Ancient Jewish rabbis used to teach that every story in Scripture contained four meanings: a literal meaning; a symbolic meaning, an intended meaning, and a personal meaning. The insight of these Jewish scholars has validity and insight for us today as we gather to ponder on God's word this day.
First, the literal meaning is simply what the gospel story says. Sometimes it's not always clear what a particular story is saying. In today's gospel, however, this isn't the case. It's perfectly clear what the story is saying. In fact, the scene that is set before in John's Gospel is probably one of the most well-known and well-loved passages of Scriptures.
This brings us, however, to the second level of meaning - the symbolic. The chief symbolism seems to center around Jesus question to Peter, which Jesus intriguingly repeats three times: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" What symbolism is contained in this threefold question that Peter seems to find so embarrassing?
Many scholars believe the repetition is related to Peter's threefold denial of Jesus on the night of Jesus arrest. They see Peter's threefold affirmation of love, "Lord, you know that I love you," as erasing his threefold denial of Jesus. In other words, it allows Peter to make amends for his past and to redeem himself.
This brings us to the third meaning: the intended meaning. The intended meaning always urges us to ponder the question "Why?" Why did John relate this incident? What did he intend to communicate to us through it? A footnote in the New American Bible points out that the First Vatican council cited Jesus' threefold response to Peter, "Feed my sheep," as evidence that Jesus gave Peter the authority and responsibility to succeed him as chief shepherd of the flock. In other words, Jesus threefold response to Peter reaffirmed the decision Jesus had made earlier concerning Peter, when he said, "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church...I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven." [Matthew 16:18-19]
Jesus could have reversed that decision, saying to Peter, "Simon, I had great leadership plans for you, but you denied me three times. You failed under pressure. So, I'm taking away your leadership role and giving it to someone else." But Jesus didn't do that. Rather, he reaffirmed his decision to make Peter the chief shepherd of his flock.
Finally, we are faced with the fourth meaning of this Gospel passage - the personal meaning. This is the meaning that the gospel story might hold for us, the attentive reader. In other worlds, God can use a Scripture passage or story to speak to our own hearts in a personal way. In today's story, Peter is undoubtedly exhausted and disheartened at the fact that after fishing all night he has caught nothing. Jesus then tells Peter to try again. Peter does, and the result is amazing. He and his helpers catch so many fish that they need another boat to help them. What personal meaning might we draw from this episode? Consider this story.
Novelist A.J. Cronin says that he nearly gave up his writing career before he ever got started. Halfway through his first book, Hatter's Castle, which was eventually translated into 19 languages, Cronin says that he threw down his pen and tossed his half-finished manuscript into the trash. Then he went outside into the rain and went for a long walk down a lonely rural road in Scotland. He hadn't walked far when he came upon an old farmer plowing a field. The sight of that old farmer, working all alone in the rain, inspired Cronin to retrieve his manuscript from the trash and try again. Years later, when Cronin became famous, he credited his career to the farmer who inspired him to try again after he had given up the first time around.
The personal meaning that we might draw from today's gospel story comes down to this: If, like Peter, we've been working all night and have caught nothing, or like A.J. Cronin, we've been working hard on something with little or no success, maybe it's because we've been working alone, without the Lord. Maybe the reason for our failure is that we've been trying to do it all by ourselves. Maybe the reason for our own failures in life is that we've forgotten what Jesus said to his followers a few chapters earlier in today's Gospel: I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. [John 15:5].