Sr. Grace Remington
5th Sunday of ordinary time
I love the images in today’s gospel. Jesus so pressed in by the crowds that he takes to the water. Everyone lined up along the shoreline as he teaches from the boat. What did he tell them? The tired fishermen, the catch of fish, Peter saying to Jesus “Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” There is always something so poignant about these words. Here is Peter who had, after a night of hard work with nothing to show, in the midst of cleaning his nets so he could go home and sleep, agreed first to take this dusty preacher out in his boat, listened to him talk, then, when asked to re-dirty his nets for “one last try” said “I don’t really want to, and I don’t think it will do any good, but if you want me to, ok.” And did it. He seems like a pretty good man to me. But Peter, struck by the dawning recognition of who this man is, or at least the recognition that he was in the presence of holiness, is only aware of his sinfulness. And it is from this stance that he receives Jesus’ words “do not be afraid, I will make you and your friends fishers of men.” His words are not simply for Peter but for James and John, and for all his disciples, for us.
Whenever I the line “fishers of men” I forget that these fishermen used nets. All of my fishing experience is with using a hook, so that’s the image that pops into my head. A hook is that thing we can’t let go of, which allows us to be pulled in. They talk about hooks in music ---a hook is a musical phrase or beat that stays in your head and makes your mind go back to the song over and over, the little bit you remember when you can’t remember any other words to the song and makes you want to play it again and again. Then, once you’re playing the song over and over, you might start to notice the rest of the words. When it comes to fishing for people, I think mercy is the hook. It is the hook of the gospel as Pope Francis knows so well. Mercy hooks the human heart, and then we start to listen to the rest of the gospel’s song. It is mercy that hooked me.
Even with a hook and line there are different ways of fishing. Sometimes you cast out far, letting your hook drop in some far off pocket that looks like it may be harboring a few hungry mouths. Maybe this is what we do when we pray for the people and places where there is great suffering, when we wish for mercy for some soul who is too far away for us to see or touch, but who we know is out there – for refugees, for bullied kids, for criminals serving life sentences in our prisons. Sometimes you trawl – just rowing along and letting your hook drift behind you as you go, just to pick up whoever you might pass by. Perhaps this is the kind of fishing we do when we offer a smile in passing, quietly make the coffee someone has forgotten to make or clean up the crumbs someone has left behind without a fuss, leaving behind us an atmosphere of mercy with the words we use, or even just by the thoughts we think. Sometimes when you fish you just let the hook dangle, to catch those who come up to you, close enough to nibble on your toes. We’ve probably all experienced the gift of having someone respond to our anger or pain or fear with mercy – the kind of mercy that doesn’t even ask to be recognized as mercy because it seems to not to even recognize our fault. It is like we are being let off the hook of our bad behavior, and this in itself hooks us. This is the mercy that chooses out of all the interpretations that we can put on another’s words or actions, to give it the best one.
But as much as I would like to be a fisher of souls, I know too well that sometimes I can try all night without having a single thing to show for it. Sometimes my best attempts meet with failure, my skill is mediocre at best, and I grow weary of trying. It is all too easy to just decide to call it a day. But it is Jesus who will provide the catch, not me. My job is to keep casting, to keep trawling, to keep letting out my line even when I see no results. When I get discouraged with myself because I think that I am not a good fisher, and Jesus says “lower your nets for a catch,” I may think, “It is no use Lord. I have tried. I have failed. It is too hard to keep on trying.” Yet I do not need to say, “but if you ask it Lord” for I know this is what he asks of me. “Lower the nets!” “Cast out the line!” “Let out mercy’s hook.” This is what he asks us, and the catch is up to him.
And in this I experience God’s mercy – that he chooses to get in my boat even though I am not a great fisherman, even though I am a sinner, that he lets me fish with him. It is only from the stance of our own need for mercy that we are called to be fishers. All we have to offer is what we have received. Pope Francis says the real poor are those who refuse to see themselves as such. It is only when we recognize our own poverty that we can be rich in mercy. It is only in knowing our need for mercy that we can recognize the gift. This is the mercy that hooks me – I may be sinful, but Jesus is set on having me. I may try to let him off the hook by saying “leave me Lord” but by his mercy he has hooked his heart on me.