A Radical Alternative


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One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from the very end of John’s gospel.

Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, and has appeared a few times to his disciples.

But at one point, it’s been awhile. The disciples are confused. They don’t know where Jesus is. They don’t know if they’ll see him again. They’re still not sure what to make of this whole affair.

And Peter, being Peter, decides to go fishing.

(I like this dude.)

And so Peter and the other disciples are out fishing, and they fish all night (you fish at night in Palestine because it gets pretty stinkin’ hot in the middle of the day), and they haven’t caught a thing.

Zero. Nada. Skunked.

And this guy appears out of nowhere on the beach, and he does what everyone does when they see people fishing.

“Catchin’ any?”

Now, the disciples don’t realize it yet, but the guy on the beach is Jesus. And Jesus tells them to do something very, very strange.

He tells them to try casting their nets on the right side of the boat.

Now, to us, that doesn’t seem all that weird. If you’ve been trying one side of the boat all night, why not try the other? If anything, it may seem a bit silly. What difference would changing sides make?

Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know that in Luke’s account of Jesus calling his first disciples, he does something similar.

So we put two and two together and assume Jesus is trying to tell them something. To remind them of a turning point in their lives.

And it’s true that’s part of Jesus’ agenda here. But there’s more going on.

The ancient Near East, like most pre-modern cultures, was a decidedly right-handed culture. Left-handedness was not just a strange anomaly. It was a weakness. It was something to be feared. Reviled. In some contexts it was even thought to be a sign of evil.

So if you were a fisherman, throwing nets into the water and hauling the weight of those nets back into your boat, you fished off the left side of the boat, enabling you to leverage the strength of your right arm and right side. Imagine pulling a heavy weight from your left to your right. Your right hand is on top, and your right arm is doing all the work.

When Jesus tells the disciples to throw their nets on the right side of the boat he’s not just inviting them to try something different.

He’s calling them to a radical alternative.

Now, it’s tempting to say, “Of course. Jesus calls us all to a radically alternative life.” Again, that’s true enough.

But remember who Jesus is talking to.

These are not just random fishermen. These are his closest followers. The people who know him best. The people who followed him everywhere for three years, saw everything he did, heard every word he said.

They were witnesses to the resurrection.

They are the ones who will lead Jesus’ church.

This call to a radical alternative is not just a cute anecdote or a way for Jesus to remind his disciples of their original invitation.

It’s a commission to engage the world in a completely different, completely unexpected way. To play to what they perceive to be their weakness rather than their strengths.

It’s a call to cast aside the “We’ve always done it this way” or “This is the way things are” or “This is what scripture says” arguments.

It’s as if the story in John 21 has less to do with the disciples’ actual fishing trip than it does with the challenge Jesus lays on their lives. As if it’s not really about which side of the boat they cast their nets to or which hand they use to pull them up, but about how they will stretch their preconceived mindsets to build and lead Jesus’ church.

Remember, these were devout Jews. Versed in Torah. Drenched in history. People of tradition.

And while all of those things are valuable and important, they all reach their epicenter in the stranger on the beach.

I wonder if in today’s church we’ve developed our own sort of “right-handedness.” If we’ve grown so comfortable with the way we do things that we can’t imagine really radical alternatives.

Have we become so accustomed to what we perceive to be our strengths (scriptural interpretation, tradition, doctrine) that we fail to hear the suggestion from the stranger on the beach? Have we forgotten that the only real value in our strengths comes when they are directed by the incarnated and resurrected Jesus?

Have we forgotten that he meets us all in the midst of our deepest weaknesses?

Have we forgotten that Jesus consistently used those who were perceived as weak, or feared, or reviled, or even evil, to proclaim the good news and expand his kingdom?

I wonder if we as the church today can embrace this kind of radical alternative. Can we trust Jesus enough to set aside our perceived strengths and play to our weaknesses?

Do we dare to listen to the stranger on the beach?

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One thought on “A Radical Alternative

  1. I always liked that Jesus didn’t tell them to go elsewhere to haul in their catch. “Stay right where you are,” he tells them, “but do it a different way; take a different approach.” And so he tells us to live for him exactly where we are, but to look for another way to serve him or help others right there.

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