At the Lake of Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee), Jesus encounters men going about their daily business of hauling in their nets after a night of fishing. This was big business in that region and it was demanding and time consuming. It meant fishing overnight and then arriving at shore and selling the catch of fish to the brokers. They were not casual or hobby fishermen, nor were they just selling their fish to the locals for their meals that day. The fish caught here was salted, stored in large barrels, and shipped throughout the region. This was an export business, not unlike what many small companies still do today.
Simon – later called Peter – doesn’t seem to react when a stranger virtually commandeers his boat, asking him to pull out a distance so that he could speak to the crowd on the shore. We must expect that this was not an unusual request. Perhaps other religious figures and others who had a message they wanted to convey to the people would often do this. Presumably, Simon negotiated some price for doing this as it would certainly be personally inconvenient (and another source of revenue). Speaking from a boat just off the shore is a phenomenon that actually is quite effective along this lake.
Simon was no doubt settled in for another long rambling diatribe from some fringe or crazed speaker, perhaps even hoping to be able to catch a nap before rowing back to the dock. This time, however, Simon is deeply touched by the speaker, and experiences a radical change of life. When this speaker instructs him to row out and to lower his nets, Simon explains why it doesn’t make sense, but does so anyway, as he saw the power of this stranger and trusted his words. Their catch that morning was overwhelming.
It is Simon’s reaction to Jesus that becomes instructive for us: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
When we wonder what is wrong with the world today – what is wrong with the Church today – this is where we might start. The Lord calls each of us –by name – but that call demands a response. As with a child who knows she got caught with her hand in the cookie jar and then needs to admit and then experience a consequence for a misdeed, so we all need to first acknowledge our sinfulness before we can genuinely respond to the Lord’s call.
It is not that the Lord is calling fewer men to the priesthood; it is that many who are called are unable to respond because they cannot or do not know how to admit their need for reconciliation. The same is true with those priests and religious who fail in this mission. Once they have allowed their sinfulness to be their way of life, and they no longer can say “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” then they are on the path to destruction.
This is also true for all of us. As the Lord calls us and we trod the path of discipleship, it is easier at times to allow sinfulness to take over. This leads us gradually to a moment where we no longer say “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” and then, ever so gradually, to a point where we even refuse to get into the boat with Jesus.
It doesn’t take long, and it doesn’t have to be a conscious journey at each step. It begins when we prefer a sin to admitting that it is sinful and we need to acknowledge it as such and to confess it. From there, we gradually move away farther and farther, until we have not only left the boat but the shore is no longer in sight.
With Peter, all of us need to say loudly and distinctly: “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Only then can we as a Church experience the true healing that the Lord passionately extends to us.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.