The Miraculous Catch: It's Not About Fishing
By Sarah Withrow King
There are some passages in the Bible that, I have to admit, I just wish weren't there. They make me uncomfortable, don't fit with my understanding of God, or are really hard to explain to people who aren't Christian. These passages are like a particularly weird uncle: we love him and he's a part of our family and we're connected forever and we don't want anything bad to happen to him, but we secretly kind of hope he doesn't show up to our high school graduation.
The story of the miraculous catch is, for me, one of those passages.
On its face we have a story where the disciples go out and can't catch any fish at all (good news for the fish!), then Jesus appears and their nets become suddenly overfull with fish (super bad news for the fish!). Then Jesus cooks some of those dead fish as a meal for his friends. It's not that I expect Jesus to be vegan (the word didn't even exist until the 20th century), but I have wrestled for a long time with the reality that Jesus probably ate animals and, as appears in this case, that he may have also participated in their deaths.
As a vegan Christian, I spent ten or so years feeling like I was a pretty big freak.
As a vegan Christian, I spent ten or so years feeling like I was a pretty big freak. At church, I was the only vegan. In the animal protection world, I was one of only a tiny handful of Christians. I was constantly on guard, defending one or the other, before I heard God say so clearly: "I made you this way for a reason. Go to seminary." Up to that time, I was unaware of the depth and breadth of what Christianity had to say about animals—I had no way to think or talk intelligently about how these two deeply formative parts of my life were related, but I knew in my gut that they were.
But God saw me, God knew me, and God spoke to the deepest longings of my heart.
What I learned in seminary was that God created an interconnected, flourishing world; that humans are made in the image of this creative, life-generating God. In the beginning, we're told, God made everything and it was beautiful and no one killed or ate each other. Humans, a part of this creation community, were charged to care for the earth and help it to flourish.
We messed a lot of things up, but Jesus came, took on flesh. The Creator of the universe walked among us as a fully divine, fully human being and brought us glimpses of the Kingdom of God right here on earth. So now we have what we call "already-but-not-yet" time. In living, he showed us how to live; and in dying and rising, he showed us how to live in hope.
That hope is represented in part by the "peaceable kingdom," words we read even as early as the prophets: "The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them."
We've got this harmonious ideal, and we've got the promise of a reconciled future, but you don't have to look very hard to see that we're in a time now that's often neither harmonious nor reconciled. In other words, a scene like Will Bullas' "Peaceable Kingdom with Two Olives" seems like a long way off. Such a long way off, in fact, that even the resurrected Jesus is depicted eating one of his own creatures.
In other words, I bring a bit of baggage to this passage. But we all do, right? No one, and I mean no one, brings a blank slate to their reading of the scripture. Whether or not you believe the Bible to be infallible, it's a sure bet that we readers are.
Whether or not you believe the Bible to be infallible, it's a sure bet that we readers are.
So, I've acknowledged that I am reading this text through a certain set of lenses. But I'm drawn to it again and again, so let me take a deep breath, release my initial defensive posture, and try to hear what God is saying.
It helps to read the passage a few times, slowly. To imagine myself in the scene. And to read and hear what others have to say about the passage.
First, let's talk a little about the book of John. Of the four gospels, the four books of the New Testament that specifically recount Jesus's birth, life, and death, John was written last, late in the first century. John's like the clean-up batter of the disciples here. He's seen what others have written and he's filling in a few blanks. One of the things we might notice is that our story looks a lot like one we've seen before, in Luke, when Jesus first calls Simon, James, and John.
There are some parallels in the two stories, right? They've been working all night, they haven't caught anything, but they do what Jesus suggests and are suddenly beset with an abundance. In this first story, though, this miracle leads Simon, James, and John to leave everything and follow Jesus.
So John is perhaps trying to tell his reader something about what it looks like to follow Jesus for the long haul, how Jesus makes himself known to us when we don't have the benefit of seeing him in flesh and blood, day after day after day. Kind of how Jesus made himself known to me when I was feeling like a freak for thinking that you could hold vegan and Christian together.
This story strikes me as encouragement for an early church wrestling with what it means to be disciples of a teacher they've never seen, with whom there was no memory of intimate meals, firsthand encounters, miraculous and exciting events. This passage is about following Jesus on a weekday, in the middle of winter, when your boss is breathing down your neck or your spouse is kind of disappointing you or your kids can't seem to remember that we don't leave the house without shoes and you can't recall the last time you felt anything like a camp high.
Three other themes jump out at me in this post-resurrection fishing scene:
First, Jesus makes himself known while we're engaging the world together.
We have a pretty big group gathered here, in comparison with some of the more intimate circumstances where Jesus has appeared, like last week when Jesus showed himself to just two people on the road to Emmaus. Here are Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, James, John, and two no-namers. There's an air of "we need to stick together" in the first few verses. In the previous chapter, John writes about Jesus appearing to a group of disciples, but only Thomas the doubter is named. Here's Thomas again. He believes enough to still want to band with these folks.
And I love the way the dialogue reads: "I'm going fishing." "We will go with you." I don't quite know what to make of that. Maybe they're bored, and this is the best idea they've heard that day. They've got nothing better to do. It's like a scene from the last episode of the TV show The West Wing, where three outgoing administration staffers meet in the lobby after the new President has been sworn in. It's the middle of the day. They're used to working 80-hour weeks and they're really not sure what to do with themselves. I imagine that the incredible feeling of walking and talking with Jesus, followed by the horrifying trial and crucifixion, followed by the dramatic resurrection, would make everything else seem a bit wanting.
But I think it's more likely that these seven disciples feel a little uncertain about what they should do now. It probably just feels better to be with people who understand you. So, they stick together and they go about their business. Literally, their business. They're working together on a common task, towards a common goal, for a common good.
Second, Jesus makes himself known when we're vulnerable.
Some of these guys left the family fishing business to go follow a homeless radical who was publicly executed. This likely did not strike their community as being very wise. Now they've been working all night and they have nothing to show for it. I cannot imagine how exhausting it would be to be on a fishing boat all night, probably kind of hungry, dealing with hour after hour after hour of disappointment. This isn't just physical exhaustion, it's spiritual and mental fatigue, as well. Simon Peter is straight up naked, which is about as clear a metaphor as you can ask for.
But to this weary crew of failures, Jesus appears. I feel like that's worth pausing on for a minute. Jesus shows himself to an exhausted group who has, to this point, totally failed to accomplish the task they set out to do.
…to this weary crew of failures, Jesus appears.
Third, Jesus makes himself known to us through his partnership and his provision
In this passage, Jesus calls his disciples "children," a term of intimacy and deep affection. Jesus, the Creator, isn't standing apart from the world. He is here. Jesus knows where the fish are and provides instruction, the disciples respond and do the work, then they all enjoy the fruits of their co-labor together.
The disciples' attitudes are important in this story. Even when they're exhausted, they hold a posture of humility and responsiveness. They actually obey Jesus before they recognize him as Jesus! At first, Jesus is just a dude, standing on the shore, hollering instructions…a stranger, really. In my experience, if someone tries to holler at me while I'm tired and hungry, I'm likely to get a bit defensive. But these disciples did what the man on the shore told them to. I think that takes some humility and a posture that's used to partnership. Jesus freely and eagerly partners with us in the restorative work of the Kingdom, but it is up to us to respond to that invitation.
The other day, my young son and I worked like this to make vegan chocolate chip banana bread. There were times when I really wanted to just take over and do the measuring and mixing myself, but letting my son do the work showed him that I trusted him, that he was capable, and that we could do this thing together. It took patience on his part and on mine, but it happened and the fruits of our labor were delicious.
Of course, we all know that Jesus will also make himself known to full-of-themselves loners who are impatient and a little selfish [raises hand]. But I'm guessing that partnership, patience, persistence, and a posture of humility help make the tasks we undertake together during this "already-but-not-yet" time a little easier.
In both Luke's account and this one, the disciples recognized Jesus only after he'd provided them with something, and not just a little of something, but an abundance. An abundance of provision is usually seen as a blessing, so I feel a little self-conscious reading about this miracle and wishing it was different, especially since I do not expect that Jesus would have eaten an entirely plant-based diet. But I still think to myself, "Did Jesus really have to aid in the death of 153 fish?" Couldn't Jesus have caused an higher-than-usual yield of figs? Or a particularly abundant olive harvest? Done that whole multiplying loaves thing again?
So, a fourth point: it is entirely possible for a vegan Christian to love and learn from this story, despite the deaths of 153 fish.
When I read this story that includes its account of 153 fish losing their lives, I am reading it through my experience and lens. Even though the modern fishing industry looks nothing like Zebedee and Sons Fishing, Inc., I can't help but think about the fact that today's commercial fishing and industrial fish farms are environmental disasters. I read this story knowing that there are six billion fish slaughtered for food every year in the U.S. alone, every one of whom can suffer pain, none of whom are protected by a single animal welfare law, and for whom death will be slow, gruesome, and painful. And I bring to the text a knowledge that there is a modern day slave trade alive and thriving in some international fishing industries.
Instead of focusing on the fishing, though, instead of getting hung up on my own biases and mess and missing what God is saying to me through the passage, I've tried to take a step back, to quiet the noise my experience brings to the text and just listen.
One of the main emphases of John's Gospel is on Jesus' divinity. He's writing to a church that isn't quite sure how this "fully God, fully human" idea works, and so we have that unique and beautiful opening of the Gospel that reads, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…" This is a pretty radical departure from the journalist-like openings of the other Gospels, which dive right into the details of Jesus' story. It's intriguing, mystical even.
Being vulnerable, partnering with others in community, engaging the world even when it's impossibly hard…why and how we continue to do these things is part of the beautiful mystery of faith.
This mysterious faith roots us in and through each other and to God. We know that it's not following this or any set of rules that will help us grow and thrive. It's in the mystery that we're able to go "further up and further in." Following Jesus' mystery, letting ourselves tumble head-over-heels into that abyss, is damn scary. Fully God and fully human? Raised from the dead? The Trinity? A random woman in Philadelphia or a poor fisherman in Palestine being intimately connected with the sustainer of the universe?
The mystery of Jesus is what inspires us to imagine a better way forward.
The mystery of Jesus is what inspires us to imagine a better way forward. The mystery of Jesus helps us navigate these strange modern waters that look a lot different than the Sea of Tiberius. The mystery of Jesus is the Kingdom of God that's here, but not fully realized. The mystery of Jesus is God engaged in a long process of reconciling a whole groaning creation back to its Creator, while the world keeps turning and people keep living and dying and moving with and against that reconciling work.
Instead of erasing this passage from the Bible, I want to frame it and give it to every animal advocate I know who has struggled to remain part of a church. It's so hard, so many people don't "get" us. It's so tempting to leave, to disengage from this tradition and these communities who have failed again and again to see us and love us well.
But the miraculous catch is not just a story about catching or eating fish. This is a story of the mystery of a God whose love catalyzed the creation of the whole world, the wonderful mystery of that same God taking on human flesh and living a human life full of its human mess, the mystery of that Jesus dying and then rising again, and that utterly divine person of Christ seeing every one of us, knowing the desires of our heart, standing in front of us, and calling to us.
Sarah Withrow King is the Deputy Director of Evangelicals for Social Action, the co-director of CreatureKind, and the author of two books, Animals Are Not Ours (No Really, They're Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology (Wipf & Stock) and Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan). This piece first appeared on CreatureKind.