“I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. (John 21:3-6)
Today’s passage shows us “the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead” that first Easter Sunday (see John 21:14). Commenting on this scene, St. Augustine once wrote admiringly that after Jesus had “risen from the grave, after seeing the marks of His wounds, after receiving, by means of His breathing, the Holy Ghost, all at once [these disciples] become what they were before, fishers, not of men, but of fishes.”
But not everyone shares Augustine’s glowing view of the disciples. I’ve heard many pastors preach this text and call the disciples “backsliding” Christians because they went back to their vocations as fishermen instead of “following Jesus fully” as “full-time missionaries.”
Let me share three reasons why that’s a poor interpretation of this text.
First, Jesus never said that fishing for men and fishing for food were mutually exclusive. In Matthew 4:19, he said, “follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people.” He didn’t say, “I will send you out to fish for people and you will never fish for food or income again.”
Second, Jesus could have reprimanded his disciples for fishing, but he didn’t. And it’s not like it was beyond the resurrected Christ to reprimand his followers (see Luke 24:13-25).
Finally, Jesus blessed the work of his disciples’ hands with a miraculous catch of fish! Why would he have done that if he was not pleased with their decision to go back to their work of fishing?
In this scene, we see a theme that is reiterated throughout the gospels—namely, that Jesus frequently smiles upon the choices his followers make to go back to the vocations they had prior to following him.
We see it here with these bi-vocational fishermen/disciples in John 21. We see it with the Roman centurion in Matthew 8, who Jesus could have easily called away from his vocation, but didn’t. And we see it with Zaccheus in Luke 19 who, upon choosing to follow Jesus, appears to have gone back to his vocation as a tax collector with Jesus’s blessing.
Following Jesus means that all of us will now “fish for people.” But it doesn’t mean that all of us will lay down our trades. Deep in your soul, you, like Jesus’s fishermen friends, know that God put you on this earth to fish, write, build homes, start businesses, or create spreadsheets. Meeting the resurrected Christ doesn’t necessitate you abandoning that work. You can bring Jesus great pleasure by staying exactly where you are fishing for people and food for the glory of God and the good of others.