messiahism, but this is not (thankfully) where you are inviting us to hang out. As you reflect, these are not the ‘qualifications’ for ministry that Jesus seeks.

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