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.
Now, here’s the bad news: not all are included in the Kingdom. Not everything in the lake is a fish. Not all fish are “clean.” Some are put in the basket, but others are not. Some will end up in Paradise, but others in the “fiery furnace.”
As Augustine put it, the Church has some that God hasn’t, and God has some that the Church hasn’t. We will all be surprised at those who are in heaven and those who are not. There is a Judgment coming. We leave this to God, but know that it is real. And inevitable.
Universalism says that everyone goes to heaven, regardless of their commitment to Jesus. Except that Jesus said of himself, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).
Pluralism says that there are many ways to God, Christianity being only one. Except that Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And Peter preached, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). And the Book of Revelation says, “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).
The Bible teaches clearly that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Not today, perhaps, but one day. And we’re one day closer to that day than ever before in human history.
People swim around in the net as if they were free and the net were not real. But George Buttrick, one of the 20th century’s greatest expositors and Preacher to the University at Harvard, said it well: “Day by day the net is being drawn, for the kingdom is an event. By sorrow and joy, by work and play, by testing and pondering, and by the thrust into the world of Christ himself, God draws the net. No man can escape: life is not in our control. Every breath brings us nearer to the shore, every sickness and recovery, every decision made or evaded. Foolishly we imagine that we can slip through the meshes” (Buttrick, IB 421).
Our job is to fish, leaving the sorting to the Judge of the universe. But all the while we draw our nets through the lake, we must know that not all will be kept by God. Who is?
Our question leads to the final life-transforming fact contained within our parable: religion is not relationship. To a society fenced in by the legalisms and rituals of an all-encompassing religious system, this fact must have been a tremendous shock. But the parables of Matthew 13 could not be more clear: God seeks a personal, intimate relationship with every one of us. Look over the chapter with me.
God measures soil not by its appearance but by whether or not it receives the “seed” of the gospel and produces fruit as a result (vs. 1-23). You and I cannot tell wheat from weeds, but God can (vs. 24-30). We learn from the mustard seed and the yeast that God measures faith not by its size but its reality (vs. 31-35). God wants us to put him before all else, selling everything we have to gain the treasure and pearl of a personal, dynamic relationship with himself.
Being in church doesn’t mean that you are in Christ. Being in a lake doesn’t make you a fish. Being in a garage doesn’t make you a car. Being in church doesn’t mean that you are in Christ.
Christine Wicker’s article in last Sunday’s Dallas Morning News has been much discussed this week. “Fewer faithful” excerpts her book, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church. Her research documents these facts about our so-called Christian nation: only 20 percent of Americans were in any church last week; four percent were in a Sunday school or Bible study class; the number of non-believers in America doubled from 1990 to 2001. Being American doesn’t mean that you’re Christian. And being in church doesn’t mean that you’re in Christ.
The practices of spiritual disciplines and religious observance are valuable only as a means to an end. The Bible is only a book unless you seek God in its pages. Prayer is only words mumbled into space unless they express a heart yearning to know God. Worship is an hour wasted at church unless it you came this morning to connect with your Creator. Did you?
Are you fish or foul? You look like fish to me. If I were the fisherman, you’d all be in my basket. But does the God who looks at the heart see what I see? We’ll spend this summer seeking a more intimate relationship with our Father. But first, as we saw last week, we must want that relationship. Now, as we see this week, we must do whatever it takes to have it.
What is keeping you from passionate intimacy with God? Don’t judge your faith by appearances and religion. Ask yourself these questions: when last did Bible study or prayer change something you did? When last did you leave worship so different that anyone else would notice? When last did you pay a sacrificial price to serve Jesus? When last did you refuse a temptation because you didn’t want to hurt him, or did something simply because you knew it would please him? When last did you spend a few minutes listening to God? When last did you tell Jesus that you love him?
Every day can be an encounter with the living God, or a day wasted for eternity. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was right: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush aflame with God. But only those who see take off their shoes. The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.”
Which will you do today?