Luke 5:1-11 (Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
For the past 8 years, I have been privileged to enjoy a spectacular view from my office. As I sit before my computer, all I need to do is glance a bit towards my left, and outside my window, usually looming against a sky of brilliant Roman blue, is the magnificent cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, designed by Michelangelo. There are no words to describe the beauty of that perfect piece of Renaissance architecture: the majesty of its proportions (the tallest dome in the world!), the grace of its lines. It is the crowning glory of the largest church in the world.
Today’s Gospel reminds me, however, that underneath the splendor of this enormous edifice are the bones of a simple fisherman, who was also a sinner. Simon Peter was a big-hearted, passionate man, but he was also proud, inconsistent, and cowardly. Perhaps many of us find Peter so attractive because we see ourselves in him. Like Peter walking on the water, we often begin well, but then lose focus on Jesus, give in to fear and start to sink. Like Peter, we may say we want to follow Christ, but we often reject or struggle against the cross of suffering or humiliation, or resist following the One who bends down to wash the dirty feet of his friends. Like Peter, we’re often big on talk, secretly congratulating ourselves on our superiority to others, but it usually takes very little, as it did for Peter, to make us deny Jesus and to put aside the history of our friendship with him.
Yet, Peter had this saving grace: he trusted Jesus. Over and over again, we see this in the story of Peter, but we see it very clearly right at the very beginning of their friendship. Jesus instructs Peter in memorable words: “Put out into the deep.” Peter should have been skeptical. Jesus was a carpenter: what did Jesus know about fishing? Besides Simon and his associates had already labored all night and caught nothing. Now, this upstart carpenter tells Peter, after his night of failure, to try again in broad daylight, which any experienced fisherman knows is not the right time to fish!
“We have worked all night and caught nothing,” Peter sadly informs Jesus. These words express what some of us might also feel: the wearying sense that, despite all our hard work, we are unable to make a change in ourselves, in people we love, in our relationships, in our country or our world. In fact, for Pope Francis, the particular wound of our time is a kind of hopelessness, a sense that things cannot be changed. In his book, The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis writes: We “consider our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. The fragility of our era is this: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet.”
Somehow, though, the grace to trust comes to Peter. It is as if Peter heard Jesus telling him, “Try again! Do not think that just because you’ve tried and you’ve failed, it will just be a waste of time to try again. I am now in the boat with you. Be ready for surprises!” So, instead of contradicting the carpenter, Peter speaks words of complete, breathtaking trust: “If you say so, I will let down the nets.” The result is a completely unforeseen catch, so abundant that nets begin to tear and the boat begins to sink.
This Gospel story, indeed the entire story of Peter in the Gospels, is a testimonial to the transforming mercy of God. Peter, overwhelmed by his unworthiness, asks Jesus to leave him, a sinner. But Jesus never leaves Peter, never gives up on him, despite all the stupid things Peter says and does, despite Peter’s cowardly abandonment of Jesus in Jesus’ time of greatest suffering.
Because of Jesus’ faithful mercy, Peter learns not to give up on himself either. Through the Lord’s unfailing kindness towards him, Peter must have embraced the truth of these words of Pope Francis: “The Lord of mercy always forgives me; he always offers me the possibility of starting over. He wants to raise me up and he extends his hand to me.”
This experience of mercy must have also taught Peter not to give up on others. At the Last Supper, Jesus predicts Peter’s fall, Peter’s denial. Instead of seeing this coming failure as the end, however, Jesus views this humbling experience of Peter’s weakness as a way of teaching Peter compassion for others who are similarly weak. “Simon, Simon,” Jesus assures Peter, “I have prayed that your faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22: 31)
As we enter the season of Lent in a few days, in this special Jubilee year of mercy, perhaps we are being invited to follow Peter in trusting in the power of God’s mercy to make new beginnings possible, especially in situations when, like Peter fishing all night and catching nothing, we experience frustration and hopelessness. Again, Pope Francis reminds us: “This is the task of the Church: to help people perceive that there are no situations that they cannot get out of. For as long as we are alive, it is always possible to start over, all we have to do is to let Jesus embrace us and forgive us.”
Perhaps, in a special way, we are being called not to give up on people in on our lives. During this Jubilee, Pope Francis encourages us to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I find most challenging one of the 7 spiritual works of mercy. It is expressed in different but similar ways: “bearing patiently with those who do us ill,” or “bearing patiently with annoying people.” The point is, recognizing that there are difficult people in our lives, people who hurt or harm us, not to respond with violence, vengeance, or hatred, but in a manner that reflects the patient mercy of God that we ourselves have experienced.
As I look again at the dome of St. Peter’s, I realize that this basilica is not so much a celebration of one man, but rather of the power of God’s mercy to re-create, to transform, to make new. How might the Lord be calling me then at this time in my life to trust in the power of his mercy? How might he be inviting me to share this mercy especially with those who have hurt or injured me?