The Lectionary

Although we are sinners, we are called to be God's witnesses


5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-2, 3-8

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Luke 5:1-11

Peter's words to Jesus in today's Gospel express the sense of unworthiness that he, Isaiah and Paul feel when confronted by God's holiness: "Leave me, Lord. I am a sinful man." Despite, or even because of, their deep awareness of moral inadequacy, all three are called to be God's special messengers. We, too, are sinners, called to be God's witnesses. Let us take consolation from today's readings as we sing with hope the lyrics of the psalm: "In the sight of the angels I will sing your praises, Lord" (Ps 138:1).

Isaiah's account of his call to be the Lord's prophet describes his being transported to the heavenly court where he experiences the Lord's awe-inspiring holiness. In Hebrew the word "holy" (qadosh) connotes moral purity, transcendence and otherness. It is the opposite of "profane" or "ordinary." When Isaiah sees "the Lord seated on his high and lofty throne" and hears the seraphim crying out "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts," he is overwhelmed by his own and his people's sinfulness.

Woe is me, I am doomed!/ For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips;/ yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

In response to Isaiah's admission of sin, God forgives and purifies him. One of the seraphim touches his mouth with a burning ember and says, "See now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged." Humbled and cleansed, Isaiah can then respond to the Lord's call with the words, "Here I am; send me."

The epistle continues the consecutive reading of First Corinthians with Paul's response to those who were taking the heart out of the Gospel by denying the resurrection of the dead. For the Corinthians, who were accustomed to the Platonic belief in an immortal soul, talk of a resurrected body after death seemed ridiculous. In Platonic thought, the soul was imprisoned in the body, the source of the passions and appetites which kept the soul from attaining truth and wisdom.

In the face of this philosophical challenge, Paul reaffirms his initial preaching of the Gospel by insisting that belief in the resurrection of the crucified Christ and the future resurrection of the dead at Christ's return are central to the Christian faith. He first lists the various appearances of the risen Jesus: to Cephas, the Twelve, five hundred brothers at once, James, and all of the apostles. Last of all, Paul mentions Jesus' appearance to him, "as one born out of the normal course."

Like Isaiah and Peter in the Gospel, Paul is humbly aware of his sinfulness. He describes himself as "the least of the apostles; ... because I persecuted the church of God." Despite the fact that he does "not even deserve the name" of apostle, God's "favor" to Paul "has not proved fruitless." The one-time persecutor has "worked harder that all the others," not through his power, "but through the favor of God."

In Luke's Gospel, Simon is the first character to respond positively to Jesus' public preaching. Even his hometown, Nazareth, had rejected him when he announced in the synagogue that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of a Messiah for the poor and outcast (see Lk 4:16-30). In contrast, Luke emphasizes Simon's willing, but somewhat incredulous, cooperation with Jesus. When Jesus asks him to pull his boat out a short distance from the shore so that he may teach the crowd, Simon does so. But when Jesus finishes teaching and commands Simon, "Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch," the seasoned fisherman is skeptical, and only grudgingly complies. "Master, we have been hard at it all night long and have caught nothing; but if you say so, I will lower the nets."

Once Simon Peter witnesses the miraculous catch of fish, he is seized with amazement and a sense of unworthiness. He falls at Jesus' knees and acknowledges his sinfulness. Now he is ready to be the instrument of God's work. Jesus can then assure him, "Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be catching men."

(This column originally appeared in The Providence Visitor)