In St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ early public ministry, the Lord quickly stirred up both admiration and opposition, as we have seen in the past two Sundays. After he was violently rejected by his neighbors in Nazareth, Jesus went to Capernaum and continued to perform exorcisms and healing miracles. One such miracle took place in the house of Simon: the cure of his mother-in-law (cf. Lk 4:38-39). Simon is at the center of today’s Gospel as well.
It is no surprise that there is now some buzz around Jesus. A growing crowd presses in on him as he stands on the lakeshore, proclaiming the word of God. How can he address this large crowd without any sound amplification technology? Jesus comes up with a solution: Simon’s empty boat. Perhaps the shape of the hollow boat and the acoustics of the water served to project his voice. But Jesus also has his sights set on Simon, a fisherman who has failed to catch any fish. This humiliating moment of failure, in Jesus’ eyes, provides an empty space – both in the boat and in the heart of the fisherman – which he can enter and fill with his life-giving word.
God often allows such moments of “emptiness” in our lives, when we may feel discouraged or humiliated, because they give him space to reveal something new and better. The havoc caused by the pandemic, with the shutting down of businesses and the disruption of social life, has provided many of us with the space necessary to receive a new proclamation of the word of God, and even a new and better direction in life.
After Jesus teaches the crowd, he turns his full attention to Simon. We can imagine the many things going through Simon’s mind: “This is the teacher who healed my mother-in-law yesterday. Why did he get into my boat? Just to address the crowd? Is he addressing me too? Wait, now he wants me to put out into the deep? What does he know about fishing? Does he know that I have labored all night? I know these waters. If I didn’t catch anything last night, I won’t be able to now….”
Although Simon cannot see any logic in Jesus’ instruction, he transcends the limits of his own reasoning by making an act of faith: if Jesus can heal miraculously and preach powerfully, then, even if his request does not make sense, it should be followed. This decision makes even more space in Simon’s life and yields extraordinarily abundant results. He catches more fish in one cast than he had ever caught in a whole night. He sees immediately that this is not his own doing; he is in the presence of divine power, and he recognizes his unworthiness. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Awareness of human unworthiness is a correct insight and a normal part of drawing closer to God. We find that both Isaiah and St. Paul have similar experiences. Isaiah, suddenly granted a heavenly vision, realizes that he is not worthy to be in the presence of divine glory: “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” In the second reading, Paul, comparing himself with the other Apostles, describes himself as “one born abnormally…. the least of the Apostles, not fit to be called an Apostle.”
The Lord does not consider unworthiness a reason for disqualification; he continues to call them. To Simon, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” To Isaiah, the Lord sends a seraph to purify him. To Paul, he reveals himself in glory and gives abundant grace. What does the experience of God’s unfathomable mercy cause in them? Prompt response! Isaiah says: “Here I am… send me!” Persevering effort! Paul says: “I have toiled harder than all of them.” Total abandon! Simon and his companions “left everything and followed him.”
Pope Francis writes in this week’s Spiritual Reflection that the Lord’s call “to go out into the open sea of the humanity of our time, in order to be witnesses to goodness and mercy, gives new meaning to our existence.” The examples of Isaiah, Paul, and Simon show us the way to respond to this call and so discover this new meaning. First, we must empty our lives – or allow the Lord to empty us – from inordinate attachments. We must be like that empty boat in which God’s voice can resound. Second, we must do what the Lord says, no matter how illogical it may seem. This requires an act of trust that the Lord knows better than we do what needs to be done. Third, we need to humbly recognize our unworthiness before the tremendous grace of the Lord. Finally, we must strive to make our response to grace prompt, persevering, and total. The result of our cooperation with grace is an abundant catch, not of fish, but of the many souls whom God is drawing to himself through us.
What are the inordinate attachments I must let go of to heed the call of the Lord? In moments of “emptiness”, how do I cope with the humiliation of being able to do nothing? Acknowledging my unworthiness, what is my interior reaction to my call?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 2. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.