52562

The Miracle of the Fishes + Other Ways Jesus Demonstrated His Focus on the Family

This is the second article in a three-part series on Jesus Christ's teachings about families found in the Gospels. Read part one, "How Christ’s Teachings Highlight the Ever-Present Emphasis on Families in the Gospels," and part three, "How Jesus Honored His Family Despite Complicated Relationships." In light of the Gospels' interest in families and their proper nurture, we turn to reports, partially told, of how Jesus intentionally impacted families in enduring ways.

In our exploration of teachings on families in the Gospels, we now take up two instances wherein Luke, the only author who preserves these accounts, does not rehearse the whole story. This observation should not surprise us because we know by modern revelation that we do not possess the full account of what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration (D&C 63:21). The first narrative has to do with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho; the second with the details of the calls of Peter and Andrew, James and John.

In approaching the report about Zacchaeus, we have to fast-forward to Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem during the last week of His life. All commentators agree that, according to the synoptic Gospels, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon after He and His entourage had hiked up from Jericho. The question is: If Jesus and His followers spent Sunday walking the 15 miles up to the capital city, where did they spend Saturday, the Sabbath? When we consult Mark and Matthew, we come away with a sense that Jesus and the disciples passed through Jericho from some locale north or east of the town and reached Jerusalem all on one day, a herculean effort for all involved knowing that women, and possibly children, are part of the traveling group (Matt. 20:17, 20, 29; 21:1; Mark 10:32, 46; 11:1; Luke 23:49, 55). The Gospel of John, of course, recalled Jesus’s approach to Jerusalem differently and put Jesus in Bethany, evidently before Saturday evening, for a dinner in His honor (John 12:1, 12). It is Luke who, within the time frame supplied by the Synoptics, provides a clue about Jesus’s last Sabbath in mortality. We now turn to Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus and His Family

If Jesus arrived in Jerusalem late on Sunday afternoon after hiking up to the city from Jericho, as Luke and the other synoptists plainly intimate, then He must have spent the Sabbath in Jericho or nearby. We recall that, as Jesus entered Jericho, Zacchaeus climbed a tree in order to see Jesus when He and His large group of followers passed by (Luke 19:4). When Jesus spotted Zacchaeus in the tree, He called out, “Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house” (Luke 19:5). In effect, Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’s home. The Greek word dei, translated “must,” points to a divine necessity.1 Jesus was not dropping in for a casual visit. More was involved. In this light, how long did He stay?

If Jesus reached Jerusalem on Sunday afternoon after walking to the city that day from Jericho, then He spent Saturday, the Sabbath, in Jericho. On this view, Jesus was a guest of Zacchaeus from Friday afternoon, the likely time of Jesus’s entry into Jericho, until early Sunday morning, when He and His followers left the town for the capital city. It does not take much imagination to conclude that Jesus spent most if not all of the Sabbath day with Zacchaeus and his family, a memorable blessing for them all. What else? Jesus, His disciples, and Zacchaeus’s family could all have attended the synagogue service in the town, “as his custom was” (Luke 4:16). Of course, Jesus would have spent time discussing gospel principles with any and all. And, even though many disliked Zacchaeus, relatives and neighbors would have visited this publican’s home on this Sabbath to meet his guest of honor. We can also imagine that, at the end of the Sabbath, as on an earlier occasion, “when the sun was setting, all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them” (Luke 4:40).

Even if we insist on harmonizing John’s account of Jesus staying in Bethany before walking to Jerusalem on Sunday, meaning that He arrived in Bethany at least by Friday afternoon, we are still left with Jesus spending a night with Zacchaeus and his family at some point, an extraordinary blessing for them as He made His way toward the capital city. 

Conclusion? For Jesus to spend so much time with this man and his household clearly signals the high value that Jesus placed on marriage, spouses, children, and home—a point He abundantly underlined by calling Zacchaeus “a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). Rather than passing the tree where Zacchaeus was perched without a glance, Jesus intentionally focused attention on this man, an act that discloses a plan to interact meaningfully with this chief publican and his family. His words? “I must abide at thy house” (Luke 19:5). 

The Miracle of the Fishes

The second example of Luke and the other Gospel writers not rehearsing the full story, as I reconstruct events, has to do with the calls of Peter and Andrew and their fishing partners.2

 Luke features his unique story at the beginning of chapter five. We all know the narrative. 

Pressed by a crowd on the seashore at Capernaum, Jesus commandeered Peter’s boat and, while Peter listened as he worked on his nets, Jesus sat down in the boat and spoke to the crowd on the shore. At the end of this sermon, the crowd filed off and Jesus instructed Peter to row to another spot on the lake and to “let down [his] nets for a draught.” Peter protested, “Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing.” But, he agreed, “at thy word I will let down the net” (Luke 5:4–5). We can all retell the story from this point on. Peter let down the net and it filled with fish, so many that his net began to break. We can almost see some of the twisted twine begin to unravel while we hear other strands pop and snap. Peter and his brother Andrew, who is in the boat, a fact secured by the plural pronouns in this passage, called out to their partners, James and John, to launch their boat and help them with the catch. When they finally muscled the fish into the two boats, the vessels “began to sink” (5:7). What to do? 

At this moment, plunging through the mass of fish, Peter fell “at Jesus’s knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). After seeing Jesus cast out a devil from a man in the synagogue a day or two earlier, then witnessing Jesus heal his mother-in-law right after the synagogue service, next hearing Jesus’s sermon delivered from his own boat, and now, with Jesus’s help, pulling in the huge catch of fish, Peter sensed that he was in the presence of the divine even as his legs were aswim in a mass of flopping fish. His partners came to the same sense. Then Luke records concisely that “when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him” (Luke 5:11).

But wait. What about all those fish? Do we believe that Jesus performed this miracle mainly to impress these men? Is this the way that He chose to turn them to Himself? Asked another way, did Jesus perform the miracle and then let all those fish go to waste? Will life-long fishermen allow all those fish to go to waste, men who knew their value for food and for income? To be sure, the fish would feed the families of the departing men, and would give family members a little income if they were to sell some of the fish at the market. But that help would last for a maximum of 48 hours. After that, the fish would spoil. 

When I was working over this passage in Luke, these questions and observations put me on the horns of a dilemma. Did Jesus spend divine power on a miracle that left a lot of waste, especially in light of His warning to the modern Church: “[W]o be unto man . . . that wasteth flesh and hath no need” (D&C 49:21)? Then I found a possible answer to my perplexity. 

I was also looking for how ancient authors describe the Sea of Galilee because Luke called it a “lake” (Luke 5:1–2) and others called it a “sea” (Matt. 4:18; Mark 1:16; John 6:1; etc.). In this effort, I looked at the works of Strabo, an ancient geographer (64 BCE–21 CE) who also called this body of water a lake. But in discussing it, Strabo noted the existence of a fish salting industry just along the shoreline some five miles southwest of Capernaum at a place called Taricheae, whose name comes from the Greek term tarichos, which meant “dried or smoked fish.” In fact, this town later bore the name Magdala and in Rabbinic times was called Fish Tower.3 With the effort to sail or row the two boats to this town, Peter and his partners would preserve their haul of fish for months, if not longer. Of course, as fishermen, they knew the town and the service that they could find there. Let’s credit their good sense to preserve this unusually large haul.

We should also credit Jesus with knowing He was about to call breadwinners away from their wives and children, and He graciously provided for the needs of these family members, both for sustenance and for income. In my view, the miracle of the fish is not merely for show. It carried a noble and important purpose, the nourishing and sustaining of families. This nurturing care for the families of the Twelve is also draped in words from modern scripture: “I, the Lord, give unto [the Twelve] a promise that I will provide for their families” (D&C 118:3). Thus, in an unexpected way, Jesus brought families to stand at the center of this miraculous act, filling such an act with grace and tangible meaning.

The Widow’s Mite

 We end this segment with a few observations about the poor widow whom Jesus noticed as she cast her two small coins into one of the temple chests. Thirteen chests, shaped like trumpets, sat in the Court of Women and were labeled with the kind of gift that was to go into each one. The poor widow likely put her humble gift into one labeled “Freewill offerings.” What is unseen is that her gift reached into the fabric of her livelihood, into her empty cupboards, into her spent storage jars, into her bare clothes closet, into her bed made lonely by death. Her gift diminished her ability to provide for herself and for her children, if they were still in her home, in even the most basic ways: “[S]he of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had” (21:4). She was the true disciple, giving all. 

Moreover, Jesus’s attention to the widow brings forward the whole matter of His interest in families, particularly families who experience enormous challenges in the absence of fathers. How so? Because the Old Testament, the guiding scripture of Jesus’s society, links the welfare of widows closely with that of the fatherless, the orphans (see Deut. 14:29; Isa. 1:17; Jer. 7:6; 22:7; Ezek. 22:7; Zech. 7:10; etc.). More than this, scripture insists that the mistreatment of widows and orphans will bring an offender, frighteningly, “into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31; see. Deut. 10:18; Ps. 146:9). 

To summarize, a gentle probing of the New Testament Gospels yields a treasure trove of Jesus’s interests in families. We have only to think of the time He surely spent in the home of the chief publican Zacchaeus, blessing him and his family by His presence; His gracious effort to provide miraculously for the families of His chosen disciples; and His concern for widows and others, the dispossessed and vulnerable in society.

Lead image from ChurchofJesusChrist.org

For further information, see S. Kent Brown, The Testimony of Luke, The BYU New Testament Commentary [Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2015.]   


1. Kittel and Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:22–25.

2. S. Kent Brown, “The Savior’s Compassion,” The Ensign 41/3 (March 2011): 53–55.

3. Strabo, Geography 16.2.45; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, The Anchor Bible, 2 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1981, 1985), 1:697.

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com