Friends, the sign outside our church says, “This too shall pass: it may pass like a kidney stone, but it’s gonna pass.” That’s not a direct quote, but I find it very scriptural. It applies to the current pandemic. (Blessings on you, by the way, for enduring masks and social distancing with grace and good humor. It’s an odd way to love your neighbor, but that’s what you’re doing.) That sign, though, also applies to the discomfort and guilt that Peter and the other disciples very likely felt even after the resurrection.
On the bright side, they are no longer running away. According to Matthew, Jesus told the women on Easter morning: “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:10) So the disciples have gone where Jesus wanted them to go. But – because no matter HOW amazing or horrible the recent past has been, there are always bills to pay and stomachs to fill – once in Galilee, they do what fishermen do, they go fishing – not the recreational kind where you put something funny on the door and head off to relax with a line in the river. These men are hard core professionals setting out in a boat at night to do back-breaking labor.
They are also (especially Peter) men who have been to the mountaintop with Jesus, seen amazing things, and they are beginning to truly realize who Jesus is. But in addition, they are (especially Peter), men who have been through a horrible time, a time, a time that’s forced them to realize just how hollow their pledge to stand-with-Jesus-no-matter-what really was.
One of the gazillion things I’ve learned from being a parent is that we all want to do things that make our children feel good about us. But to really succeed as a parent, you also have to do things that help them feel good about themselves.
Jesus certainly understands that, and I think today’s story (together with its conclusion next week) tells us how he goes about it.
I’ve used scripture, Biblical scholarship, tradition and my own imagination to let a peripheral character fill in some extra details as he (like we) observes the story from the outside. This is the voice of my friend, Shawn Benham, not as a disciple, but as this guy, one of the fellow fishermen who greeted Peter and the others when they returned to Galilee.
My name is Fishel (FISH-ul), which is Hebrew for “fish.” I was so named because men in my family have been fishermen for seven generations. Plus, my Father is a good man, but also the least imaginative man in God’s great universe.
Mother, who is the spiritual bedrock of our family, told me my name represents the blessing Jacob gave to his grandchildren (quote) (Genesis 48:16), “May they multiply abundantly like fish, even in the midst of the land.” (unquote) It’s possible. After all, my four brothers and one sister have very biblical names. But I think it more likely that dad ran out of steam when his sixth and final child was born, and instead of searching Scripture, named me after the thing he knew best: fish.
It could have been worse. He could have called me “Tilapia” (tuh-LAP-ee-uh). That’s the best of the fish we haul out of the Sea of Galilee. They reproduce like crazy, mature to about 4½ pounds quickly, and – together with bread and wine – make up the main part of everyone’s diet around here.
About 250 boats hit the water every day and every night (which is the best time to catch tilapia). The only thing we spend more time on than fishing is maintaining our nets. Father died when I was only eight, so my much older brother-in-law, Simon, taught me how to throw a 25-foot “cast net,” and how to lay the much larger “trammel net.” It’s my favorite with three layers of increasingly smaller mesh. Two or more boats encircle a shoal of fish with it, then some us jump in while others throw cast nets from the boat and together we get the whole catch on board – sometimes as many as 20 or 30 fish!
Then it’s back to shore where mother helps us throw out anything that does not have both fins and scales. What’s left is kosher. Most of us head out again or start repairing the nets, two men stay to help mother clean the fish. She handles the disdainful task of paying the tax collector who patrols the shore to make sure Rome gets its share. We all hate the man, but mother says he’s just doing what he has to do to get by.
She’s like that with everyone: understanding, forgiving, accepting. We love her, but that attitude drives most of us nuts. The one exception is my brother-in-law, Simon. He’s the strongest of us, and easily the most ferocious if you get him riled, but he resists that part of himself and tries hard to be gentle. He loves our mother (his mother-in-law) and says his dream is to be half as good a Jew as she is.
He actually doesn’t do half-bad at it. At least, he does better at being gentle than he does at being a scholar. I love the man – he’s earnest and honest and you should see how he cares for my sister and mother – but there are times when he can be as dense as a box of rocks.
Simon’s desire to be scholarly, to understand scripture, is why it didn’t surprise me all that much when – three years ago – he announced that he’d like to follow the rabbi, Jesus. My mother and even my sister encouraged him; they both appreciated Jesus AND knew that Simon was driven to better understand God and the Scriptures. The rest of us weren’t so sure. I’ve already told you Simon was the strongest of us. And while he was not a profound Rabbi like Jesus was, he knew everything about fishing. Still, we loved him and wanted him to follow his heart. (Plus, YOU try telling him it was a bad idea. He outweighed the rest of us by at least 40 pounds of solid muscle. None of us were eager to test the limits of his “gentleness.”)
The fishing business carried on without him, and anything we lost was more than paid back a few months after he left. That was when mother grew deathly ill. She had a high fever, and she sweat through every blanket we could throw on her.
We called a doctor who charged a fortune to give her a useless medicine and prescribe a fast that left her weaker than she already was. We’d given up hope. But then Simon came by with Jesus. Jesus took mother’s hand, helped her to stand. She was healed – just like that! And, of course, being mother, she immediately thanked him and asked him (ordered him, really) to sit so she and my sister could make us all a most amazing meal.
After that, we didn’t get to spend much time with Simon or Jesus for the next three years, but we certainly heard the stories – and even participated in a few. We were among the huge crowd Jesus miraculously fed.
Our little town of Bethsaida (beth-SAY-duh) is very near Capernaum (kuh-PURR-knee-um), and mother is good friends with the wife of Jairus (GHER-us), the leader of the synagogue there. She was with them when Jesus raised their daughter from the dead.
Our family did not go to Jerusalem for the most recent Passover, and we were stunned to hear that Jesus had been crucified. We’d all seen crucifixions (Rome makes sure everyone does). And it was incomprehensible that such an amazing man could meet such a horrible fate. But we were even more stunned when Simon, who now went by the nickname “Peter,” came home two weeks later to tell us that Jesus had defeated death.
You’d think after what he did for Jairus’ daughter we wouldn’t have been THAT surprised, but we couldn’t comprehend it. Neither could we understand why Simon – excuse me, “Peter” – had not stayed with him.
He only told us, “Jesus has good reason not to want me with him. I’m back, and I need hard work to clear my mind.”
We didn’t argue – and not because Peter was strong enough to whip us all, but because – for the first time – he looked …weak, sad. His beloved Rabbi was alive, but Peter looked almost dead.
That night, we and several of his fellow disciples set out in a couple of boats and cast the trammel net again and again. Even though night is the best time for such fishing, I’ve seen some when we caught only a few fish, …but never a night when we caught nothing.
We all grew more and more discouraged, especially Peter who’d started the night as depressed as any man could be and gone down from there.
At dawn, some idiot on the shore said, “Try throwing your net off the right side of the boat.”
“Great,” I thought, “a landlubber who doesn’t even know the right side is ‘starboard,’ and thinks fish prefer one side to the other.” I was about to tell him what I thought of his asinine suggestion. (Peter tries to be pious, but I can swear with the best of ‘em.) But then I saw Peter dully going through the motions of setting our net off the starboard side. I remembered this night was about helping him, not arguing with strangers. We set the net. It was still too dark to really see, but almost immediately we could hear: flopping, splashing – way too many for us to haul aboard.
We were close to shore (just four feet of water); so we all jumped out and started pulling. When we dragged the catch on shore, there were 153 perfect fish, each at least four pounds: three times the biggest catch I’d ever seen! I looked at Peter in amazement, but he wasn’t there. He’d jumped in and swam to shore to meet the stranger who was a ways off, smiling at him. Suddenly I realized: it was Jesus!
That’s when mother came by. “Boys,” she said, “I think we should clean and store all these BEFORE the tax man comes by, we don’t need to bother him with this. …Oh, and let’s leave them alone, as well,” she added, pointing to Jesus and Simon and the other disciples. “They look like they’re getting along just fine.”
They WERE getting along just fine. We’ll hear more about that next week when we start wrapping up our “Picture Yourself” series. For now, let me simply say that working on these monologues has been fun for me. Thinking about the Gospel stories from the perspective of participants – or even observers standing off to the side – has made the whole thing more real. It helped when I had the blindingly obvious insight that stories like the woman at the well would only have made it into the Gospels if the woman told it when she (or her listeners) joined the many followers of Jesus and his disciples.
And stories like Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law would have had a huge impact on tons of people not mentioned in the Bible, including Peter’s other in-laws. Admittedly, I had to make up a lot of details (like why the Samaritan woman’s five marriages failed or the name of Peter’s brother-in-law), but we know a lot about the Biblical world, and I used that research. I also thought it was fair to assume these were real people – people in different circumstances, but otherwise a lot like us. And I’m quite sure they were never MORE like us than when they confronted the fact that they’d messed up, that they needed a savior, that the God who made them had every reason to turn away. But, happily, the people of the Bible, like us, had every reason to be – first amazed; then – overjoyed that God is perfectly embodied in Jesus, waving to those who had deserted him and saying, “Come, friends, Come and eat.” …Amen