Luke 5:1-11: God’s Gift Economy

January 24, 2021
Joanna Harader

You can see a video of Joanna preaching this sermon here.

Sometimes I get excited when I tell a story. And maybe I exaggerate just a little. As I regale Ryan with tales of my day, he sometimes says things like: “Oh. 25,000 emails—that’s a lot.” Or, “I didn’t realize we had spiders that big here in Kansas.”

This may be the conversation some of you want to have with the writer of Luke’s Gospel: “You traced Jesus’ genealogy all the way back to Adam? Really?” “Jesus was praised by everyone and then they all became enraged and tried to push him off the cliff?” “They hauled in so many fish that the boats were about to sink? That’s really an impressive amount of fish!”

In our Narrative Lectionary journey, we’re not too far into Luke’s Gospel yet and you may already be rolling your eyes at his somewhat exaggerated narrative style. But, honestly, this is one of the things that makes Luke’s Gospel my favorite. (Also because it’s the only book of the Bible that mentions my namesake, Joanna.)

This story of the miraculous catch of fish is amazing on many levels. First, there is the fact that people who run a fishing company have been out trying to catch fish all night and failed. If anyone knew how and when and where to catch the fist in that particular lake, it was Simon and his partners, but they did not get a single fish.

Second, there’s a fact I just learned this week: clear nylon nets were not invented until the 20th century. In Jesus’ time, the nets were made of linen, which the fish could see during the day. That’s why they had been fishing all night. And also why nobody who knew anything about fishing would bother to drop a net in broad daylight.

And finally, of course, we have the sheer number of fish. As if a full net—or even one full boat—wasn’t enough to demonstrate Jesus’ miraculous powers.

It’s worth noting that this ridiculous catch of fish is not the first miracle Simon Peter has witnessed. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus goes to Simon’s house and rebukes the fever of Simon’s mother-in-law, who is immediately made well.

The stories about Simon’s mother-in-law and the “miraculous catch of fish” are only found in Luke. The other three Gospels do, however, contain stories about Jesus calling his first disciples. As I’ve mentioned before, John’s Gospel is quite different from the other three; he uses different sources—even a somewhat different timeline. So his is a completely different story that doesn’t even involve boats. Matthew and Mark contain nearly identical stories to each other; these stories do involve boats, but no fish.

In Matthew and Mark, the story focuses on Jesus’ command (“Follow me.”) and the disciples’ obedience. So I’m struck by the fact that in Luke’s version, even though the heading for this section in my Bible is “Jesus Calls the First Disciples,” Jesus does not actually call the disciples.

He tells Simon: “You will be catching people,” but there is no point at which Jesus asks Simon or his business partners to follow him. They just do it.

After Jesus performs this ridiculous, extravagant, un-asked-for miracle, Simon Peter, James, John —and presumably Andrew, though Luke doesn’t name him here—leave “everything” and follow Jesus.

They leave everything. The boats—which are their business, their livelihood. The great catch of fish—which could surely bring in a substantial amount of money at market. Their valuable nets—which they had been so carefully cleaning when Jesus showed up for his sunrise sermon, and which will now likely rot because they have not been properly cleaned or hung up to dry.

In Matthew and Mark, the disciples’ leaving is framed as obedience to Jesus’ call; but here in Luke the leaving is a spontaneous response to the extravagant miracle Jesus has performed.

This week I came across a beautiful article by plant ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer titled “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance.” Kimmerer contrasts our culture’s practice of capitalism with the “gift economy” she observes among plants.

In contemplating the gift of abundant berries, she writes: “To name the world as gift is to feel one’s membership in the web of reciprocity. It makes you happy—and it makes you accountable.”

To contemplate abundance, recognize gifts, and feel true gratitude “makes [us] happy—and it makes [us] accountable.”

Surely this is what is happening with Simon and the others. They see the abundance of fish; they recognize the gift Jesus is giving them—not just the fish, but his presence with them, his attention to them, the connection to God that he offers them–and they feel true gratitude. They are happy—and they are accountable. Which is why they leave “everything” and follow him.

If I was preaching to a different group of people, I might emphasize how our gratitude should make us accountable—how gratitude calls us to care for the earth, to share with people in need, to work for justice. The accountability piece of this is important, to be sure.

But you all seem to me to be pretty accountable, responsible people. Mennonites in general are committed to discipleship—to doing all the things we are supposed to do as followers of Jesus. I’m not saying we manage to do all the Jesus things all the time. But I’m pretty sure we know we should be doing all the Jesus things all the time.

So the part of Kimmerer’s statement I find myself clinging to—and the part I want to make sure you all hear—is that recognizing God’s gifts should make us happy.

It is out of his amazement and happiness that Simon chooses to follow Jesus. It is out of our wonder and happiness that we choose to follow Jesus.

God’s economy is a gift economy; an economy of abundance, not scarcity; an economy of generosity, not hoarding; an economy of gracious reciprocity, not obligation.

In discussing Luke’s story of the miraculous catch of fish, Biblical scholar Robert Williamson, Jr., says that in leaving behind their boats and nets and fish, the disciples choose the economy of God’s kingdom over the economy of empire.

On the one hand, this is a difficult choice to make, because the economy of empire pervades our lives and constantly pushes us toward the fear that there is not enough.

On the other hand–as Luke’s beautiful and ridiculous story of an impossible catch of fish shows us—when we contemplate God’s abundance, receive the divine gifts, and enter into true gratitude, we happily turn away from the economy of empire towards the economy of God’s kingdom.

I could start in right now on a new sermon explaining what it means to participate in God’s economy instead of Empire’s—but I won’t.

The piece I want you carry with you today is that following Jesus into God’s economy makes us happy. It is not about sacrifices and shoulds. It is about leaving behind something that seems pretty OK but isn’t quite fulfilling for something much more life-giving. It is about recognizing that we live amid abundance and wanting to share the gifts we receive.

Maybe Luke does exaggerate a bit in describing how many fish the guys hauled in that day. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.

But I will tell you that Luke is not exaggerating the generosity of God; Luke is not exaggerating the graciousness of Jesus’ presence. Luke is not exaggerating the eagerness Simon and the others felt to be part of whatever crazy, beautiful thing God was doing through Jesus on this earth.

I pray that we, like Simon, can receive the abundant gifts of God with gratitude, happiness, and eagerness to join the generosity.