The Call of Simon Peter in Luke 5:1-11

This story, which is unique to Luke, is a bit of a gem among call narratives. It may be divided into three distinct sections: vv. 1-3, 4-7, and 8-11.

Unlike Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ interaction with Simon in this scene is preceded by his healing of Simon’s mother-in-law (4:39); presumably Simon also saw or heard about the rest of Jesus’ activities in Capernaum (4:40-41) before Jesus appeared on the shore:

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

In this first scene Jesus is doing just as he told the crowds in 4:42-43, that is, he is proclaiming the good news of the coming of the kingdom, mentioned for the first time in Luke in 4:43.

Although the verbs indicate that Simon is not alone in his efforts, the focus of Jesus’ words is directed to him (vv. 4-7):

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.

In this section a first obstacle to Simon’s relationship with Jesus appears. Simon notes that he, his crew, and their associates have worked all night but their personal efforts to catch fish have proven fruitless. Thus, Jesus’ instructions to let down their nets could prove useless. Nevertheless, Peter does as he is asked. The motive for trusting Jesus’ instructions probably lies with Simon’s experiences with Jesus in Capernaum, particularly the healing of his mother-in-law. This leads to the second obstacle (vv. 8-11):

But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

In this scene, the first in Luke in which Simon is called Peter, Simon rightly recognizes that a sinful person cannot comfortably remain in the presence of the divine power with which Jesus is endowed. Simon’s only avenue for resolution is to ask Jesus to leave.  Jesus, however, has other options. He implicitly offers Simon forgiveness as he explicitly offers him a part of his mission to spread the good news (gospel) of the kingdom. Simon and his associates will be able to accept this proposal; although they could catch no fish on their own, their “fishing” efforts as partners of Jesus will result in a great “catch.”

The final note of the story of the call of Simon indicates that the new disciples, who will eventually be among the twelve chosen from a larger group of disciples, left everything to join Jesus in his efforts to announce God’s gracious offer of salvation. Repetition of the form (call narrative) and the sin motif links this story to that Levi in 5:27-32. In this second story Jesus is explicit about his mission to call sinners back into an appropriate relationship of service to God. And like Simon, Levi responds by immediately leaving all that he has to accompany Jesus. Levi, however, will not be among those listed as the twelve chosen disciples (6:14-16), indicating that the requirement for single-minded service, that is, placing the kingdom ahead of all else, is not limited to the elite ranks of discipleship.