Monday, April 23, 2007

John 21:1-14

Last Sunday's Gospel reading struck me in an unusual way. As a reminder (John 21:1-14):

"So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, "Children, have you caught anything to eat?" They answered him, "No." So He said to them, "Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something." So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord."

For some reason, the image of Peter fishing and catching nothing, because the Lord was not there, immediately put me in mind of the modernization of the Church and the apparent decline of the Church in the wake of Vatican II. This was inevitable, considering the second part of the Gospel:

"When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs.""

Now, one interesting question is what Jesus meant by "these." Did he mean the other disciples, or did he mean the fish? For certainly, as "fishers of men," Peter is called to gather men, much as in the shepherd motif he is called to feed his sheep.

If Christ was referring to the fish, themselves representing the "flock" or the faithful, then it would be interesting that Jesus calls Peter to love him more than his flock. And yet, in loving Christ, he is to serve the flock, whom he loves less. It is a strange, elliptical scripture, if my exegesis is correct.

But getting back to the haul of fish, it seems clear to me that despite whatever lures, and whatever teeming waters the Church fishes in, it will catch nothing if Jesus is not with the Church. Like the tree known by the fruit it bears, one might tell the pastor by his congregation.

The cheapening of the Church to a dim community social club (in many places), the "flattening" of the liturgy to emphasize the horizontal in favor of the vertical, has not universally led to poor catches. In some American parishes, the parking lots are packed, and the pews overflowing, despite the lack of a discernable tabernacle or recognizable liturgy. Certainly Pentacostalism and the Evangelic movement have achieved apparent success with their megachurches and network marketing. Their nets seem to be full to capacity. It seems a win/win situation for the congregational pastor and his flock - the flock is entertained and their needs for community met, while the pastor achieves glory and wealth.

And this seems to be a great contrast with the "charismatic" or "progressive" Catholics, for while the congregation may bear great similarity in size, wealth, and happiness to the protestant Evangilicals, they bear no fruit. Vocations are dim if present at all.

So, back to the sheep and the fish. Christ's presence captures the fish, otherwise the nets are full. But Peter is called to love Christ more than the fish, and in loving Christ, to be obedient and feed His sheep. Is this just a case of mixed metaphors? Am I just missing something obvious? Help me out here.


Miguel Cuthbert said...

I think Jesus was referring to the other disciples. Remember that Peter jumped out of the boat in his excitement while the others (more sensibly) took the boat to shore.

Our priest suggested that at this point, Peter probably did not know what to do anymore. That's why Peter suggested going back to fish - like returning to his old life. The fact that he caught nothing suggests that this old life was now dead to him (You can't go home again). Only when Jesus returns again do we see meaning return again. Peter had always followed Jesus in a literal sense, but now Jesus gives him his commision and as John tells us even goes so far as to tell Peter how he will glorify the Lord by being led to his own crucifixion. Jesus ends by saying "follow me."

Another priest told me that there is something "lost in translation" in the story. Jesus's word for love is much stronger than Peter's words for love.

"Peter to you adore me more than these."
"Yes Lord I love you."
"Peter do you adore me?"
"Yes Lord I love you."
"Peter do you love me?"
"Lord you know everything you know that I love you."

Here we see Jesus coming down to the level of Peter. Peter was still not ready to completely commit to Jesus.

Another priest said that what we see here is also Jesus allowing peter to make up for his three fold denial. Certainly to Peter it must have seemed like Jesus was tormenting him, but by demanding Peter confess his love three times he was allowing Peter to make a reparation.


One last thing. This is from the gospel of John and it seems that there was some jealousy among the disciples about who was closest to Jesus. Only John was at the cross and so John had a certain commision. John does not seem as uncertain in his love for Jesus and Jesus' love for him as Peter did. And look how Peter asked about what Jesus' plan for John was!

This all reminds me of what Chesterton said:

"When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward - in a word, a man. Peter. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link."

Cair Paravel said...

I’m not sure your “gut feel” with respect to the decline of the church matches reality. Between 1990 and 2001, the number of people identifying themselves as “Roman Catholic” increased by 10.6%. (Note: Over the same time period, the population of the U.S. grew by slightly more than this, so as a percentage of the U.S. population, the Catholic church went from 26.8% to 25.9%.) Those identifying themselves as “Lutheran” grew by 5.2% and those identifying themselves as “Baptist” shrunk by 0.4%. You can see these statistics for yourself at

This makes the Roman Catholic Church the fastest growing denomination in the United States, in terms of the number of people that she has added to her communion. And this growth occurred during a decade of very public scandal.

But back to your question… Whether or not it is the proper interpretation of this text, it is most certainly true that we can do nothing well apart from Christ, and this includes fishing.

Interestingly, at the Lutheran church, the interaction between Peter and Jesus was not read last Sunday. The reading ended at verse 14. (I never noticed such subtleties before.)

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Big Fish. The premise of the story is that the main character knows how his life will end, and so he lives a fearless life and brings redemption to everyone he encounters. This reading reminds me of that movie.

Xavier Martel said...

Big Fish is a fantastic movie - I hadn't thought of a redemptive undertone to it. Curious! Now I have to evaluate Big Fish along the lines of Tolkien's "True Myth" theory, which always makes my brain hurt.

I suppose what I was aiming at was some sort of allegorical breakdown in this scripture along the lines of "fish are disciples, lambs are congregants." The curious thing about demographics in the RC church is that there seems to be an inverse relationship between vocations and congregations. The most heavily populated parishes (the most dynamic, least liturgical, most social, etc) also seem to produce the fewest vocations. At least, this is my read of it, and is probably based on limited experience. But in any case, the famous "priest shortage", which has also been a "monk shortage" and a "nun shortage" has occurred at the same time the RC church has seen growth in congregants.

Now, there are many saintly laypeople, and I don't want to marginalize the "fruit" that these people represent, but it seems to me like the post-V2 church is a bit of withered hulk when it comes to producing shepherds (at the pastoral level).

But the upshot is what Miguel and you are both too kind to say: that I'm forcing a cultural hypothesis onto a Gospel reading that doesn't bear up my observation.

Still, I'm curious about what "these" means - disciples or fish? I'm not convinced that Christ was referring to the disciples.

Miguel Cuthbert said...

I hope there is now going to be a resurgence of vocations. We are seeing this - but it is through the resurgence of orthodoxy brought about by positive inmteraction with evangelicals through the pro-life cause. I firmly believe a church dedicated to promoting life will, by its very nature be a healthy church. It could end up, however, that a lot of pruning will occur and the church will seem to disolve as salt disolves in water.

Truthfully, I never had thought about "these" meaning the fish before you mentioned it. There are many places in the Bible (especially in John) where there seems to be divisions in the Kingdom.

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