[February 8, 2009] An impression we all have when we first read the gospels, especially Luke, is that they seem to just tell one story after another. The stories themselves are eyewitness testimonies of Jesus, and that makes them worth our while. But we miss the thread that ties them together, groups them in themes, and puts them in order. This is partly because we do not know the original context and purpose. The gospel writers’ context within the apostolic movement, and the literary context of each story within the gospel that they write, enable us not only to grasp the facts that are relayed to us but to see them within an interpretive framework. This broader understanding shows us how to interpret the stories, or at least points us in the right direction.
Luke wrote his gospel combining his own research with what was in the scroll that Matthew wrote. Matthew wrote his gospel for Jewish Christians when the church’s mission to the Gentiles was just beginning and still controversial. Luke was the product of the church’s mission to the Gentiles and wrote his gospel for the churches established among the Gentiles. Matthew’s gospel takes a lot for granted, being closest to the source, and therefore speaks directly about the kingdom of the heavens. But Luke’s gospel speaks with surprise and awe and wonder at the grace of God to sinners. In Luke’s gospel Jesus is the Savior. Let us be as awed as he was!
Luke writes within the context of the church and its mission. Therefore he writes of households and journeys. He does not block off the stories into clean sections the way Matthew does, but using the literary style in favor among educated pagans, he weaves his themes together. Rather than one section ending and another beginning, there are transitional stories between sections and quite a bit of overlap. For example, Nazareth and Capernaum seem to be separate, yet the repetition of words in 4:14b and 37 asks us to compare the story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth with his reception in Capernaum. Jesus leaves Capernaum and begins a tour of Galilee in 4:42, returning in 7:1. This would be another section, but the story of Peter begins in 4:38 and picks up again in 5:1. It is as though we not only have threads but threads in a weave.
Jesus inaugurated His mission in 4:21 by announcing the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messianic Age, the metaphorical “Year of Jubilee.” So what unfolds after that is a demonstration of this. When He goes to Capernaum He releases a man under the oppression of the devil within the synagogue and then He restores the household of Simon Peter and begins to demonstrate God’s grace by healing everyone who comes to Him. The receptivity of the people in Capernaum enables the town to become His base. It is a beginning, but He wants to do more.
So He tells them, “I must announce the Gospel of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because for this I was sent.” He leaves them on a tour of the towns of Galilee, not returning until chapter 7.
What happens in chapters 5 and 6 is that Jesus releases people from what binds them and makes disciples of them. In 6:13 He chooses twelve of them to be apostles. Then, as a finale, He gives the so-called “Sermon on the Plain,” about the character of a disciple.
Today we will consider the first three stories in this section. Jesus comes in grace and releases Peter from His preoccupation, He releases a leper from his uncleanness, and He releases a paralyzed man so he can walk again. These stories are lifted from Matthew’s gospel, and given a fresh significance.
The Calling of Peter (Luke 5:1-11)
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus calls Peter when he is casting a net into the water from his fishing boat. Jesus is walking on the shore of the lake and calls Peter with a word (Matthew 4:18-20). Luke gives a fuller story. Peter was apparently in the synagogue in Capernaum when Jesus cast the demon out of the man. Peter lived, literally, across the street from the synagogue and invited Jesus to his home afterwards. His mother-in-law was sick in bed with a deadly fever. Jesus healed her and stayed around for a meal. Afterwards people came over and Jesus healed many who were sick.
Then Jesus leaves town. In the morning He is preaching on the shore, near where Peter’s fishing boat is, and the people are crowding Him into the water. Peter is there, washing his nets—fishermen fished at night—and Jesus gets into the boat and asks Peter to take Him out a little so He can speak to the crowd from the boat. Peter complies. Then as if to thank Peter for the use of his boat, Jesus wants to help him fish.
Peter is respectful, but he also tries to keep Jesus in his place. Jesus is a teacher and preacher and healer, but Peter is an expert at fishing. “Through the whole night we toiled and caught nothing; but based on Your word I will let down the nets.” In other words, Peter was humoring Jesus. Nighttime is when you catch fish. If he had been up all night and caught nothing, he knew he was not going to catch anything now. But he would let down the net because You asked him to.
We learn something about Peter here. If Peter caught no fish, he had no income for that day. He has a wife and her mother at home and he needs to pay his taxes. He has worries. Peter is a practical man and he sees Jesus as all well and good—after all He can cure the sick—but when it comes to necessary things like providing for the household, you need to rely on common sense and skill. What has Jesus got to do with this? But he “believes” in Jesus so he will do what Jesus says. Even though it is a nuisance, since Peter is tired and he had just finished washing the nets, he lets the nets down into the water.
Can we not identify with Peter at this point? Religion is one thing, earning a living is another. We will leave religion to Jesus. No doubt, we will do our part. For some people, that just means baptizing the baby, getting married and getting buried. Peter went further—he was a good Jew (Acts 10:14). But we all know (!) we have to rely on ourselves when it comes to the “real” issues of daily life, like paying the bills. As long as Peter thought like this, he was useless as a disciple. He was just part of the crowd, not a disciple at all.
Jesus needs to wake him up, so He touches Peter where it matters most to him. The nets not only catch an enormous amount of fish, but the nets start to break because they are so full. Peter has to call other fishermen (James and John) to help him. Peter’s boat is four feet deep and there are so many fish in it that it starts to sink. Now Jesus has got Peter’s attention, more than when Peter saw the demon leave the man, more than when he saw his mother-in-law healed, and more than when he saw Jesus heal a multitude of sick people. Peter finally begins to get it.
He falls at Jesus’ knees and says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, Lord.” Peter realizes that Jesus has command of nature, command of his livelihood, and command of the practical things of daily life. He had not realized before that God is real in everything, not just religious obligations. God is more than a “teaching.” He now realizes that he had not been paying attention and had not really recognized who Jesus is. Somehow he is in the presence of God the Creator and Ruler of the universe. Peter falls on his face, realizing that he is a sinful man and does not deserve to be with Jesus. He is appalled at himself, and afraid of what Jesus must think of him.
If we are only half awake, we may realize that we are sinful but turn our backs on Jesus because we consider ourselves unworthy. If we do this, we misunderstand Jesus. He does not want to condemn us. He comes in grace. He wants to free us, not make us feel bad.
Peter tells Jesus to depart but makes no move to leave Jesus. Jesus tells him, “Do not be afraid.” Jesus does not reject him, or us if we would also wake up. Jesus knows that now He has Peter. Peter is now free from his preoccupation with work. “From now on you will be catching men alive.” From now on, you will be working for Me.
Peter does not give up fishing, not yet. He still has his boat. But he now knows that if he sticks with Jesus, God will provide for him and his household. This is Peter’s Jubilee. It is worthwhile to compare this story to the one in John 21. There the disciples also fished all night and caught nothing. But Jesus was on the shore already cooking fish for them when they brought in the miraculous haul of fish. He—and they—did not need all the fish they just caught.
We need to earn a living, but it does not need to preoccupy us.
The Cleansing of the Leper (5:12-16; see Matthew 8:2-4)
Leprosy was a disease that symbolized the corruption of sin. If you were a leper, you were cut off from society and you also felt cut off from God. So the leper comes to Jesus, not doubting His—or God’s—power, but questioning His willingness. Peter doubted God’s power. Sometimes we are like that. But sometimes we feel alienated from God, even abandoned. We feel very sinful, and unclean. God must hate me, we think.
Jesus touches the unclean one—even though if He touches a leper, it will make Him unclean—and says, “I am willing!” This is what we need to hear. Jesus touches us in whatever foulness we think we are in, whatever our history. If we can believe that He is willing when He touches us, it purifies us from our uncleanness immediately. It is one thing to know that we are forgiven, to accept that as a fact. It is another to feel ourselves cleansed by His willingness to touch us. We are cleansed when we know that He loves us and puts no distance between us.
Luke continues to remind us that Jesus does not reject Judaism. Judaism could not cure the leper, but it can correctly interpret the cure and testify to Jesus.
Even while Jesus engaged in His work, He took time to be alone and to pray. We also need to do this, especially when we are busy.
The Healing of the Paralytic (5:17-26; see Matthew 9:1-8)
The story of the paralytic takes place in a home that Jesus is visiting. Notice that Jesus meets people where they are: on the job, in our uncleanness, in our homes. The man here is paralyzed and can do nothing to help himself. He cannot even bring himself to Jesus to be healed. His friends bring him, and it is their persistence (faith) that Jesus recognizes. Jesus also recognizes our faith, our persistence, when we bring others to Him.
Before Jesus heals the man, He says, “Your sins are forgiven you.” This is the man’s real need, and it is this that frees him of his paralysis. The Pharisees are correct in saying that only God can forgive sins, but they are wrong to say that Jesus is blaspheming. Jesus, the Son of Man, brings the grace of God wherever He goes. God is present whenever He heals a sick person. The healing of the sick is only the outward sign of God’s presence. God is not present only in judgment but, where Jesus is, God is present in grace.
I say “not only” in judgment because God’s judgment is always present, impersonally. Divinity cannot NOT judge sin. Otherwise it would not be truth and goodness and sin would not be sin. What the presence of Jesus reveals, however, is that God comes personally in grace, mercy and love to us who do not deserve it, to us who are preoccupied, unclean and paralyzed. In the light of Jesus, we are exposed not only in our stupidity but in our sinfulness. We come under the light of God’s judgment. And we say, “Depart from me.” But He does not depart. He reaches down and touches us, cleanses us of our uncleanness, and frees us so we can walk again. Not only are we not useless to Him, but He says to us, “From now on, you will be catching people alive”—for life, for freedom, for Jubilee, for Me.