A Fishy Question – John 21:15
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
Let’s go back a few days and set the scene for this question. Just a few days ago Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. He came into the city riding on a donkey. He was surrounded by his faithful disciples and many others who believed that he was to be the savior of Israel. They thought he would somehow use the miraculous powers he had exhibited over the past three years to overthrow the Romans and re-establish the kingdom of David. It was a festive and joyous scene: people laying their cloaks on the ground for the donkey to walk on; people waving palm branches, the traditional symbol of peace; people shouting “Hosanna, to the son of David”. Simon and the other disciples must have been in a state of near euphoria. They had been with him for three years. They had heard the teachings. They had witnessed the miracles. They had even seen some power exerted through themselves. And now they were strategically positioned to be among the leaders of this new Israel. It must have been very exhilarating.
As the week wore on the scene began to change. More and more Jesus confronted the religious leaders. He chided them. He accused them of being false teachers. He accused them of being hypocrites. He upset the money changers in the temple. But more importantly he upset their comfortable social and religious status and their comfortable and profitable relationship with the Romans. He challenged the established order and that is always dangerous.
So the religious leaders decided that Jesus would have to go. Using a mock trial with false witnesses and trumped up charges, they “convicted” him of blasphemy for claiming to be the “son of God.” It was during this time that all the disciples who had been so excited just a few days before, abandoned Jesus. And it was during this trial that Simon Peter had denied Jesus three times.
After this mock trial, and using threats and blackmail, the Jewish religious leaders coerced the Roman Governor, Pilate, into having Jesus crucified. Can you imagine the emotional trauma of the disciples; from the heights of euphoria to the depth of despair in five short days. And it had to have been especially hard on Simon Peter as he remembered how he had denied Jesus. All the disciples were in hiding for fear of “guilt by association.”
Then came the rumors that Jesus was alive and the moment when Peter and John saw that the tomb was empty. They didn’t understand it. Well, wouldn’t you be confused!? Have you ever seen anybody who was dead come back to life? No? Well neither had the disciples. We read about it and we confess it and hopefully we believe it, but they were living it: a totally unprecedented event.
Then Jesus appeared to the two on the road to Emmaus and to the disciples when Thomas was absent and then again to the disciples when Thomas was present. And finally he appeared to a confused and dejected bunch of fishermen.
We know that some of the disciples were commercial fishermen. For those of you not familiar with commercial fishing let me fill you in. I grew up in a fishing village in south Florida. None of my family were fishermen, but I knew several families that were and I went to school with kids whose fathers were commercial fishermen and I can testify to you that commercial fishing is hard, backbreaking, work with very unreliable results and minimal income potential.
But as we pick up the story in the 21st chapter of John’s gospel, we see Simon Peter saying to the other disciples, “I’m going fishing.” That was Simon’s comfort zone. That was what he knew how to do. There was no emotional whipsaw about fishing. Commercial fishing required strength and stamina but it did not require great intellectual understanding. Fishing did not require Simon to think about religion or the Romans and fishing certainly did not require him to try to figure out what was going on with Jesus!
Apparently they fished at night. I don’t fully understand the significance of that except that possibly the light from lamps of the boat would attract the fish. I have seen that work with shrimp and scallops. They also apparently worked naked, or very nearly so. I can think of two possible reasons for that. First, if you have only one set of clothes, you certainly don’t want to get them all smelly and slimy with fish. Second, and I believe more likely, their clothing would interfere with throwing the cast net.
Have you ever thrown, or tried to throw a cast net? It is difficult to say the least. A cast net is a large round net with lead weights all around the outside edge. It is heavy! It has a number of lines attached to the outside edge that run up through a grommet in the center and then to a longer line that the fisherman holds on to. To cast the net you hold on to the mainline with your right hand (or in your teeth!) and spread the net out across your right arm and grasp the edge in the left hand. Then with a combination of body twist and arm motion you throw the net in such a way that it spreads out in a large circle as it enters the water. The lead weights pull the net down and if there happened to be any fish under the spot where you threw the net, they would be caught. Then you have to haul the net back into the boat and do it all again. A good cast net fisherman can probably make a cast about every 4-5 minutes.
If the fisherman is facing the bow of the boat, he will always cast on the left side of the boat. That’s significant to the story. The whole boat was set up to accommodate casting on the left side. Peter and his partners had been doing this all night with nothing to show for his labor. Not a single fish.
As it is beginning to get light they are headed toward shore. They are exhausted. They are frustrated. They are ready to hang it up for tonight. Then they see a man standing on the shore. He has a fire going. The man calls out to them,
“Havin’ any luck?”
“Try casting on the right side of the boat.”
Yea, right! Who is this smart aleck anyway? We’re the experienced fishermen here and this is just some guy standing on the shore. What does he know about fishing? But Peter, probably out of frustration decides gives it a try. I can just hear him now, “What the heck, nothing else has worked. I’ll give it one more shot”.
And what happens? He nets a whole school of large fish! So many that they can’t lift it into the boat.
Now John puts it together and says to Peter, “It is the Lord!” So Peter slips on some clothes jumps into the water and swims to shore leaving the others to grapple with the net full of fish.
When the boat comes close to shore and they drag the net full of fish out onto the beach, they count the catch and it is 153 large fish – a truly bountiful catch. With one act of obedience to Jesus their frustrating and discouraging night of work had been turned into a joyous celebration of bountiful success. What a powerful lesson that is for us as well as for them.
After they have eaten breakfast, (broiled fish no less) Jesus takes Simon Peter aside and asks the question, “Simon, son of John do you love me more than these?”
There are at least three ways to look at that question. First, “Simon, do you love me more that these other disciples love me?” That might be a reasonable question. If Jesus was looking for someone to be the leader of his band of followers he might reasonably want someone who loved him more than anyone else loved him. But I don’t think that was the gist of the question.
Second, “do you love me more than these” could have meant, “Do you love me more than you love these friends of yours?” That is also a reasonable question. If Jesus were looking for someone to be the leader of his band of followers he would certainly want someone who put him first above their devotion to anyone else. But I don’t think that was the gist of the question either.
I think the gist of the question was, “Do you love me more than you love these fish?” Those fish represented everything Simon Peter had in the world. This was Simon’s comfort zone. This was what he knew. This was what he had done before Jesus came along. His very life! His share of that catch would bring a lot of money. He would be prosperous again. He could provide for his wife and family. He could feel confident and secure in his chosen profession. Perhaps even put a little aside for his old age.
“Simon, son of John, are you willing to risk everything that gives you safety and comfort and security to follow me into the unknown”?
Praise the Lord! We read the book – we know Simon Peter’s answer.
What’s your comfort zone? Financial security? Social standing? Home and family? Career? Grand children? Your favorite hobby? Church? But now, in the name of Jesus Christ, I ask you;
Do you love him more than these?