The four evangelists present very different accounts of the call of the Peter. In Mark’s Gospel, Peter (called Simon in all the accounts) with Andrew, James and John inexplicably leave their family and livelihood to follow a man they had apparently never met. Mark surely meant the reader/hearer to be shocked by his brief call story — why would anyone follow this man Jesus, giving up everything as they did? What is special about this man? Mark was appealing to his persecuted community to radically give up everything to follow Jesus without hesitation
Luke, however, changes the story significantly in Luke 5:1–11. First, his account is much longer. More importantly, however, Simon Peter is depicted in a very different way. He is not a disciple who responds instantly and without question to the call of the Lord to follow Jesus. The intention of Luke can be seen in the way he tells his story, and we will see that he focuses on a quite different problem in his community.
Again, the context of the story already puts us on guard that Luke is giving us a very different teaching than Mark. In Mark, there is no indication that Simon has met Jesus and, following the call story in Mark 1:16–20, Jesus goes to the synagogue to teach and then heals Simon’s mother-in-law.
In Luke, however, Jesus preaches in the synagogue (4:16–30), then heals Simon’s mother-in-law (4:38–39), and then calls Simon and the other disciples (5:1–11) This re-ordering by Luke has Simon not just knowing Jesus, but knowing of his powerful healing ministry.
We should be puzzled, then, by the opening scene in the call story (5:1). There is Jesus “standing beside the lake … and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God.” But where was Simon? He is a little further down the shore, we are told, going about his business. Everyone else is “pressing in on” Jesus to hear the word of God, but Simon is much more interested in his fishing business, even though Jesus had healed his mother-in-law! (it has been suggested by some unkind person that he was ignoring Jesus because Jesus healed his mother-in-law!)
Jesus does not call Simon to him as in Mark. Rather, he goes to one of Simon’s boats (his means of carrying on business), and gets into it, to the great surprise of Simon, we would think. The crowd no doubt milled around. Jesus sits down in the boat, and simply asks that Simon (not one of his companions) “put out a little way from the shore.” We now find the reluctant Simon forced by Jesus (and the crowd) to sit in the boat with Jesus, not carrying on his business, but listening to the word of God!
In v.4, Jesus finishes speaking (in his own good time, no doubt) and invites (or tells) Simon to put out his nets in the deeper water. Simon’s reply in v.5 can be read as a polite or even reverent response to the Divine Master, as we have been inclined to do, aware of the life of the great St Peter. But it can also be read as sarcasm. Here is this ‘teacher’ (epistata, a word which is usually used for a tutor and man of letters — only Luke uses this word in this story) telling the fisherman how to fish! “Teacher, we have laboured all night long but have caught nothing. But if you say so, I will let down the nets.” Read as sarcasm, the professional fisherman is humouring the rabbi. In a play of words, the Greek has “upon your word, I will let down the nets” — irony, in view of Simon’s reluctance to listen to his words earlier.
The result of letting out the nets is that Simon’s business begins to go under! The nets begin to break, and the boats begin to sink (vv.6–7).
The response of Simon is to fall at the knees of Jesus and say “Go away from me, Sir, for I am a sinful man!” His response is like that of the prophets upon hearing God’s call. He falls to the ground like Ezekiel when confronted with the Divine (Ezek 1:28; 3:23), except that Simon explicitly admits his sinfulness. He is not a follower yet, but now the (indirect) invitation comes (“Do not be afraid; from now on you wil be catching people”).
The language is still one of fishing. Simon, the professional fisherman, is invited to go fishing in even deeper waters. But it is not Simon who has been shown to be the master fisherman. Jesus is the Master Fisherman — he has caught Simon! He has as surely entrapped Simon by getting in his boat as if he had wrapped a net around him, and he has re-deployed him from one business to another (a very definite business rationalisation).
How has Simon been depicted here, and what does Luke intend to teach his community by this story? Simon is one who is far too interested in his business to ‘waste time’ by listening to the words of Jesus. But Jesus has used Simon’s business to teach him the importance of his words (“let down the nets in deeper water”), and symbolically ‘breaks’ Simon’s business so that he might look to a new fishing business. It is a business motif throughout.
Was there a problem in the Lukan community with people being too distracted by their business affairs to come and listen to the word of God, even though they were aware of the power of God in their midst. Is this why the story of the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law comes first in Luke?
Another indication of this is in another story unique to Luke — the story of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38–42. The teaching there is familiar to us all: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” The “one thing” in that story is “listening to his word” (logos). Surely, we have a close parallel to the Simon story here, and a second plea to those who are too busy to listen to the word of God.
Simon, then, becomes a model in Luke’s Gospel — a model for the busy businessperson. There is nothing more important than listening to the words of Jesus.
Fortunately for us busy people, Jesus in this story is depicted as being completely understanding and patient. Jesus is not “passing by” and calling disciples as in Mark’s Gospel; rather, he takes the time to go to Simon, compels him to listen, and then demonstrates the value of his words. This Jesus comes to busy people and is eager to make them disciples. We are called to be like Simon who finally recognises the powerful action of Jesus in his life, and gives up everything in order to follow him.