When I was in college, I went to my Uncle Tom’s place in Oklahoma, right near a big lake. Now I had not done a lot of fishing, mainly just watched my Dad do catch and release in streams. But now, we were actually going to go out on a boat and spend all day catching. So we get to the lake, and the first thing we see is a bunch of fish jumping out of the water right next to the dock. So we cast from the dock and catch a few. Then, we get in the boat and we keep catching, one after another. By the end of the day, we had over 20 fish, in fact, we had to end early because we didn’t have room to catch any more! So we did a fish fry later that day and had a great dinner, plus some leftovers for some fish sandwiches the next couple of days. I learned the lesson of fishing that it’s never the same day twice when we went out that very next day and came back with just 4 fish.
One of the things I distinctly remember in bringing those fish home is how my uncle used a tool to get them ready for us to cook before we left the lake. I think about how back in the days of Jesus, the disciples probably had a lot more work to do in getting the fish ready to eat since they didn’t have that fancy electric tool my uncle did. Because of that, if there was clearly a bad looking fish, not suitable for eating, they definitely wouldn’t have taken the time to gut it, bring it home, and prepare it if they knew just by looking at it that it was by no means fit to bring home.
This is a good backdrop to one of Jesus’ parables in the gospel of Matthew in Chapter 13, starting in verse 47:
47 The Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea which gathered fish of every kind. 48 When the net was filled, people drew it up on the beach. They sat down and gathered the good [fish] into containers, but the bad [ones] they threw away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age: the angels will come forth and separate the wicked from the righteous;50 they will cast them into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
Now this is what I like about the lectionary: it forces us into these tough passages, to really go back and see what they meant and what they mean for us today. It’s strange when the lectionary passage contrasts a lot with the previous message, such as that of Sabbath, but it also brings us into a healthy “both and” balance, which I personally like.
I remember talking with my friend Paul at lunch a couple times a week in college. We really wrestled with theology and talked through it together. But at the end of every conversation, one of us would inevitably say, “it’s a balance”, and I hope that’s where this message gets you to as far as balancing the idea of Sabbath and working for the kingdom.
So the first part in verse 47:
47 The Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea which gathered fish of every kind.
Let’s see what the first readers of this text thought about it and see the common thread.
The first guy is John Chrysostom, who says,
“After this, that we may not be confident in the gospel merely preached, nor think that faith only suffices us for salvation, He utters also another parable: That of the net.
And how does this differ from the parable of the tares (Where Jesus says to let the wheat and tares grow together until the harvest and then separate them out by burning the tares and harvesting the wheat)? For there too the one are saved, the other perish; but there, for choosing of wicked doctrines; and those before this again, for not listening to His sayings, but these for wickedness of life; who are the most wretched of all, having attained to His knowledge, and being caught, but not even so capable of being saved.”
– John Chrysostom
It’s something we don’t often think about, we can get in the mindset of thinking that having the label of Christian is ideal, but according to John Chrysostom, it actually depends. If you carry the label and are caught in the net of faith and the Church but live a wicked life, you will be judged much more harshly than one who never knew Christ (cf. Matt 7:21). The next guy I want to look at is Hilary of Poitiers:
The Lord rightly compared his preaching to a net. Coming into the world, without condemning the world he gathered those who were dwelling within it in the manner of a net. Tossed into the sea, that net is hauled up from the bottom. Encircling every creature in that element, it draws out all those things that it has caught. It lifts us out of the world and into the light of the true sun. With the choice of righteous honor and the rejection of evil, it brings to light the scrutiny of the judgment to come.
– Hilary of Poitiers
We’re in this weird murky middle ground right now. It’s the sea, it’s cloudy, there’s light coming through, but it’s not as clear as it could be. But on the day of judgment, we’ll see all the other fish as they really are because the light of Christ will reveal it. It’s a day of hope, but also a day in which it’ll be like, well, the only thing I can think of is those dreams where you show up to school without your pants. It’s the day our true colors will show. What’s been under the rug and kept hidden from the world will be brought out if we haven’t repented from it, acknowledging it as wrong. But it’s going to happen to all of us. Yet if we bring those things into the light now, confessing them, turning away from them, and asking for forgiveness from God, those things are blotted out through Christ. So bringing it to the light now instead of hiding it in that murky water, is probably what Hilary of Poitiers would recommend to us as a life application.
We already do this and see the value of it in areas like marital counseling, where couples get together and discuss the under the rug stuff. It’s one of the most valuable practices, so why not do it in our spiritual lives?
The next quote is from Gregory the Dialogist:
At the end of this present age the good fish are to be sorted into baskets and the bad ones thrown away. Then all the elect (those who have chosen trust in Christ) will be received into eternal dwellings, and the condemned will be led away into external darkness, since they have lost the light of the kingdom within them. Meanwhile the fishing net of faith holds us together as intermingled fish both good and bad. Once on the shore, however, the fishing net—that is, the holy church—indicates what it has drawn in. Some fish, when they have been caught, cannot be changed. Others of us who were caught while we are wicked can become changed for the better. Let us bear this in mind as we are in the process of being caught, lest we be thrown aside on shore.
– Gregory The Dialogist
So this is the good news: once we are caught, if we are open to the Scriptures, prayer, the Spirit, and all of the sources of light, then we are being drawn towards the light with joy. But if these things start getting tiring, we lose heart, and we start pursuing our own desires and fulfillment apart from Christ, then as we are inevitably drawn to the light (while the net comes closer to shore) we will loathe our end.
A lot of my colleagues and I see this in Hospice care: when people are spiraling downward and in their last moments, they either approach that light to come with hope and in peace, or in fear, and confession. Spirituality finally becomes real in that time and it brings fear because they realize they’ve been suppressing the light or ignoring it for the majority of their lives. Let this be a reminder to you now: live your life as if you were about to be brought into the light. We are all being brought in, it’s too murky to see the bad fish, but we’re all in the same net.
Another guy, Theophylact of Ochrid reminds us:
Fearful is this parable, for it shows that though we believe, if we do not lead a good life we shall be cast into the fire. The net is the teaching of the fishermen apostles, woven from miracles and the prophets’ testimonies. For what the apostles taught, they confirmed with miracles and the voices of the prophets. This net, then, caught all kinds — barbarians, Greeks, Jews, harlots, publicans, and thieves. When it has been filled, that is, when the world has ended, then those in the net are separated. And though we may have believed, if we are found to have become corrupt, we are thrown out. But those who are not, are placed into vessels which are, in fact, the places of eternal dwelling. Every deed, be it good or evil, is called the food of the soul. And the soul, too, has teeth, but they are spiritual in nature. Then the corrupted soul will gnash its teeth, that is, grind together its now useless faculties of action, because it practiced such things.
– Theophylact of Ochrid
I think the focus should not be “how do we make it out of the fire”, but, “how do we feed on the good?” I love any analogy with food, so Theophylact is my guy to wrap this up.
If you spend all day eating cupcakes and bacon, you might enjoy it, but pretty soon, you’ll realize that it doesn’t make you feel good, and it’s not what you were made to eat, not filled with the vitamins and nutrients you need. Unfortunately we do this in the world, we chase after things that temporarily fulfill and pass away. But if we are determined to have the steady stream of veggies and healthy foods coming in, then we’ll feel good and be doing what we were always intended to do: feed on the good.
It’s the same spiritually. If our diet is on the bad: greed, lust, gluttony, wrath, pride, envy, and sloth, then we won’t even want heaven because it’s not going to have any of that. Yet if our diet is on faith, hope, love, and justice, then we’ll be glad as we approach the light.
So I hope you see at the end of the day that it’s not God who keeps us out of His goodness, it’s ourselves and where we direct our will. And that’s what all this has pointed to. Even in this life, we are making choices to approach the light or retreat from it back into the murkiness of the water. But what a beautiful thing if we are pursuing God in our thoughts, words, and actions to the point at which we align ourselves with who we were actually created to be: receptacles of light. And what a great reality that if we are aligning ourselves with the purpose of God and do mess up, we confess and He’s ready to get us right back on track, rather than retreating into the justification and pride of our actions.
The question becomes, where are your fishy eyes directed? Picture yourself swimming around in that net, and most of those fish don’t want to get in the light. It means death of the body, revealing of our true selves, tough stuff! But how wonderful it will be to transition into greater glory after we shed our bodies on the shore, our souls go to God, and we await our new life in the sea of His glory. And what a great Sabbath rest that can naturally provide to our souls when we know where our wills our directed and where we are naturally headed through the gift of the cross and the power of the Holy Spirit provided to us who trust in Christ.
Remember that Jesus wants us to be saved, as Scripture testifies that he wants all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. So in trying to be holy fish, it’s something that happens through Christ. We pursue God and out of that relationship will naturally flow the good. So don’t focus on, “Well, looks like I have to do more now”, focus on where your gaze is directed, and you will be at a place to receive the light from a God the source and have it naturally flow from you to the world around you.
I feel like throughout this message we have emerged out of one parable into a flurry of other realities to explore, but you’ll have to wait til next week to see what this unfolds into and looks like even more so for our lives today.