“Put out into deep water.” This is what Jesus told Simon (Peter) to do after a night of utter failure at fishing.
I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do after utter failure is go back for more. After partial failure, I might still have hope and be up for the challenge. After a complete lack of results, I just want to pull the covers over my head and take a long nap. Failure saps me.
From what I’ve read, the type of fishing that Simon, James and John were doing involved wading in the shallows of the lake, casting their nets wide, pulling the sides down around whatever was in the water, and dragging the catch to shore to sort. They did this at night because in the daylight, the shallow water would be uncomfortably warm, and the fish could see well enough that they would not get caught. But in the evening, the shallow waters cooled off enough that they would come into shore to feed and never see the net until it was too late. After a long night of failure to catch fish in the dark, Simon probably doubted the existence of any fish in the Lake of Gennesaret.
There are a few cliches that come to mind as I put myself in Simon Peter’s shoes. “Don’t quit before the miracle,” is the first. The other is like it: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” Perhaps I should add a new platitude for those situations when I’ve reached the end if my rope and don’t have it in me to tie a knot and hold on. “Put out into deep water.”
Most of us prefer fishing in the shallows, only up to our knees and holding onto safety nets. This could be an analogy for an unfulfilling but comfortable career, or a relationship that is not living up to its potential. Maybe it’s a lifestyle or habit that has outlived it’s usefulness. The shallows are a great place to catch fish, until they aren’t anymore. If we want fish, we have to go where the fish are. Deeper.
Scripture confirms that Simon did indeed have doubts. “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,” he said. But in spite of his doubt, Simon was obedient, and as a result, he caught so many fish that he needed help hauling his catch to shore.
It’s easy to focus so much on this part of the story that we miss a critical piece of the story – Simon’s nets tore. It reminds me of yet another cliche, this one attributed to George Bernard Shaw. “There are two great tragedies in life. One is to not get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”
Poor Simon was obedient to Jesus and his desires so completely fulfilled by going deeper that as a result, the primary tool of his livelihood was rendered completely useless. No more safety net. No wonder he left his life as a fisherman to follow Jesus. It was not so much a testament of virtue as it was an act of last resort. What choice did he have?
There are times in our lives when we are clearly called to leave behind our safety nets to follow a new path. Do we instead choose to stay on the shore and repair the net ripped apart by miracles that are too big to be contained and resenting the God who made it happen? If I am honest, most of the time I would rather God leave me alone to toil in my familiar, comfortable life than invite me on the journey of a thousand miracles.
That was Simon’s first choice, too. He tried to get out of it with the same excuse I use – that I’m not “good enough.”
“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” he said. Isaiah, too, reacted this way to the reality of God, saying, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Even the Apostle Paul is quick to claim his failure and unworthiness – “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
But ultimately each of these saints, and all the others throughout scripture and church lore, came to the same conclusion as Paul – “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” Acceptance of self and acceptance of God’s grace.
But who wants to be a saint? What I want is independence – to do and be what I want to do and be without being hindered. I’ve pursued that path and whatever happiness I found was shallow like the warm shoreline waters of the Lake of Gennesaret.
It’s in these shallows where I meet with failure and my God asks plainly, “What exactly do you want?” Sometimes I don’t have an answer right away. But once I discern it and state it out loud, my God gives me the same instruction every time – “Go deeper.”
He said it when I was struggling to decide whether to stay or leave a job that was not the right fit. He said it when I knew I had to let go of a friendship and didn’t know how or even want to. He said it when I was discerning what I wanted to do about my marriage. And in each of these cases, and others as well, it was only when I went deeper that I was freed of my safety nets and released to make a decision and change direction.
When we read these familiar Gospel stories in isolation we don’t always see the forest for the trees. Simon had been following Jesus for quite some time before he went deeper – he had been to the wedding at Cana, and he’d seen Jesus heal his mother-in-law. But only after his nets were torn and he was out of excuses did Simon change direction. He went from being a follower to being a disciple, a student. And ultimately this self-diagnosed sinful man became an apostle, a leader and teacher himself. He became the rock upon which the Church was built. Peter was a reluctant saint, but hard times made him into something far more useful than a simple fisherman striving for a modestly comfortable life.
When I was at Mass this weekend the deacon who was preaching on this very Gospel said that the natural progression from discipleship is apostleship. That is God’s will for each and every one of us, no matter where we find ourselves on the journey today. Like Simon Peter and Saul Paul, it doesn’t happen overnight, but it does involve letting go of the safety nets that keep us stuck where we are. God shows His love for us by ripping them and rendering them useless.
It may not feel like love at the time. In fact, we may feel very angry and even question the goodness of a god who would strip us of the means to live in the way we’ve come to expect. Even if we accept the invitation to discipleship, we may need to grieve, and we may even return to fishing as Peter and the others did after Jesus died.
One thing is certain – whether or not we deliberately choose to go deeper, life itself will take us deeper one way or another and tear our nets. Our pain is directly proportional to our willingness to leave them on the shore and move on. Will we embrace new life, or wallow in resentment and fear? This is the choice Simon had, as do we.
Sometimes I do all the “right” things with a humble and holy heart, and I experience the opposite of “prosperity theology.” How will I ever be a fisher of men and attract people to Christ? Perhaps I don’t really believe “enough,” I wonder. Like Simon, I focus on how sinful I am.
As with Simon, Jesus doesn’t depart. He simply says, “Do not be afraid. I have a plan for you. Let’s go.”