Audio length: 12:23 minutes
Transcript published: September 27, 2011
What happens after we have worked hard, done our best and achieved nothing?
In the Gospel for today from the fifth chapter of St Luke, we reach a decisive moment in the ministry of Jesus, who has been preaching, teaching and healing in Galilee. Simon Peter has just finished a very unsuccessful night of fishing in which he caught absolutely nothing. The nets are being washed—a sign that the fishing has finished; and the nets are to be stretched and prepared for use the next day. Suddenly, Jesus tells Simon Peter to bring the nets back to the boat “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon Peter is not pleased, but he is obedient. “Master,” he replies, “we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.”
I think in our own lives we are often in that situation in which Simon Peter finds himself. He and we have worked hard, done our best and achieved nothing. Just like Simon Peter, we are tired; and we have no desire to continue an activity that has been of no value as far as we are aware. But consider this story a bit more closely. Simon, as he is known at this time, has already made his boat available as a convenient location from which Jesus can preach. Simon has been with Jesus as He preached, and Simon has listened to Jesus who is sitting beside Him. Certainly, Simon is in the front row of those who are listening to Jesus, and perhaps he is somewhat aware of his situation. He has become a follower of Jesus; and yet his fishing has not been blessed and nothing much has changed in his life. Do you sometimes feel this way? At times, I do: we are all followers of Jesus Christ and yet all our problems have not been solved. Like Simon, we have worked hard and appear to have achieved little.
Then, everything changes, for Simon and for us. Unexpectedly, Jesus tells Simon to continue to fish, and indicates to us that we too should continue to do precisely what we have been doing. Simon and we obey and the result is an amazement that we share with Simon and his companions because our efforts suddenly become successful beyond our wildest dreams. Furthermore, in the midst of our amazement—just when we have been rewarded for doing precisely what we have been doing for many years—we are told: “Do not fear, from now on you will catching men.”
Now what the Lord tells us to do when he calls us will be unique. I always think that if someone else can do a particular job I am trying to do, then I am free to do something else. Each of us is unlikely to be called to become a world-famous evangelist. However, you can be sure of this, we will each be called, probably when we least expect it, and quite possibly to some new task we had not envisaged.
That unexpected call was what happened to the Franciscan chaplain to the New York Fire Department, Father Mychal Judge, who was killed by falling masonry from the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 200l. The post of chaplain to the New York Fire Department had arisen largely because the Franciscan friary was next to a fire station. An informal pastoral relationship with an earlier Franciscan friar was fruitful, and Father Mychal was then asked to continue that relationship, little suspecting that this request would come to define his life.
Father Mychal’s close friend, a fellow Franciscan Father John Felice, has reflected on the fact that there is now a rush to declare Father Mychal a saint but Father John has opposed such a move. Father John has said, “In making saints out of people, we often shove them away from our experience and place them on a pedestal. Yet Father Mychal was a very human, flawed, complex person just like the rest of us. His real legacy to each of us is that such is the stuff of greatness.” The same is true of Simon by the lake in Galilee and of each of us in our own parish setting. We are each “very human, flawed and complex” and that is precisely “the stuff of greatness”—not a greatness of being known and respected by many people, but a greatness of hearing God’s unexpected call and responding to that call.
How did Simon have the courage immediately to fall down at the feet of Jesus, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” That deep awareness of personal sinfulness was precisely the response of Abraham, of Job and of Isaiah when they were each called by God. In the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, Abraham said, “I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes.” In the forty-second and final chapter of the Book of Job, Job acknowledged that “now my eye sees You; therefore, I retract [my accusations against You], and I repent in dust and ashes.” In the sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, when the prophet was called in a vision of the temple filling with smoke, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
When God calls each of us, we too are likely to respond just as Simon Peter, Abraham, Job and Isaiah responded. However, a Biblical note on this verse points out: “The nearer [we] come to God, the more [we] feel our own sinfulness and unworthiness.” Of course, we are not worthy to be considered in the company of Simon Peter and Abraham and Job and Isaiah—four of the most respected followers of God in human history; and yet we are worthy. We are worthy to be called by God and to respond to His call to the best of our own ability to understand and implement that call.
Father Mychal Judge dealt with his own unworthiness with a simple prayer that he often recited:
Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet who you want me to meet;
Tell me what you want me to say,
And keep me out of your way.
The first three lines of that prayer set out aspirations many of us already share:
Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet who you want me to meet;
Tell me what you want me to say …
However, that fourth line requires considerable reflection and deep prayer. Do we really want to say to God, “keep me out of your way”? I hesitated quite a lot about that, but then I decided, Yes, yes, we each need to keep our own ideas, our own awareness of past failures, our own hopes for future successes, out of God’s way, so that we can accomplish His will and not our will, so that we—just as Peter and Abraham and Job and Isaiah—can respond to God’s will even when we do not know where that will lead.
We are very unlikely to be killed in the midst of a great disaster as was Father Mychal, but like Isaiah and Job and Peter we are likely to suffer greatly. Therefore, when God calls each of us—as He will—we need to accept the unknown, to keep out of God’s way and to try to fulfil the mission that He gives to each of us, just as to Peter.
To conclude, let me remind you that this story about fishing is repeated in the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of St John, because after Jesus Christ was crucified, and Peter was sure he had failed terribly, Peter went back to Galilee and said simply, “I am going fishing.” He was immediately joined by six other disheartened companions, so that together “they went out and got into the boat and that night [again] they caught nothing.”
Remember what happened then? Jesus appeared on the beach and said to them, “Children, you do not have any fishes, do you?” They answered Him, “No;” so He told them to “cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat” precisely where they were, and that then they would “find a catch.” That was exactly what happened; and Peter then responded by jumping into the water to come to Jesus. And so can all of us—we can each listen to Jesus and respond to Him when He calls us.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amen.