Becoming Members of the Suffering Servant

“For This Shall Every Good Man Pray”

The final Gospel ends with Jesus teaching us to fish for human souls. The three synoptic Gospels report Jesus saying, “I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17; Luke 5:10); the conclusion of the final Gospel describes Jesus instructing the disciples how to fish. Using biblical symbolism, the evangelist provides an abbreviated summary of all that Jesus and the Holy Spirit taught the Apostles over several years.

The text of this final Gospel presents a summary of the Sacred Oral Teaching handed down by the Apostles.

In the final chapter, John describes a small group of experienced fishermen working all night and catching nothing. Jesus surprises them in the morning and says, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat.” The “boat” traditionally symbolizes the Church with Peter leading the other Apostles. The disciples labor in the dark; then, Jesus appears when the “sun” (Jesus is the “Light of the world”) rises and teaches the right way to proclaim the Word of God.

The disciples are terrified, but do what Jesus tells them, and miraculously haul ashore “153 large fish.” (John 21:11) I will return the importance of “153 large fish” at the end of this essay.

Most evidence and testimony indicate that the fourth gospel was the last to be written; many believe this final gospel is the last book in the entire Bible to be written. The evangelist tells us — twice — that everything Jesus said and did cannot be written, but what is written is essential; what is written is what we need today for our salvation.

John includes “two endings”: the “first ending” (John 20:30–31) before the final chapter, and the “second ending” (John 21:25), at the end of the final chapter, following the triple command to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15–19).

First ending. Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and believing you may have life in the Name of Him.

Second ending. There are many more things that Jesus did; which if every one was written, I imagine the entire cosmos would not have space for all the books to be written.

In common third millennium language, the evangelist, most likely familiar with the “synoptics” and epistles, is simply exhorting us: “Pay attention! Every word — every detail — here is necessary for your Salvation and Eternal Life!”

John begins this well-known scene, “Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples . . . in this way” (John 21:1), then provides unique details, listing seven disciples: three by name with secondary identification, two identified only by their father’s name, and “two others.” The number is seven — not twelve.

Peter, Thomas, and Nathaniel

The evangelist directs our attention to the three named disciples by noting secondary identifications; these three are never grouped together in any other list of disciples or apostles. This unique grouping of Peter, Thomas, and Nathaniel highlights their unique roles in the gospel: Jesus personally explains to each one how he received the gift of faith.

To Peter, Jesus says: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17)

To Thomas, Jesus says: “You believe because [you put your hands in my wounds and] you have seen me.” (John 20:29)

To Nathaniel, Jesus says: “You believe because I said I saw you under the fig tree.” (John 1:50)

Is not the Holy Spirit showing us three “road signs” on the road of Faith, on the “new way” to a personal relationship with our Messiah? Each one of us comes to faith in Jesus personally, uniquely. Every encounter with Jesus is extraordinary and unique; however, some aspects of this faith journey are universal. Does not this last chapter of the final gospel illustrate basic elements in these universal experiences of faith?

Most often, and for most people, we seek tangible evidence of the Resurrection. We are often like Thomas who must handle (literally: manipulate) the evidence; we must “see” for ourselves, not accepting the testimony of the other Apostles. Jesus says to Thomas: You believe because you have handled the evidence and saw through your own hands that I am risen from the dead.

Sometimes God speaks directly to our souls, to our interior understanding, to the ears of our hearts, our spiritual ears: we call this personal revelation, or “infused” knowledge. The sense of what Jesus says to Peter might be expressed: You have not discovered this through anything in creation (through “flesh and blood”) but my Father in heaven has revealed it to you personally.

With Nathaniel, known as Bartholomew, we go back to the beginning, to chapter one. Most of us begin our faith journey through hearing. We hear something that makes sense to us in an intangible way. “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées; #277) Rather than “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” this is something we experience in flesh and blood, although non-verbally. It is not an orderly examination of the evidence (as with Thomas), we might say it is a conclusion of the heart, not the head; not a “scientific” discovery but a discovery through poetry and allegory.

“Under the fig tree” and the Sacrament of Confession

Every personal encounter with God remains a mystery in this world. God wants to draw every person into an act of faith — into her or his individual “aha moment” — leading to Holy Communion, to Sacred Union in the Mystical Body.

Nathaniel’s encounter with the Promised Messiah is more like the experience of the penitent at the moment she or he is given absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation! It is more like the experience of a newly baptized adult when the water is poured and the words are pronounced and all sins are washed away!

In fact, every sincere reception of the Sacrament of Confession renews one’s baptismal vows. At the moment I receive absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, hopefully, I experience the peace, the Shalom, that only Jesus can give (see John 14:27). I know this peace not because I examined the evidence (like Thomas), and not by direct divine intervention (like Peter). I know this peace because I was sorry for my sins — I may not have “perfect contrition” but I want to change; I want to do God’s will, and this sincere desire is enough for God to give me the grace to amend my life. I confessed my sins in the Sacrament, and I believe in my heart that Jesus Himself absolved me through His human minister!

Jesus speaks of this peace in John 14:27, and gives it to us through the Apostles (John 20:19 and 26). Did not Nathaniel experience a taste of this peace when Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree”? Consider the scriptural basis for Nathaniel’s “Aha moment.”

Philip, called by Jesus, goes to find Nathaniel and proclaims: “We have found the one that Moses in the Law and the Prophets wrote about, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth.” (John 1:43-45) Nathaniel is doubtful and replies: “What sort of good can come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46) Philip and Nathaniel, obviously, are familiar with the writings of Moses and the Prophets; and, they are expecting “the One who is to come” (Matthew 11:3) who will “save us from our sins” (Matthew 1:21; John 1:29 and 36).

Philip and Nathaniel knew the Psalms, the Prophets, and Torah. They prayed the Psalms daily. There was an expectation in the air, in the culture: when and how will God fulfill His promises to Israel? When will the Lord gather the Lost Sheep of the House of Israel (Matthew 10:6; 15:24) and bring them home to the Promised Land?

“Under the fig tree” indicates, among other things, a person praying Psalms, and studying Moses and the Prophets (studying Sacred Scripture). These reflections are an example of being “under the fig tree.”

As Nathaniel was approaching, Jesus said, “Behold an Israelite in whom is found no guile.” (John 1:47) Nathaniel immediately recognized the opening verses of Psalm 32:

Blessed is the one whose fault is removed, whose sin is forgiven.

Blessed is the one to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whom is found no guile.

Nathaniel knew in his heart that Jesus was citing the entire Psalm, and knew that only God knows if a person is without guile. Nathaniel questioned this man from Nazareth: “How do you know if I am without guile?” (John 1:48)

Nathaniel poured out his deepest hopes and desires “under the fig tree,” begging God to let him see the Messiah, to enter into the peace that only God can give (John 14:27) — begging for the forgiveness of all his sins. A person praying “under the fig tree” frequently prayed Psalm 51: “Thoroughly wash away my guilt, and of my sin cleanse me . . . A clean heart create for me.”

Praying the Psalms, under the fig tree, we trust that “the Lord is merciful and compassionate” (Psalm 103:8); and we pray daily that “He will not deal with us as our sins deserve, or reward us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10).

The evangelist writes sparingly, only recording what is essential to transmit the oral Teaching of their Master: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.’” (John 1:48) The Jewish culture in Galilee understood what it meant to be “under the fig tree.” Nathaniel knew in his heart — not through intellectual analysis — that the person speaking to him truly knew that he was without guile!

Tears of repentance, tears of joy

The Holy Spirit revealed to Nathaniel that Philip’s proclamation (“We have found the One . . .” the Promised Messiah of Israel) was true; Nathaniel knew he was speaking to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! (John 1:29 and 36) Nathaniel had a “hallelujah” breakdown — one can imagine he burst into tears: tears of repentance, tears of joy!

Nathaniel proclaimed: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel.” (John 1:49) Here, in the first chapter of the final gospel, we see the beginning of our faith journey. Jesus says to Nathaniel and to every one of us traveling on this journey: “You believe because I said I saw you under the fig tree.” (John 1:50) The fig tree becomes a symbol for the deepest recesses of my heart.

(In the Mystery of Divine Providence, through Faith, I asked for and received Baptism; and — in God’s mysterious “time” — I received the gift of Faith through Baptism: I believe the grace of the Sacraments is real, and my sins are really washed away in the Sacrament of Confession.)

“You will see greater things than this”

“You will see greater things than this. Amen, Amen, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” And on the third day there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee. (John 1:50–51, 2:1) “Nathaniel [is] from Cana in Galilee.” (John 21:2) During the one Holy Sacrifice on Calvary and on every altar during Mass, heaven is opened and the angels of God ascend and descend on the Son of Man. The wedding in Cana prefigures the Heavenly Wedding Banquet of Christ and His Bride.

“Blessed are those who are called to the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb.” (Revelation 19:9)

When our sins are forgiven in Baptism and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Jesus lovingly reminds us: “You will see greater things than this”; you will join me in the one Holy Sacrifice offering yourself with me to the Father while angels of God ascend and descend singing “Glory to God in the Highest” (Luke 2:14) and “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth” (Isaiah 6:3).

The Rosary draws us into the Sacraments — into the Mass.

We enter into Holy Communion with Jesus through Baptism.

We fall out of Holy Communion with Jesus through sin.

Divine Wisdom provides the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Are Baptism and the Eucharist (and the Rosary) enough? Maybe they are enough for a few unique, extraordinary individuals — not for me, not for most of us! The Sacrament of Confession renews our baptismal vows. When I make a sincere Confession, I renew my Baptism, and all my sins are forgiven. The Sacrament of Confirmation strengthens Baptism. In Baptism, I receive the Holy Spirit with all the Gifts of the Spirit (Isaiah 11:1ff); Confirmation gives me strength to produce the Fruits of the Gifts of the Spirit.

Every time I receive the Eucharist in the Holy Sacrifice, I renew my Baptism and Confirmation: my sins are forgiven and the Holy Spirit silently explodes “like the dew fall” in my heart, renewing the divine power in me.

The Sacraments are the common ordinary path for receiving divine grace. I need the common ordinary means of entering into Holy Communion: I need frequent Confession! Nathaniel personifies those of us who enter through the common ordinary path. Psalm 32 (31) is unmistakable:

Because I kept silent, my bones wasted away;

I groaned all the day long.

For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;

my strength withered as in dry summer heat.

Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide.

I said, “I confess my sins to the Lord,”

And you took away the guilt of my sin.

For this shall every faithful man pray to you in time of stress.

Though flood waters threaten, they will never reach him.

It is often said that “God loves the poor.” The Hebrew word is “anawim”: God loves the “anawim.” “Anawim” means those who suffer. Of course, God loves those who suffer! But we are not saved by suffering alone. God seeks out those who are lost, and saves them: how does He save them? He saves them by forgiving their sins, by washing away their sins! Sinners must repent and ask for forgiveness. Nathaniel was repenting and begging for forgiveness under the fig tree.

We have to ask. Is not the sin against the Holy Spirit when we refuse to ask?

Psalm 32, the Psalm cited by Jesus as Nathaniel was approaching, is clear: When I do not confess my sins, I am dying. When I confess my sins to the Lord, He is merciful and forgiving. Psalm 32 and the story of Nathaniel show us that oral confession is required!

The Rosary draws us into Holy Communion through Confession. It is not magic; we have to approach Jesus as Nathaniel was approaching Him. When we approach Him in the Sacrament of Confession, He will draw us into His eternal embrace; He will draw us into Holy Communion.

When I receive the Eucharist, I am proclaiming with Mary and Joseph: “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your Word.” And I become a member of Jesus’ Mystical Body: I become a member of the Suffering Servant.

The catch of 153 fish

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . and the Word became flesh.” The final Gospel focuses on the Word of God, Jesus of Nazareth, the Bread of Life.

Matthew alone includes Jesus’ famous statement: “I did not come to destroy Torah.” (Mt 5:17) In first-century Judaism, “Torah” and “Word of God” were used synonymously. John takes Matthew to a higher level, takes us deeper into the Gospel. Jesus promised to bring Torah to its completion (Mt 5:18); the final Gospel reveals that Jesus of Nazareth is the living and complete Torah.

At the end of his life, “when Moses had written down this Torah,” he gave this order: “[Every seven years] you shall read this Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel.” (Deut 31:9–11). Over the centuries, an annual cycle of readings was adopted to fulfill this requirement. The cycle of Torah readings, or “portions,” varied from century to century and place to place. The 1910 Jewish Encyclopedia reports that a three-year Torah cycle used in Palestine around the First Century had 153 Torah portions:

The 153 parts into which the Torah was divided in the cycle of three years, which prevailed in Palestine, are known as “sedarim.” (www.jewishencyclopedia.com; “Parashah”; Cyrus Adler, Lewis N. Dembitz; emphasis added)

The final Gospel teaches us that Jesus, the Word, is the Living Bread (John 6), the food of eternal life. Jesus teaches us to pray for this “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). The end of the Gospel — with Jesus’ triple command to “feed my sheep” (John 21:15–18) — brings our focus again to the Word become flesh, the living and complete Torah.

Preceding Jesus’ triple command to Peter, the last chapter of the final Gospel describes the miraculous catch of fish. The Evangelist carefully notes the size of the miraculous catch when it was hauled on shore: “153 large fish and the net was not broken.” (John 21:11) The exact number, 153, is even more curious when we note that no textual variants have been found: scholars agree that the exact number given by the evangelist is 153.

Because “Torah” and “Word of God” were used synonymously at that time, the 153 large fish may represent the complete Torah or Word of God. The Apostles were familiar with the Torah cycle, and easily recognized this number as indicating the complete Torah. The fourth Gospel centers on the Word of God made flesh: Jesus is Torah fulfilled, the Living Torah.

When we read Scripture through the eyes of the Apostles, we see “153 large fish” as a symbol for Torah fulfilled, the Living Word. We do not doubt the historical accuracy of the report of 153 fish. We know that the omniscient and all-powerful God of Israel can, and does, use historical reality to symbolize a deeper reality.

(One of my favorite examples of “historical reality symbolizing a deeper reality” is the story of Joseph in Genesis: all Israel — and all nations — must go to Joseph for salvation. This historical event recorded in Genesis also prefigures a future fulfillment in which all Israel and all nations will turn spiritually to Joseph of Nazareth.)

Jesus concludes the Gospel with: “Feed my sheep.” Feed them what? Feed them the Word of God. In the Bread of Life discourse (John chapter 6), Jesus said, “I am the Living Bread.” He is the Food that gives eternal life. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the Apostles: “as I have done, so you must do also.” (cf John 13:15) Jesus feeds the Apostles and tells the Apostles to feed others. Feed them the Living Word of God.

The Johannine theme of the “Word made flesh” comes from Second Isaiah. Second Isaiah frames this theme with “the Word of the Lord will stand forever,” (Isaiah 40:3,8) and “My Word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). John shows us that Jesus is this Word that goes forth from the Father and does not return to the Father until He accomplishes all for which He was sent. The Suffering Servant is the Word: He is the Lamb of God who will save us from our sins (see Mt 1:21; Isa 7:14; and Isa 53:4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 11). John the Baptist (the Voice in Isa 40:3–8) tells us that the Word is “the Lamb of God who takes away our sins.” (John 1:29, and 36 citing Isa 53:6–7)

After Pentecost, the Holy Spirit revealed more fully what was required when Jesus said: “As I have done for you, so you must do for one another.” (cf John 13:14–15) Jesus was telling the Apostles that they must follow the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

This Lamb — so prominent in John’s first chapter and the Book of Revelation — is the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah. Jesus calls the Apostles — and you and me — to become members of the Suffering Servant.

Jesus slowly, gently, lovingly teaches the Apostles that they must become one with the Suffering Servant. The Cup of Communion with the Lord (cf I Cor 10:16) is a sharing in the suffering of the Suffering Servant.

In communion with the Suffering Servant, we rejoice with Saint Paul to fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the Church (Col 1:24). Saint Paul ran the race, and reached the finish line. He tells us that when — and if — you or I reach the “finish line” of Faith, we will rejoice in our sufferings for the sake of the Mystical Body.

I received the mysterious gift of Faith; Baptism cleansed me of all my previous sins, and I became a newborn babe in the Mystical Body. Confirmation strengthened me; frequent Confession helps me grow into a mature Christian. Reception of the Blessed Sacrament renews Confirmation.

In Holy Communion, the Holy Spirit silently explodes in me, magnifying my fortitude to offer my sufferings on Calvary with the Suffering Servant, in the Suffering Servant, and through the Suffering Servant. The Eucharist increases my hope to enter into eternal rest (Shalom) with Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Mark Drogin About Mark Drogin

Mark Drogin was born into a family of third-generation atheistic, socialist Jews in Los Angeles; he was baptized in the Catholic Church 28 years later. Today, Mark has a dozen living children, four dozen grandchildren, and half a dozen great-grandchildren; he lives in Texas where most of his children and grandchildren live.

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