How many of you remember A Fish Out of Water? I know that I am dating myself here, the book was published in 1961. Written by Helen Palmer, it was based on a short story, Gustav, the Goldfish, by her husband Theodor Geisel. (Yes, that Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss!)
Now Helen Palmer was a very successful children’s author in her own right. She translated Gustav, the Goldfish into an early reader book for the 5 to 7 year-old crowd.
A Fish Out of Water is the story of a little boy who buys a goldfish. He names him Otto. Such a little fish, he only needs a little food. “Just so much, and never more,” the pet store owner, Mr. Carp tells him.
But the little boy is taken in by the little fish’s googly eyes; he falls in love with the fish and lavishes him with food. The overfed Otto goes through something like an out-of-this-world growth spurt!
He outgrows his fishbowl.
He outgrows a soup pot.
He outgrows the kitchen sink.
He even outgrows the bathtub!
The little boy calls 911. The cops come over with a crane to lift Otto out of the bathtub and deposit him into a neighbor’s swimming pool!
He outgrows the pool!
The little boy got so much more fish than he bargained for. He was astonished, amazed, and terrified. So, as a last resort he calls Mr. Carp who dives down into the pool and pops up with his lost little “fish out of water.”
Now today’s gospel is also a tale about too much fish — so much fish that Jesus’ disciples could barely haul their nets into their boat.
Jesus actually knew very little about fishing, practically next to nothing really. He was a carpenter’s son, not exactly a carpenter himself. Jesus did not have a regular job, he was busy with all of that preaching and teaching. But Jesus hung out with a lot of fisherfolk — they were some of his very best friends and he liked to go sailing with them out on their boats.
These fisherfolk were not simple folk – as we often have stereotyped them. Fish were BIG BUSINESS in the 1st century. These guys owned their own boats — which they would take out at night to sneak up on the fish with their nets. The next day, each night’s haul would be salted and sold in the marketplace. Jesus may have used “fish” as a metaphor in a lot of his stories, but it was Simon Peter who knew how to catch them.
So after a disappointing night on the water, Simon Peter is more than a little perturbed with Jesus who starts to tell the other disciples in the boat what to do.
“Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
“We worked all night and we caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets,” Simon Peter replies.
And then, OMG! They hauled so many fish out of the water that their nets broke. The fish filled an entire boat and then another boat. It was astonishing, amazing, unbelievable, and frightening as all get out. And their boats began to sink.
So, what does Jesus say? “Do not be afraid for soon you will be catching people.” Really? People? The crazy thing is that Jesus’ friends actually left all the fish on the shore. The fishermen left everything behind to follow the son of a carpenter. They left everything behind to go out catching people.
The King James Version, “I will make you fishers of men,” is much prettier and much more poetic but it’s still a confusing turn of phrase. Jesus did not literally want his fisherfolk friends to start sneaking up behind people in the night and catching them with their nets. I am pretty sure that qualifies as kidnapping.
A scholar I read recently helps make better sense of this.
“God’s kingdom does not require nets full of dead fish but human beings fully alive. People living a faithful life full of good news.” (Feasting on the Word, Peter Eaton) Feeding the hungry. Healing the sick. Clothing the poor. Loving our neighbor.
Jesus’ friends gathered other friends and they in turn invited more friends. This is how the early church grew. They would worship in one another’s homes. They did not have Google Maps to guide them, so they found their way by the secret “sign of the fish.” They used the symbol of a fish to mark the address because the first two letters of the Greek word for fish are “Chi” and “Rho” – the same two first Greek letters in Christ’s name.
But finding our way by the “sign of the fish” makes sense in other ways too. Life on this planet is amazing, astonishing, unbelievable, and sometimes downright scary. Jesus helps us navigate these choppy waters. When the world gets to be too much for us, his love and compassion help to keep us from sinking beneath the waves.
In the end, Jesus really does know a lot about fishing after all.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog