Math was never my ‘thing’. Someone asked me once if I had ever been abused as a child. “Absolutely,” I said. “I was subjected to prolonged periods of enhanced interrogation when I was in the fourth grade. They employed a set of virtually unbearable procedures (clearly of satanic origin), called ‘math’”. My teacher seemed on the surface like an ordinary enough woman, polite most of the time, in an authoritarian sort of way, but when she opened the math book, something came over her. There was an unmistakable evil gleam in her eye, and you could just tell, she liked it. Those were terrible days, but thank God, He built kids with tremendous resilience, and I did manage to survive, scarred of course, but otherwise reasonably functional.
I discovered later that the evils of math haunted college campuses, too—even Christian ones, and I was cornered me again in my sophomore year. Successfully completing at least one math course was a non-negotiable core requirement for graduation. Impassioned pleas for some kind of disability waiver fell on deaf ears. I was trapped, and not in one of those simple ways where you could just gnaw your leg off and get free.
Fortunately, God took pity on me and provided me with a math teacher whose heart had not sunk to those sadistic depths that I had feared. After weeks of wrestling with some of the material, and trying not to scream out loud in class, the young professor took me aside one day, put his hand on my shoulder, and said with what seemed like real conviction, “You can get this.” Then he proceeded to help me ignore my fears and confusion, and look at the problem from a simpler perspective. “Quit making it so hard,” he said. “Just reframe it in a context that you understand, and it will make sense to you.” Of course, I realize now it was probably just his desperate attempt to save himself from developing a drug habit from having to deal with me every day, but that simple exchange made all the difference.
Jesus did that with Peter, I think, in a prominent episode that occurred on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after Jesus had risen. Peter had been through a series of events that would put most of us in a psych ward. He had brashly declared that he would die with Jesus before he would betray Him. Hours later he was calling down curses to reinforce his adamant denial that he ever knew the man. Then He died, and now He was alive again. How does one deal with all that? Where would he turn? What would he do? Having ‘Disciple of Jesus’ added to his resumé wouldn’t open a lot of career opportunities for him, even if he hadn’t ended the stint as a total failure. So, he announced to the group, “I’m going fishing,” and he and six others took to the lake again.
After a fruitless night’s work on the lake, I’m guessing that the subject on Peter’s mind that morning was his failure, first as a follower, and now as a fisherman. There were hard and confusing questions plaguing him. His deep disappointment had been evident in the bitter tears afterward, but what about the underlying issues? What did it mean, and how could he rectify it? What would he say to Jesus, now that it was clear that He had risen? More importantly, what would Jesus say to him? Then Jesus just showed up, no advance warning, and no time to prepare.
Without mentioning that awful night in the High Priest’s courtyard, Jesus began the uncomfortable exchange with Peter this way, “Do you love me more than these (in reference to the fish, not the other fishermen)?” No elaboration about the fish comparison was offered as Peter’s interrogation continued. Three times in succession he was asked whether he loved the One he had chosen to follow. It wasn’t a detached academic exercise about love as a concept; it was a direct, personal confrontation between Peter and the One he had betrayed, and it was designed to restore and prepare Peter, not to punish him.
There’s an interesting underlying issue that weaves itself throughout that profound and encouraging episode. Food kept finding its way into the scene in a way that becomes almost insignificantly prominent. The story begins with them wrapping up a night of fruitless efforts to catch fish, which were not, by the way, intended as trophies for hanging on a wall. The fish they sought would be destined for someone’s plate. Noting their empty net that morning, Jesus miraculously filled it for them. Lots of fish—lots of food. Then, when they got to shore, He said, basically, ‘Hey, guys, I’ve got breakfast for you.’
Then, the first question about Peter’s love for Jesus was how it stacked up in comparison to his love for those fish. The food connection resumed at the conclusion of each question about Peter’s love for Him. Peter would affirm his love, and Jesus would respond with, “Feed my sheep,” and again, “Feed my lambs.” Jesus didn’t engage Peter about his cognitive and spiritual dissonance, or investigate the status of his verbal and behavioral contradictions. He wasn’t interested in conducting an intricate analysis of life’s confusing complexities with his downcast disciple (which, from our human perspective, only seems to make those things more complex and confusing anyway). Jesus reframed and simplified everything, and I can almost hear my math teacher in His talk with Peter. It sounds something like this:
“Come on Peter, you can get this. Quit making it so complicated. It comes down to this, I’ve got a job for you to do, and there’s a basic principle you need to remember. The job—feed my lambs. The principle—lambs don’t eat fish. That means stop torturing yourself and reaching back to your old way of life out there on the lake. It can never provide what you need to carry out the mission I’m sending you to do. It’s simple. Your love for me (flawed as it might be) is the source from which you will find everything you need to feed the lambs, and when you get hungry, I can come up with all the fish you need.”
Simple approaches are sometimes the best, aren’t they? As nearly as I can tell, Peter and the lambs did pretty well nutritionally after that, and eventually, I even passed math.
© 2015 Gallagher’s Pen, Ronald L. Gallagher, Ed.S. All rights reserved.
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So good Ron! so so good! Thank you for that insight! Good word!
Thank you for the priceless encouragement, and for the prayers that I know attend the gracious comment.
Not an unexpected post from someone who hates fish himself!
Seriously, Ron, again you have brought new meaning to a passage I’ve read and heard preached so many times before- with the memorable word pictures you paint.
Well… you can’t expect a non fish lover to just ignore an opportunity like that, can you. I do treasure the grace that you extend in your comment, and for the consistent witness that I know you are.
Hi Ron, thank you for writing this piece, “Lambs Don’t Eat Fish”. I had joined some ladies this morning to discuss Phillip Keller’s, “The Shepherd Trilogy, A Shepherd Looks At the 23rd Psalm, A Shepherd Looks At the Good Shepherd, and A Shepherd Looks At the Lamb of God”. I had just quoted that passage of scripture of John 21 vs 15-20 and we talked somewhat about the failed fishing excursion. I had shared with Jane that the number 153 represented a tribe of believers. I don’t know how that correlates to the 153 great fish that Peter caught, but after reading, “Lambs Don’t Eat Fish”, I suppose that Jesus used 153 great fish to demonstrate his teaching in that 153 great fish is a good catch for a master fisherman like Peter, but Jesus wanted Peter to fish for men…153 converts would be an even greater catch!
Also, my pastor had taught on this passage last week. He shared with us that even though we/they may be experts at what we/they do, we still need a new strategy. Jesus told Peter to cast his net on the “Right side”. Jesus is at the right side of the father interceding for us and he has already acquired what we are looking for. When we give Jesus our broken pieces His net will not break. So keep casting on the right side unto Jesus. The other little nugget we gleaned was from verse 7, when Peter swam to shore. Lifeguards are usually good swimmers; even if we are not good swimmers, we all can be good lifeguards by guarding the lives of others. Thanks again Ron and that makes 2 of us that have passed math; but I would much rather be enrolled in God’s University for Disciple’s.