So, this has happened before. That first miraculous catch—nets bursting, boats swamping—it must have felt
like ages ago, after all that has unfolded. Or unraveled, depending on your point of view. But it was their story, the way they got pulled into this whole adventure. Most Christians can tell you in detail how they met Jesus, especially if it was a dramatic encounter. That payload was a story this inner circle no doubt talked about many times after, as guys will do, as fishermen will especially do. Sitting around their nightly fire, somebody brings it up with a smirk: "Peter, the look on your face was priceless," then, imitating Peter's reaction, "'Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man,'" and they all fall to cracking up about it again. (Luke 5:8)
My buddies and I used to make an annual fishing trip to the eastern Sierra Nevada. Though our catches might not have been miraculous, we did haul in a scandalous load of fish, and in classic man fashion—campfires, canned beans, no showers. Except one year, we brought a guy named Bill who would take an hour every morning in camp to primp and preen and even put on cologne. We'd be in the car, laying on the horn, while Bill combed gel into his hair. Years after we'd rib him for it. All anyone needed to do was start the story with "Remember how Bill . . . ," and sombody'd laugh, snort coffee through their nose, and the whole gang would be gasping for air again.
So here the famous disciples are, three years later. They've pulled another all- nighter. Off that same beach. The boys are skunked again. And Jesus does it again.
"Try the other side." Again the nets are bursting. It's how he lets them know it's him. This has all the wink of an inside joke, that rich treasure of friendship, the running gag between mates where over time all you need to do is start the first line and everyone
cracks up all over again. "Try the other side." Another jackpot. Just like the good old days. Nothing more needs to be said—Peter is already in the water thrashing for shore.
Do you see the playfulness of Jesus?
His timing, the tension, his hiddenness, a touristlike question, the same lame suggestion from somebody they think knows nothing about fishing, then bang!—the catch. And the boys are hooked again. This is a beautiful story, made so much richer because of the playfulness of Jesus.
And by the way, that little detail John tosses in—that the catch was 153 fish, precisely—that, too, is a beautiful touch.
The net contained not "a boatload" of fish, nor "about a hundred and a half," nor "over a gross," but precisely "an hundred and fifty and three." This is, it seems to me, one of the most remarkable statistics ever computed. Consider the circumstances: this is after the crucifixion and the resurrection; Jesus is standing on the beach newly risen from the dead, and it is only the third time the disciples have seen him since the nightmare of Calvary. And yet we learn that in the net there were . . . "an hundred and fifty and three." How was this digit discovered? Mustn't it have happened thus: upon hauling the net to shore, the disciples squatted down by that immense, writhing fish pile and started tossing them into a second pile, painstakingly counting "one, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . ." all the way up to an hundred and fifty and three, while the newly risen Lord of Creation, the Sustainer of their beings, He who died for them and for Whom they would gladly die, stood waiting, ignored, till the heap of fish was quantified.1
Or, it might have gone like this: These retired fishermen, overcome with the joy of seeing Jesus, leave the writhing pile where it is, fully intending to get to it right after breakfast. Having had the cookout—which Jesus grilled, by the way—one of them says, "Well, we oughta get that catch counted up," and a second says, "Yep," and Jesus, reaching for a last bite of roasted tilapia, says, "There's a hundred and fifty-three."
The boys smile at one another, realizing, Oh yeah, right—we've got Jesus back.
Any way you look at it, it is a beautiful story. Playful, funny, so human, so hopeful, so unreligious. And it is that particular quality that gives the passage its true character and gives us an essential for knowing Jesus as he really is. The man is not religious. If he were, the story would have taken place in a religious setting—the temple, perhaps, or at least a synagogue—and Jesus would have gathered them for a Bible study or prayer meeting. Jesus doesn't even show up at the temple after his resurrection. He's at the beach, catching his boys fishing, filling their empty nets and then having them to breakfast.
Now—why does this interpretation of the passage both relieve and trouble?
The relief comes in like a sea breeze on a muggy summer day suffocating with the smell of mud and dead fish. Because it is an answer to a question we didn't dare ask—that God himself knows how and when to be playful. With us. It's like a breath of fresh air.