Chapter 5 - Commentary on Luke's Gospel

The Catch of Fish

5:1-11  Luke now sets out seven examples of what Jesus did and taught (a fisherman, a leper, a paralytic, a tax collector, a banquet, eating on a walk, a man with a withered hand (5:1-6:11). There were two occasions when Peter had a huge catch of fish after he had been fishing all night and caught nothing. In this case Peter and the disciples in another boat were washing their nets, and Jesus asked for the use of a boat for a pulpit from which he could teach the crowd on the shore. It was only after finishing his teaching that Jesus told Peter to put his nets back in the water. The catch was so great that the nets were beginning to break, and two boats were filled with a large number of the ordinary Sea of Galilee fish.

On the occasion after the resurrection that John recorded as an eye witness (John 21:7) the situation was quite different. There were seven disciples in the one boat as it was coming in to land. Jesus called out to them from the shore "Cast the net on the right side of the boat." The net brought in 153 unusually large fish, which the disciples pulled behind the boat. The apostle John recognized Jesus, and when he heard this Peter jumped in and swam to the shore to greet Jesus. Peter then went back into the water and dragged the net on to the shore. Meanwhile Jesus had prepared a charcoal fire, on which he cooked some of the fish to eat with the pita bread he had ready, and served them breakfast (John 21:1-13).

The second occasion was to assure Peter that in spite of denying he had ever known the Lord (22:54-62), he was not only forgiven but still accepted as the leader of the apostolic band. He was reminded of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1-11), and the fish which Jesus had eaten with the disciples the evening of the resurrection (Luke 24:42). Jesus then reminded Peter that he was still called to "catch people" (as in 5:10).

5:1-2 The other Gospel writers who were Galileans called this the Sea of Galilee. Luke had traveled the vastness of the Mediterranean, and when he saw its size (only 11 kilometres across) he correctly called this inland lake the Lake of Gennesaret (Gennesaret was the well populated fertile plain to the north-west of the lake). In Mark's account Jesus had seen the disciples fishing, and he invited Simon and his brother Andrew to "follow me and I will make you fish for people" (Mark 1:16-17). Luke must have talked to those who were there, and he adds the fact that this incident occured when Jesus had a crowd who kept pressing in on him to keep hearing the Word of God (Greek present infinitives). He saw fishermen washing their nets on the shore. There were two boats, probably belonging to Jonas, the father of Peter and Andrew (Matthew 16:17, John 1:42), and Zebedee, the father of James and John (5:10). The Jewish historian Josephus reported that there were several hundred fishing boats on the Sea of Tiberias (another name for the lake, John 6:1), each of which had 4 fishermen on board.

5:3 First he took the liberty of sitting in Peter's boat (a call to service often begins with Jesus entering our space-bubble, home, work, family, and asking us for a favor). Then he asked him to move it out so he could sit and teach the crowd who were on the shore. It seems that Jesus' method was to tell parables (8:4-18) to arouse interest, then those who wanted to learn more were baptized (see comment on 3:7), and the parables were explained to those who wanted to know more (8:9-10).

5:4-5 When the teaching was finished he told Simon to let down his nets for a catch. Peter addressed Jesus as "Master" (used six times only by Luke, as in an English school "master"). Though this meant messing up his nets again, and although he had not caught anything the previous night, Peter was so impressed by what Jesus had taught that he said "If you say so, I will let down the nets."

5:6-7 They caught so many fish (a totally abnormal occurrence) that the nets were breaking, and they had to call their partners in another boat to come and help. This is in contrast to the catch after the resurrection when the net did not tear though it was filled with 153 very large fish (John 21:6-8). Luke records that they filled both boats so full of fish that they were in danger of sinking.

5:8-9 Realizing this could only be a miracle, Peter sensed his unworthinesss to be involved in Jesus' work. Now instead of calling him "master" (5:5), he called Jesus "Lord" (the name used in the Old Testament for the second Person of the Trinity who came into personal contact with humans, and could be seen, as in Genesis 17:1, 18:1, 26:2, 28:13, Exodus 24:10-11, Daniel 3:25 - in contrast to the Father who could never be seen, see Exodus 33:20, John 1:18). .

5:10-11 Luke tells us that James and John, the sons of Zebedee saw what happened, but Jesus addressed Simon Peter and told him not to be afraid of being in his presence, and in fact he would soon be catching, not fish from the Sea of Galilee, but large crowds of people for Jesus' Kingdom (as happened on the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2:41). The result was that the three disciples, having left their fishing business, followed Jesus in his mission. Peter did not get rid of his boat because he returned to fish after the resurrection (John 21:3). We might contrast team fishing with a boat and net and catching fish with a hook one by one (see Matthew 17:27), and Jesus' words apply to both kinds of evangelism. Fish are caught to be killed and eaten, but those who are caught for the Kingdom of Jesus experience eternal life.

It is important to remember that these disciples had previously been disciples of John the Baptist, and they had become disciples of Jesus down by the Jordan just north of the Dead Sea (see John1:28-42). A disciple is someone who is learning with a teacher, but only on a part time basis when the disciple could be free to attend on his rabbi (In India a chela meets with his guru when he can get away from his work). Later Luke will make clear that this is the only definition of a Christian. Paul and Barnabas taught many people, "and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians" (Acts 11:24-26) People became disciples when they turned to God to begin learning (Acts 9:35, 15:19). There is therefore a difference between a disciple (of which there were many, as in John 4:1, 6:60, 66) and a follower who traveled with Jesus in his preaching tours (Luke makes this distinction in 9:57-62 and 18:22-23).

5:12-16 The Healing of a Leper

 As a doctor Luke was interested in the way leprosy (normally a contagious and incurable disease) was healed (see 4:27, 7:22, 17:11-19). Here he specifies "full of leprosy" to indicate an advanced case of the disease. Jesus touched the leper (5:13), which was viewed as an unthinkable dangerous thing for anyone to do.

5:12 In the Old Testament leprosy could include a variety of skin diseases (as described in Leviticus 13:1-46). In some cases the condition was curable, but until a priest had examined and pronounced the person as no longer contagious, he or she was put out of their home and had to live by the rubbish dump outside the city or wander around crying "unclean" and hoping that food would be left for them. Often lepers traveled in groups (as in Luke 17:12). Here the man was alone and walking in the streets of a town. Perhaps he had listened to Jesus from the edge of a crowd, or he recognized intuitively that Jesus had the healing power that he needed for a cure.

5:13 Jesus did the unthinkable and touched him. For lepers in a colony where no one has ever touched them since they contracted the disease, the first time they are touched (as only Christians will normally do) there is a tremendous sense of acceptance and hope. Jesus' words "I do choose" has motivated the passion of missionaries to find a cure for this dread disease, and the disease is now not only curable but on its way to being eradicated.

5:14 The leper was cured immediately, but he was to tell no one until it had been confirmed by the medical authorities of that day. The modern equivalent of "show yourself to the priest" is going to a doctor to check whether the miraculous cure one has experienced has in fact occurred. In the Old Testament after a cure was confirmed a thank offering was prescribed (Leviticus 14:1-32). And we can imagine how good it would be if everyone who was healed from a dread disease recognized this as having come from God, and gave thanks for the miracle of healing.

5:15-16 The result of this and other miraculous healings was that huge crowds began gathering. On a previous occasion he had gone out into the wilderness alone (4:42), but now "he was going out again and again" to deserted places to pray (an imperfect tense) to regain the strength that had been drained out of him (see 8:46).

5:17-26 A Paralytic is Healed

Mark and Luke record that the man was lowered probably through the roof over the verandah (as in Mark 2:4). Luke tells us that "Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting by" (5:17) obviously watching for some fault they could pin on Jesus, as they tried to do after the miracle (5:21). All three synoptic Gospels point out the importance of the faith of the friends who brought this man to Jesus (Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5, Luke 5:20). They also make the connection between healing and the assurance of the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5, Luke 5:20). And in answer to the Pharisee objection all three Gospels give as one reason for the healing: "so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin" (5:24).

In the next incident the Pharisees object to Jesus eating with Levi, the tax collector, and his friends (5:30). Luke will go on throughout his Gospel to report the Pharisee complaints that Jesus was ignoring their interpretation of the law and their opposition to the very idea of sinners being welcomed and forgiven (5:33, 6:2,7, 7:30, 39, 11:38, 53, 13:31, 15:2) Luke will also record Jesus' complaint about Pharisee hypocrisy and greed (11:42-44, 12:1, 14:5-6, 16:14, 18:10). Luke notes the Pharisee failure to understand that Jesus was the messiah (17:20, 19:39) but he does not blame the Pharisees directly for the crucifixion (as in Matthew 12:14, 21:45-46, Mark 3:6, 12:12-13). Perhaps Luke had come to see that it was not just the Pharisees but all of us caused the crucifixion of the Messiah.

5:17 As opposed to the Sadducees (20:27), the Pharisees believed in the resurrection. And they assumed that to make it to heaven, as opposed to burning in hell, it was necessary to obey God's law. To make sure that people understood exactly what God required the Pharisee teachers of the law extracted 613 rules, 248 of which were positive prescriptions and 365 were prohibitions. Among these were 39 things which were prohibited on the Sabbath day. Luke will later explain that ordinary people found these rules unbearable (11:46), and their teaching had "taken away the key of knowledge" (11:52). As a total contrast to the ineffectiveness of Pharisee legalism, "the power of the Lord was with him to heal." This was the power that resulted from being filled again and again by the Holy Spirit (4:14). And Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans to explain how we can live by that same power (Romans 1:4, 16, 5:5, 8:4-11, 15:13).

5:18-19 Mark tells us that the paralytic was brought by four men who climbed on to the roof and made an opening to let the man down. We might find this breaking up of a roof hard to believe. So Luke explains that "they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd." Evidently the people were crowded under a typical Middle Eastern verandah covered with removable tiles supported by a bamboo framework.

5:20 All three synoptic Gospels say that the healing occurred "when he saw their faith" (Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5). This is an important example of the fact that our faith is important in the healing of others (as in 7:3, 9, compare 1 Corinthians 7:14). And all three synoptic Gospels record that before the paralysis was healed Jesus said "your sins are forgiven" (Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5). This suggests that this man's condition had been brought on by a sense of guilt and feeling condemned by God. Luke tells us that Jesus used the same words of the assurance of forgiveness for the woman of the street in the Pharisee's house (7:48-50).

5:21-23 Scribes (experts in the Old Testament law) are also "teachers of the law" (5:17), and most of them were also Pharisees. They knew from their theological studies that only God can forgive sin, and if any human claimed to forgive sin, it could only be blasphemy. Jesus perceived their thoughts. He might have said, "But you have forgotten that I am the Son of God." Instead he asked which was harder, to forgive sin or to tell a paralytic to stand up and walk?

5:24 Without waiting for an answer, Jesus wanted them to know "that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sin." They believed God could forgive sin, but he was the Son of God (3:22, 4:3, 9) who had taken birth on earth with the same authority to forgive. All three synoptic Gospels use the term "Son of Man." Luke deliberately uses it 26 times (6:5, 22, 7:34, 9:22, 26, 9:44, etc.) to remind his readers that the Son of God had become fully man (see note on 1:35). Then immediately he told the paralyzed man, who had been lowered helpless before them, to "take up your bed and go to your home."

5:25-26 When the man got up and did this, the theologians were speechless, and the onlookers praised God and had to admit "We have seen strange things today."

5:27-32 The Call of Levi, the Tax Collector

 Instead of the tiresome ask of collecting taxes in occupied territories, the Romans auctioned off the collecting of taxes to the highest bidder. The local tax collector could then use any means fair or foul to extract as much from his area as possible. Naturally they were viewed as traitors to their Jewish nation and inhumanly oppressive in their methods. Levi's name indicates he was a Jew and belonged to the priestly tribe of Levi, but he had sold himself to the Romans. He was also called Matthew (Hebrew "gift of Yahweh", as in 6:15, see Matthew 10:3). He had obtained the contract for the lucrative right to collect taxes on the main road from Galilee north into Syria. Jesus called him to follow him (see the distinction between disciples or learners, and followers, who went about with their teacher, in the note on 5:10-11). This suggests that Levi had heard Jesus' preaching in and around the city of Capernaum (4:14-15, 31-32), and probably been baptized as a disciple of Jesus (again see the note on 5:10-11, John 4:1). Luke gives five examples of Jesus' parabolic teaching method with the metaphors of the doctor, the wedding, the patch, the wineskins, and matured wine (31-38).

5:27-28 Although probably already a disciple of Jesus, Levi accepts Jesus' call to become one of the disciples who would accompany him and teach in his name. Inviting someone like Matthew from the most hated group in society to become one of his inner circle of apostles was in itself a statement of the unthinkable grace of God. It cut at the very root of Jewish prejudice.

5:29-30 Levi then gave a great banquet (dochy is a reception rather than a gourmet banquet) which included all his tax collector and other marginalized friends (all three Gospels call them "sinners," Matthew 9:11, Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30). In his Gospel Luke highlights nine occasions when eating with people was important in Jesus' ministry (5:29, 7:36, 10:38, 11:37, 14:1, 19:7, 22:14, 24:30, 41-43).We can imagine Jesus eating and drinking with this great crowd of totally unacceptable people, and the horror of the religious leaders . An essential part of Pharisee doctrine was that a person can only be righteous by keeping away from those who flouted their rules (see 15:1-2). They did not dare address Jesus directly but complained to Jesus' assistants.

5:31-32 Jesus' response to this complaint is unanswerable. "Where do you expect to see a doctor? Should he remain only with the healthy, or is his task to be among those who have cholera and the plague?" The Son of God took birth among the ordinary sinful people of our world, and his aim is not to condemn but to heal them by the power of the Spirit. We might add that in our modern world the church of Jesus the Messiah is similarly meant to be a place for ordinary people to find healing (as in Alcoholics Anonymous, but for every kind of addiction and besetting sin like anger, unforgiveness, depression, greed, promiscuity, pride, see Galatians 5:19-23). Luke gives many examples of Jesus' teaching about repentance. But here at the outset he makes clear that repentance is not feeling terribly guilty about one's sin (see note on 3:3, 8, 10:13, 11:32, 13:3,5, 15:7, 10), but turning (as in the Hebrew verb shob to change direction, return) to the doctor for healing. This is illustrated in the story of the prodigal son who changed direction and went back to his father (15:17, 20, 32).

5:33 The Contrast Between Jesus and John the Baptist.

 The two kinds of ministry are quite different. Jesus compared his own message to a wedding dance as opposed to a funeral dirge (7:32). Luke describes how John was an ascetic but Jesus and his disciples enjoy ordinary food and drink. Jesus was even accused (obviously unjustly) of being "a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (7:33). This means that the new wine of Jesus' good news cannot be put into the dried up old wineskins of traditional religion (5:37-38).

5:33 Both John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisee rabbis tried to beat down their fleshly desires by engaging in long fasts and prayers. But as Paul will explain, our unruly flesh (the instincts we received through the genes of our parents) has no desire for the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control). Focussing on the flesh and trying to beat it down is counter-productive and totally frustrating (Romans 7:18-24).

5:34-35 Fasting is not appropriate for a wedding. It is only when the wedding is over and the bridegroom has left that one goes back to the fasting of the meager simple food of the poor. Some think that "when the bridegroom is taken away" refers to the ascension. But among Christians fasting is used as a way of setting time aside for prayer (Acts 10:9, 11:5, 13:23, 14:23, 2 Corinthians 6:5, 11:27) not as a meritorious duty to be performed.

5:36 There is no dividing line between a metaphor and a parable. Here the metaphor becomes a parable as we apply this picture to a church situation. Trying to patch up the old approach to religious discipline is like taking a patch from a new garment to repair a tattered old one.

5:37-38 And the new wine of the Spirit must be put into fresh new wine skins which can expand and allow for fermenting. Evidently the new spiritual life that appeared among Jesus disciples would never fit into the forms of Pharisee spirituality. Again and again the Christian church has found it hard to cope with new movements of the Spirit (St. Francis of Assisi, the Reformation, Wesley and the Methodists, the Evangelical revival, Pentecostalism, Pope John XXIII, the Charismatic movement).

5:39 But Luke preserves a saying of Jesus which is needed to counterbalance the new enthusiasm of the Spirit. The connoisseurs who enjoy a wine that has mellowed over several years find the new wine that comes out from the vat at harvest quite unpalatable. The church needs the new wine of harvest every year, but there is also value in the flavor of a matured spirituality .

The reference to vineyards (13:6, 20:10, 16), and wine making in the Gospels suggest the wide variety of activities in the Christian church. Planting, watering, pruning, gathering in the harvest, stomping in the vat, putting the wine into wineskins, feeding the workers, enjoying the wine at table with friends.

Chapter 6 .....