Jesus Calls Andrew and Peter, c.6th Century, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nouvo, Ravenna, Italy.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said,“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Luke 5:8.
Words highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
There is a very good-looking building on the banks of the River Thames just upstream from Tower Bridge in what is called the Pool of London. It was once Billingsgate Fish Market, now transferred down river. Well, the men who once worked there were legendary for their foul language. Now I am not suggesting that everyone connected with the fishing industry behaves like that, but it is very tempting to transfer this trait to the fishermen in today’s gospel. Luke spells it out very clearly: they had been fishing all night with nothing to show for it. Now along comes this holy man as they were washing their nets (so this must have been in the morning). He calmly tells them to pull out again…… Luke has St. Peter saying, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”. I can’t help thinking that this is a strongly bowdlerized version of what was actually said at that moment… The man was exhausted, angry, frustrated, disappointed, tired, furious, etc, etc. And this gentle soul is delicately telling him to go out again. Well, what would you have said? What really makes this story come alive, however, is Peter’s reaction when they return with a bumper catch: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” and I would bet that is pretty well verbatim. He must have been very conflicted having almost certainly sworn at Jesus and told him where to go, but nevertheless had done what Jesus said, and now had the realization that Jesus was the real thing, and he, Peter, was wrong and sinful. There must have been something about Jesus, this unknown holy man, which rang true to get such a man as Peter to do what Jesus wanted. In other words, sinful as he was, he knew goodness and purity when he saw it. And, wonder of wonders, he was the man Jesus had fished for, and caught! Peter, of course, was destined to become the leader of Jesus’ apostles in the early church, being eventually martyred in Rome, and recognized by the Roman Church as the first pope.
Was Peter sinful? Well, just look at Scripture. Wasn’t he the one at the Last Supper who claimed he would never betray the Lord, yet before that same night was out, he had betrayed him three times? Betrayal is the same as being stabbed in the back, though worse, because the betrayed knows about it; this same gospel author, Luke, even has Jesus turn and look directly at Peter after this third betrayal, and Peter turns away and “weeps bitterly” (Luke 22:60-62). Remorse, which is what Peter endured, is, I think, a taste of hell. You know you have done something terrible for which you are alone are responsible, which you know you should not have done, but there it is. It cannot be undone, the effects are irreversible, and you are the one who did it. Clearly Peter must have been very shaken at this event because he had betrayed the very man he had declared to be “the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (Matthew 16:15-16). (But to give Peter his due, he had not as yet received the divine power of God’s Holy Spirit, an event which happened at Pentecost: that transformed all present, and made fearless heroes of them all). So perhaps the focus of this Sunday’s readings are about self-recognition and the bottomless depth of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Look at today’s first reading from Isaiah. The prophet is standing before the throne of Almighty God, the seat of purity and goodness. Clearly he cannot “blend” here, for he is, like all of us, impure and sinful. He is very out-of-place. But rather than be thrown out, a seraph cleanses his lips with a burning coal, “See, now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.” (is this the source of the concept of Purgatory I wonder). He may now stand in the presence of God. Remember the definition of mercy: Compassion on someone who does not deserve it. That is the glory and incomprehensible nature of our God. We are redeemable in God’s eyes; God never gives up on us. Even St. Paul in today’s second reading reveals the same deep remorse, and the astounding reality of a God of forgiveness: “For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective”.
So it’s pretty clear what today’s message is for us lowly sinful creatures, yet children of God. If we realize what sinful creatures we are and do not let remorse get the better of us but admitting to our guilt, God will forgive us, allow us to stand in the divine presence. We even have a sacrament, suitably called Reconciliation, as our very own direct link to the God of forgiveness if that is what is needed. So when it comes down to it, even though we might swear and curse the darkness within us, we have the means to deal with it and emerge stronger, cleaner and happier than ever before; God forgives!
(This is a slightly modified copy of my February 2019 reflection of this gospel; I don’t think I can do any better than this, so here it is again!)
Christ giving the Keys to Saint Peter, Catena c.1520, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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