Organizing for Mission: Luke 5
The World as it is versus the World as it Should be
Jesus begins his public ministry of liberation and “release” from oppression by inviting others to others to join him. That this is the first thing Jesus does indicates that he is organizing a grassroots movement dedicated to renewing community life, and is not the lone charismatic guru that he is often imagined to be in more individualistic cultures like our own. His entire ministry takes place in Galilee until he “sets his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) as all prophets eventually do. Galilee was a compact hilly region less than 40 miles long and 30 miles wide west of the Jordan River on the northern frontier of Israel. After he departed the synagogue in Nazareth he paid a visit to Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum where he healed his mother-in-law. Capernaum was a fishing village in Galilee, and in these first verses of Luke 5 we find Jesus entering the world of those who made their living by fishing.
(picture of present day archeaological site at Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee: http://www.possehlfamily.net/Capernaum_air_view01.jpg)
It easy enough to view the world as it is described in Luke 5:1-11 through rose colored glasses as a serene setting on beautiful Lake Gennesaret (i.e. Sea of Galilee) fishing and spending time with Jesus. However, the fact that Simon Peter and his colleagues have been fishing all night and caught nothing hints at a less romantic view of their reality. Fishing was an important means of earning a living in Galilee, and viewing this scene through a economic and political lens puts the scenario in a different light. Galilee was a peasant society with the majority of people living around subsistence level. The fact that Simon and his coworkers have fished all night and caught nothing means that they may have to do without the necessities of life.
In his detailed account of the Galilean fishing economy, Hanson points out that the Galilean fishing economy was an “embedded economy” (not a market economy) characteristic of aristocratic empires in which benefits flow upward to the urban elites, and especially the ruling families.Not only do those fishing for their livelihood here likely not own their own boats, but they were also heavily taxed. In short, the world as it is that Jesus enters here is a world of economic deprivation and distress.
When the narrator opens the scene by noting “the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God” (Luke 5:1), it seems reasonable to assume that people anticipate that Jesus will speak with authority to their dire circumstances. More than likely they hope that he will right what is wrong, fix what is broken in their world, but instead he disrupts their pursuits in the world as it is to call them into the world as it should be, that is, the world as God is reordering it. First Jesus bids them to “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” and hence trade in their cynicism for trust in the possibility of a new praxis and way of life together that is characterized by abundance rather than scarcity.” Catching “so many fish that their nets were beginning to break” signifies the lavish beneficence of the Creator who provides all that is needed for human flourishing and more for those who are rightly related to God and hence one another, but this is not the way of the world as it is.
Awed and dismayed by this display of superabundance, Jesus recruits Simon, James and John to join him in his mission of liberation and take up a new vocation: “‘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.” (Luke 5:10-11). The Greek word for “catching people” (zogreō) means to take alive, capture without killing, or to restore to life. Jesus used an image or metaphor from their workaday world to describe their new role in his renewal movement dedicated to restoring life, mending relationships, and forming the beloved community. Only in the light of appreciating the more exuberant and expansive way of life together to which Jesus was calling them in contrast to the imperial world as it was from which he was releasing them is it possible to understand their decision to leave everything and follow him. The question is not merely what were they giving up, but rather what was the new reality to which Jesus was summoning them?
People of every time and place are socialized into the world as it is and internalize its concomitant worldview, norms, values, customs and conventions until for some reason they begin to question the received view of reality. Adolescents tend to do this to some degree or another as they individuate, but sooner or later the majority get with the program, so to speak. It’s only a matter of time before most, but not all, submit to the cultural scripts they been assigned even if they are in tension with heartfelt values and convictions. It is just too difficult for individuals to consistently resist the world as it is on their own for very long unless it is done in solidarity and with support.
It is also possible to view our world as it is through the romantic lens of the American dream and all that it conjures up, but such nostalgic idealism does not square with the socioeconomic struggles of a growing number of people in this country. In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2010, the top 1% of households owned 35.4% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 53.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 89%, leaving only 11% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). This mirrors the Roman Empire where a handful of elites controlled most all of the resources.
The poverty and hunger statistics in America are scandalous. In 2010, 46.9 million people were in poverty, up from 37.3 million in 2007 -- the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty. This is the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty rates have been published. In 2010, 17.2 million households, 14.5 percent of households (approximately one in seven), were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the United States.
The report that Simon, James and John “left everything and followed him” has the potential to produce anxiety in us and impede any impulse to trade in what we think we have acquired in the world as it is to trust Jesus’ vision and praxis of new life. However, as his short parable about the incompatibility of new wine in old wine skins intimates (Luke 5:36-39), it is difficult to participate in the new God is doing while clinging to the old.
Relationships Private and Public
One of the more challenging aspects of relating the Gospel narratives about Jesus to our lives is that while they focus on Jesus’ ministry in public space, the private domain is more prominent and privileged in many if not most American cultural contexts. So, for example, in this first story of discipleship in Luke Jesus is recruiting Peter, James and John to become part of a populist movement guided by a social vision of the world as it should be, i.e. the kingdom of God, which is a political metaphor for the remaking of society according to God’s purposes. Jesus is usually situated in the public sphere where his teaching and healing activity serve the larger purpose of (trans)forming or organizing the “crowd” (the customary designation for Jesus’ audience in the Gospels) into a community.
The episodes of healing and mealing in Luke 5 attest to the public and communal significance of Jesus’ ministry. The main concern for the leper in Luke 5:12-16 is that his skin disorder has rendered him “unclean” and therefore isolated him from others. In touching and cleansing him Jesus reinstates him in the community. The next episode of the healing of the paralytic in 5:17-18 is a public healing that features a community of comrades resolute in bringing the man to Jesus for healing. The second call story of tax collector named Levi in Luke 5:27-32 is also a tale of Jesus mending social relationships by engaging someone who was marginalized for exploitative economic practices. The Pharisees complain that Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5:30). The Aramaic word for sin (hōvayin) means “debtors.” Douglas Oakman suggests that during these meals Jesus may have been joining tax collectors and debtors.
Jesus’ public activity has the effect of galvanizing nameless multitudes around the renewal of community life in its various dimensions. Personal transformation and social transformation are go hand in glove as Jesus calls sinners to conversion (metanoia), that is, a new way of life together.
Perhaps a place to begin a conversation about what discipleship means in the public domain is to envision how Jesus might (trans)form or organize us into a community that would continue his populist movement of renewal and restoration in the context(s) in which we are situated. This would require us to broaden the horizons of our perception of the activity of the risen Jesus’ beyond the confines of the church as circumscribed sacred space to discern how he is calling his community to continue his work of mending the world in the power of the Spirit. This would, of course, relativize, or at least soften, several of the boundaries that serve to define what it means to be a “Christian” per se, namely the boundary between sacred and secular, church and world, and even faith/trust and distrust.
There are several examples of the power to act in Luke 5 that exhibit the courage and trust necessary to begin to embody the kingdom of God. Notice the progression in the response of Peter, James and John. Despite their initial skepticism and reluctance when Jesus tells them to let down their nets, they nonetheless heed his instruction and discover surplus in the midst of shortage. It is this first step and the consequent epiphany of new possibilities that prompts the decision to join Jesus. Even in this brief account of the call to discipleship we see that it is a process that involves trusting enough to risk some action that contravenes customary habits and norms to adjust our convictions and alter our practice, and thus we find ourselves on a more life-giving path.
Similar characteristics are evident in the two healing stories in Luke 5. The leper’s physical condition is the cause of his ignominy and social alienation. He has every excuse to remain trapped in his own private hell, and yet he takes the initiative to seek Jesus out and persuade him to cleanse him. The paralytic in the next episode has a group of companions who accompany him in solidarity in the quest for healing. They demonstrate determination and chutzpah in letting him down through the roof so that Jesus can heal him. Even the way Jesus heals the man engenders agency on the part of someone who was ostensibly helpless:
Levi the tax collector also exemplifies remarkable trust and courage in responding to Jesus’ summons to “follow me.” In these accounts of discipleship and healing Jesus requires even those who seemingly have no capacity to improve their situation to do something, no matter how modest, to involve them in God’s reordering of the world as it is.
The call of Peter, James and John foreshadows the choosing of the twelve disciples whom Jesus names apostles in Luke 6:12-16. These fishermen not only become a part of Jesus’ inner circle; they will continue to undergo a metamorphosis until they assume leadership of the movement after Jesus’ death and resurrection. But it all began by reluctantly heeding Jesus invitation to let there nets down one more time. The Spirit speaks and acts through the Scriptures to inspire us to think and act contrary to our conditioning in the world as it is, but change usually begins with modest adjustments that entail first trusting what Jesus is telling us and then acting on it one step at a time.
It is not uncommon to hear Jesus’ summons to follow him as a demand that will expect more from us than we feel are able to do. However, it is unrealistic to imagine that Peter, James, John, Levi the tax collector or anyone else would have become a part of Jesus’ movement unless they believed it would improve the quality of their life. Instead of asking what people are giving up, we should be asking what are the benefits of following Jesus. If we had serious conversations about how to embody his teaching and example in our life together and truly grasped the existential reality of our baptism, of being joined to Christ in his death and resurrection so that by relinquishing our attachment to ways of the world we are renewed, then perhaps the concerns we have about what we have to give up would be eclipsed by fulness of life. When we attempt to do this on our own, our lives are conflicted by trying to live in two worlds. However, when we attempt to live into the this new life together, we are empowered to face the challenges before us and to celebrate God’s gifts and grace.
What are specific ways that you believe it is in your self-interest to follow Jesus? How does this improve the quality of your life? What are the benefits of belonging to the community of Christ? What is difficult about it for you?
Luke 5:1-11 is a call story, and call stories are always agitational inasmuch the person is being challenged to be true to their self and act on their own self-interest. A key phrase in this episode is Jesus’ exhortation to Simon Peter, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:11). This is a double entendre that refers not only to fishing but even more evokes a sense of mystery, adventure, and the prospect of a more meaningful and authentic way of life for those attuned to the presence of the One who is the Source of Life. This awareness of the mysterium tremendum, that is, the numinous, the utterly ineffable, the holy, is conveyed by Peter’s response:
Such encounters with the numinous and the Holy cannot but transform us and move us to evaluate life as it is being lived vis-à-vis life as it should be lived according to God’s purpose for creation.