Insight can come from anywhere. Two recent ‘Aha!’ moments for me have come from a distinguished theology professor and my three-year-old daughter.
Reading a Bible story book with my daughter, we reached the one about the miraculous catch of fish. Peter was not yet a disciple, and he and the other fishermen had had a bad night and nothing to show for it. After a morning of teaching, Jesus asks them to head out and let down their nets again. Peter protests somewhat, but reluctantly agrees. And sure enough, they catch a whole bait-ball full of fish. Peter is suddenly struck by his own sinfulness in comparison with who Jesus surely must be, and Jesus calls him to be a ‘fisher of men’.
I’ve never really got that story. But with the help of the illustration, Kaira asked exactly the right question. ‘Why is that man cross, Daddy?’ And that is the question. Why is Peter masking his annoyance? It doesn’t take too much thinking before the answer is obvious.
Fishing is one of those jobs that everyone thinks is easy: everyone thinks that they could do it too, if they just had the right kit (people think like this of graphic design too, as I found out). Surely fishing is just chucking a net into water in the hope that there are fish underneath? No one likes it when someone comes out of nowhere and starts telling you your business. I’m sure Peter must have hated it too. Peter knows when to fish (i.e. at night), where to fish and how to fish, and now this carpenter-teacher asks him to give it a go in the middle of the day? Sure he’d be cross.
And so, when it’s clear that Jesus actually knows where to find fish when there shouldn’t be fish, when it’s clear that he sees from a different vantage point, Peter realises that he’s outmatched. That’s what makes Jesus’ call to be fishers of men so potent for Peter. Jesus meets a proud man who won’t be told his business, and not only does he turn an experienced fishermen’s fishing world on its head, but he shows Peter that he certainly knows his business, that of calling men to obedience. He doesn’t only command, but he calls into being that which he commands too. If he can land a huge catch at the worst time of day to fish, when the fishermen failed at the best time, maybe Jesus can be trusted to bring about greater things from the unlikeliest sources?
You Mustn’t be Joking!
The second piece of insight came from a more expected source (a doctor of NT theology), but it pointed out a failure that is common to us as readers of scripture, that is, we expect scripture to be as serious and devoid of surprises as some cliched town vicar.
The passage in question was Titus 1:12:
Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”
This verse has always been an odd one for me, because it seems as though Paul is legitimising racial stereotyping. Sure, his point does seem to be that there is an acknowledged failure of character in Crete, and given the seriousness of the surrounding subject matter, one can be forgiven for missing the humour, but this verse is in fact a joke. Paul is rehearsing an old one-liner; a light-hearted line for a serious matter. The joke is not hard to spot if you’re looking for it. A Cretan who is always a liar can’t be telling the truth about his own people. But it’s a joke nonetheless, and a warning against always reading the Bible as though it must always be dourly, reverently religious.