Fish or cut bait: Sunday reflection

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This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 5:1–11:

While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.

Today’s readings remind me of two different idioms in our language, one of which gets commonly misused. We hear it all the time: He wants to have his cake and eat it too. That is so common that we don’t recognize the obvious contradiction, which is that you must “have” your cake in the first place to eat it later. This idiom got inverted a couple of centuries ago from its original form, which was He wants to eat his cake and have it too. 

Fortunately, we still recognize the meaning of the idiom, which is that someone wants everything to go their way regardless of the situation or consequences. This theme appears a number of times in the Gospels, either explicitly or implicitly. The most direct example comes in three of the Gospels — Luke 18, Matthew 19, and Mark 10.

In this passage, Jesus and the disciples come across a rich young man who wishes to attain salvation. Jesus tells him that he must follow the commandments to win salvation, to which the young man replies that he faithfully does so. Jesus then instructs, “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At hearing this, the young man becomes disconsolate and leaves, leading Jesus to say to Simon, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In another episode from Luke 9, Jesus encounters two men who wish to follow Him to Jerusalem. Jesus invites them to do so, but one man wants to bury his father and the other wants to go back to say goodbye to his family. Both of these seem like reasonable requests, but Jesus offers this firm rebuttal: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

In both of these examples and others in the Gospels, Jesus teaches about commitment to salvation and the missionary work it requires in one form or another. It is not sinful to bury one’s father, nor is it sinful to embrace one’s family. It’s not even sinful to be rich, assuming one did not get so in a sinful manner.

However, when we want to “eat our cake and have it” simultaneously — wishing for salvation without transforming ourselves or putting out any effort for it — we miss the point, and we miss out on the salvation of Christ. We have examples throughout the Gospels of those who saw this and repented, perhaps most especially Zaccheus in Luke 19. Zaccheus was a wealthy tax collector, a notoriously dishonest position in those times, who repented when Jesus came to Jericho. He didn’t promise to give away all he had, but he pledged to repay his crimes multi-fold to his victims when salvation presented itself.

In today’s Gospel, we have an even more perfect example of this dedication to Christ’s mission. Simon Peter recognizes the prophetic nature of Jesus in this miracle, so much so that Simon Peter proclaims his unworthiness to follow Jesus. James and John also recognize Jesus’ authority, and all three (and Andrew in the version in Matthew 4) do something remarkable, especially in those days. They all abandon the trade that allowed them to live a subsistence lifestyle without a second thought.

This brings me to the other idiom that comes to mind from this Gospel: Fish or cut bait. It’s the antithesis of eat your cake and have it too; it forces us to deal in reality and commitment. Jesus’ teaching forces us to choose, just as it did with these four disciples, or the rich young man, or the men on the road to Jerusalem. We have to choose every day whether we will follow Christ and live by His commandments, or whether we will choose to live according to our own impulses, desires, and reliance on the material world.

Like Simon Peter, we are not worthy of salvation on our own. It takes the grace of Christ to allow us to transcend those attachments, but we must choose to do so, however imperfectly and inconsistently we may do so. The Gospels present us with that stark choice: do we decide to become fishers of people, or do we cut bait and walk away from salvation by clinging to the transitory comforts of a fallen world?

Jesus understands how difficult this choice is for us. As He demonstrated with Zaccheus, and as Jesus instructed in the beautiful parable of the prodigal son, the Lord is willing to meet us more than halfway — as long as we choose His path, and commit to it in spirit and deed rather than think we can eat our cake and have it too.

“Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew,” English engraving c. 1160-1180, on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

Fish or cut bait: Sunday reflection

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