Chris is just 4 years old and learning to tie his shoes. When his mother sees that he is struggling she says, “Let me help you.” As with most 4-year-olds, he says, “I can do it myself.” His response is typical of a young person learning new skills, and it is necessary for him to do it himself. The problem for adults is that “I can do it myself” is not always appropriate or even possible.
The first and third readings for this Sunday show us two men confronted with the realization that doing it oneself may not always be possible. In the first reading Isaiah in his heavenly vision exclaims, “Woe is me, I am doomed! I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips.” In the Gospel, Peter responds to the wondrous catch of fish by saying, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” When God intervenes in their lives their immediate reaction is to bemoan their sinfulness and to claim unworthiness. Because of their past experience of sin and lack of strength and skill they realize they cannot achieve a sinless life on their own.
In both instances, God reveals that their sinful lives are not the issue. They cannot be sinless on their own. Isaiah experiences the purifying action of the burning coal and the seraphim tells him, “See now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed.” Peter obeys the command of the Lord to put out the nets one more time despite having caught nothing after laboring all night. In both instances they both open themselves to God’s merciful action despite their sinfulness.
The result is totally unexpected. Isaiah is given a mission to prophesy to the people. When God says, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here I am . . . send me.” Peter’s reaction is similar after the catch of fish. He knows he is in the presence of someone more than a mere man and exclaims, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But when Jesus assures him to not be afraid; “from now on you will be catching men,” Peter, like Isaiah, now accepts a new mission. In both cases these sinful men accept the merciful forgiveness from God and follow a new way of life serving the Lord.
Isaiah and Peter provide the lesson that we cannot achieve a sinless life by depending on ourselves alone; to admit this allows a merciful God to grant us new life. Pope Francis names his new book, “The Name of God is Mercy” indicating that merciful forgiveness encourages weak human beings to depend on our forgiving God and to follow the call that inevitably comes upon acceptance of God’s mercy.
Jesuit Fr. Jack Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.