Fish or Foul?
James C. Denison
Now that the Democratic presidential primaries are finally over, I can declare my allegiance. I am for Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. At least that’s what their campaigns apparently believe. I am fascinated by politics. I’ve read biographies of at least 20 presidents, and follow elections with great interest.
When this year’s process narrowed to those three, I went to their websites and signed up for email alerts. Since doing so, I have been given approximately 240,486 opportunities to donate to their campaigns. Every message I receive is sent personally to me and thanks me for all my support for their campaign. Even though I’ve done nothing but read their emails and delete them.
This summer we’re seeking a more intimate relationship with God by studying Jesus’ parables, short stories which lead us personally into the kingdom of heaven.
Last week we learned from the parables of the treasure and pearl that making God our King is a wise decision, an investment worth all it costs and more. This week we learn that knowing him as our King and Lord is not what the world thinks it is. It’s not what you may think it is. We’ll study no more surprising parable this summer than the story which is before us today.
A net for all fish
It begins: “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish” (v. 47). Literally, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to what happens when a net is cast into the sea.”
One kind of fishing net was the amphiblestron, a circular apparatus with lead beads around the circumference and a rope tied in the center. The fisherman standing in his boat would see a fish or school of fish swimming beneath him, and would quickly throw the net over them. The weights would pull the net through the water, catching the fish. The fisherman would then pull them into the boat. Here the fisherman chooses the fish he wishes to catch.
The other kind of fishing net was called the sagene. This is the word in our text, used only here in the New Testament. We get the “seine” net from this word. This was a drag net, shaped as a square with ropes from all four corners and weights along its bottom twine and floats or corks on the top. It was six or so feet deep, and could be hundreds of feet wide, sweeping as much as a half mile of water in its operation.
It was positioned in the water, and took several boats to operate. The net was let down but held so that it stood up in the water. The boats then rowed through the lake, dragging the net as a kind of cone behind them.
The sagene “caught all kinds of fish,” Jesus said. Everything in the lake was swept into the net–fish, plants, debris. “All kinds” is literally “all races.” The Sea of Galilee is said to contain 54 different kinds of fish. It’s interesting that Jesus’ words can be translated literally, “all races.”
Then, “when it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away” (v. 48). The net was dragged to the shore, where the desirable fish were put into containers or baskets while everything else was thrown away. This process could take several hours. Note that “they sat down” in a considered, deliberate process.
Some “baskets” were filled with water or even lowered into the water, keeping the fish alive for transport to distant markets. Others kept the dried fish which would be sold locally.
“Bad” translates sapra, literally “rotten.” The word describes fish which had died and begun to rot before the fishermen could get to them. But it also describes unclean fish and other materials which have not yet rotted, but they are as bad as if they had.
Fish without scales and fins (such as catfish or eels) were ritually unclean (Leviticus 11:9-12), and thus could not be eaten. And the sagene would bring up all sorts of debris and plant life which would be discarded as well.
Now Jesus makes his point: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (vs. 49-50). He issued this warning earlier with the parable of the weeds (vs. 40-42), and repeats it now.
Lessons for all of life
Now, why was this story so shocking to Jesus’ first hearers? What is it meant to teach us today? Let’s begin with the good news: all are welcome in the Church. Everyone is invited and included, even you and even me.
The sagene cannot choose what it will catch. Anything in the lake ends up in its net, and can end up in the Church. This fact alone would be a shock to Jesus’ hearers. To think that cursed Gentiles, half-bred Samaritans, and hated Romans could be the children of God was revolutionary in the extreme. But that’s how it was and is. We are called to make disciples of “all nations,” all people-groups. We are called from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
The Christian global mission was the first multi-ethnic, multi-racial movement in human history, embracing all who would embrace it. From the wealthy like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, to lepers, tax-collectors and prostitutes, the Church welcomed all.
As does God. His word assures us that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9), for he wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). If you’re good enough for God, you’re good enough for us. We need to be sharing God’s love with every person we can, in every way we can. No one is outside the bounds of our compassion and ministry. That’s the good news of the Gospel.