Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

By Father Donald Dilger

Sunday Scripture

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8; Response: Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 7-8; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Last Sunday, the liturgy presented us with the call of Jeremiah to ministry as the Lord’s prophet. On this Sunday, we have the call of Isaiah of Jerusalem. Isaiah experienced a vision of God. The date is 742 B.C. The vision is cast in the style of royalty known to Isaiah. The Lord is seated on a high throne. Royal robes then, and perhaps still, were topped off with a long train of precious cloth usually part of the outer royal robe. Like kings of the time, so God too had attendants at the throne. These were the Seraphim, heavenly creatures with six wings — two covering their faces to shield from divine glory; two to modestly cover their privates; two for flying. They were chanting a song familiar to us, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is filled with his glory.” Isaiah’s reaction: “Woe is me! I am doomed!” Why? Because it was taken for granted that anyone who saw the Divine would die. See Isaiah 33:20. He voices a prayer, which like the “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is still echoed in the Latin Rite before the reading of the Gospel, “I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Something must be done about those unclean lips.

We may recall that, in last Sunday’s first reading, the Lord himself touched Jeremiah’s mouth to prepare him to be a prophet, to speak the words of the Lord. With Isaiah, a century earlier, he observed social distancing. One of the Seraphim activates its two wings made for flying, grabbed some tongs, took an ember (hot charcoal) from the heavenly altar, flew to Isaiah, and seared his lips. The Seraph speaks, “See, now that this has touched your lips, your uncleanness is removed. Your sins are purged.” (More painful than our Rite of oral/aural confession!) The voice of the Lord booms, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” “Us” is not a reference to the Holy Trinity but to some kind of humanly imagined heavenly council from which the Lord periodically seeks advice. We see in the beginning of the first two chapters of the Book of Job. Isaiah’s answer: “Here I am. Send me.” Why was this reading chosen to accompany this Sunday’s gospel? Because the gospel describes the call of Simon Peter to be spokesman (prophet) for the Lord Jesus. 

The Responsorial Psalm 138 continues the theme of attendants at God’s throne, as in Isaiah’s vision in the first reading. In our English translation, they are angels. Not so in the Hebrew original. There they are called Elohim, not gods as some translations have it, but some kind of heavenly creatures, as noted in the paragraph above. The Psalm speaks of the majesty and glory of God, singing, chanting. There is much flattery of the Lord — his kindness, truth, glory, openness to petitions. At the end, the Psalmist includes a reminder, making sure the Lord does not forget him. “Forsake not the work of your hands.”

The second reading, from 1 Corinthians 15, introduces St. Paul’s chapter on the resurrection of the dead. There must have been agitation at Corinth about this teaching. According to Acts of Apostles 17:18, 32, Paul had been ridiculed at Athens when he preached about Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. Athens and Corinth were relatively close in distance in southern Greece, in a province then known as Achaia. Paul includes an early creed. Like all Christian creeds, this creed is a list of revealed truths. Christ died for our sins, was buried, raised on the third day. Twice Paul notes, “according to the Scriptures,” by which he means that these truths can be seen as revealed already in the Old Testament. As proof of Jesus’ resurrection, he lists the many people to whom Jesus personally appeared after he rose from the dead. In great humility he adds, “Last of all he appeared to me, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God.”

We come to the vocation or call of Simon, son of John (or Johnson), later called Peter. Jesus was already well known through his preaching and healing activities, with headquarters in the city of Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He was acquainted with the Johnson brothers, Simon and Andrew, since restoring Simon’s mother-in-law to health. Crowds were close as Jesus stood on the shore. According to Luke’s unusual rearrangement of events, Jesus had not yet called Simon to be an apostle. That happens now. Jesus saw two boats. The fishermen were washing their empty nets. He stepped into Simon’s boat and asked him to row just a bit from the shore. From that boat he taught the crowd standing on the beach. Then, he said to Simon, “Go out into deeper water and let down the nets.” Simon seemed annoyed as he explained they had fished all night and caught nothing. “But at your word I will lower the nets.” So they did. The nets were so filled with fish that they were breaking. They signaled to their business partners, the Zebedee family, to come to their aid. They arrived, and both boats began to sink with the load of fish.

Moved by the miraculous catch of fish, Simon fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Here we see the similarity to the call of Isaiah. He also proclaimed himself unworthy in our first reading. Luke is treating this episode as a divine revelation. In the Old Testament, the revealer often calms the frightened recipient of the revelation with these or similar words, as Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” The call follows immediately, “From now on you will be catching men.” Simon’s experience in fishing has been raised to a new level. Grace builds on nature. Only at this point does Luke mention James and John Zebedee as Simon’s partners in the fishing business, who had helped dispose of the miraculous catch of fish. Luke closes the story.

“When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.” They? Yes, James and John are included as leaving everything. Simon’s brother Andrew, more prominent as an early disciple in the other gospels, is not even mentioned by Luke. (Vacation perhaps?) But did they leave absolutely everything? Luke seems unaware that St. Paul tells us that Simon’s (Peter’s) wife accompanied him in his mission work after the resurrection and departure of Jesus. Paul says the same of the other apostles. See 1 Corinthians 9:5.