“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 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. 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” (Matt.13:47–50).1
If Jesus were to preach the sermon in your church this Sabbath, what do you think His opening words would be?2 Would He begin by saying, “My purpose this morning is to investigate the nature of the kingdom of God with particular reference to its Greco-Roman background and utilization of Jewish tradition in its explication of eschatological expectation. To achieve this end I will be using the historical-grammatical method?” If He did, then those of us who have degrees in theology might feel more at home than we do when confronted by the subversive simplicity of His parables. There’s something rather less intimidating about a complex doctrinal presentation than seeing ourselves in a transparent parable.
“Now the kingdom of God is like . . .” Like what, exactly? Well, like all kinds of things. Take Matthew 13, for example. Here Jesus tells seven parables that explore different aspects of that kingdom. First, Jesus illustrates how the kingdom is given (the sower who went forth to sow); how it operates (the wheat and weeds growing together; the tiny mustard seed that grows into a large plant; yeast being kneaded in a batch of dough); how it is acquired (the treasure hidden in the field; the merchant who discovers a fabulous pearl); then finally, how it will be consummated at the end of the age (the fishermen pulling in their net to the shore). So, seven parables illustrating how the kingdom is given, operates, is acquired, and will be consummated.
A few years ago I preached a series on these seven parables of the kingdom. My sermons on the fi rst six went reasonably well—or so I thought. But my sermon on the seventh parable, the parable of the fi shing net, on how the kingdom will be consummated “at the end of the age,” seemed anticlimactic. Of all the parables in this chapter, this is the least familiar to most people. Odd, really, because this comes as the seventh of the seven parables—the climax of what Jesus had to say. Yet it seems like an anticlimax coming after the others. All the other parables end on a positive note. But the parable of the fishing net concludes with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Why such an apparent anticlimax to such an upbeat sequence of parables? It is worthwhile revisiting this parable.
Kinds of net
In Jesus’ time, fishermen used two kinds of net to do two quite different kinds of fishing. The first kind of net, a casting-net (amphiblestron or diktuon), was relatively small, roughly circular in shape, with leaded weights around its edge. When a fisherman saw a shoal of fish in shallow water, he would grasp the net in the center and throw it over the surface of the water so that the net unfurled to its greatest extent. Then it would sink rapidly, drawn down by the lead weights, covering the fish. When the net was pulled up, the lead weights would draw together at the bottom, trapping the fish within. But this does not illustrate the picture Jesus has in mind.
The second kind of net, and the one specifically referred to by Jesus, was the dragnet (sagene). This was pulled behind a boat or spread between two boats so that it formed a cone shape and was then hauled to shore, ideally capturing a shoal of fish within. And this particular form of fishing, says Jesus, compares to the kingdom of God.
So what exactly does the image of fishermen using a dragnet tell us about the kingdom of God at the end of the age? Well, first of all, remember that Jesus referred specifically to a dragnet, not to a casting-net. A casting-net is targeted fishing, but a dragnet is used quite differently. It gathers up everything in its path. It does not discriminate. All kinds of fish, the good, the bad, and the ugly, find their way into the dragnet. The Sea of Galilee, for example, has up to 36 species of fish, any one of which can end up in a dragnet.
But the dragnet is even more indiscriminate than this. It does not just catch fish. It catches anything and everything, fish or not, that is swept into it. And this is where our Bible versions might mislead us. Versions normally say that the net “ ‘caught all kinds of fish’ ” and that the fishermen “ ‘collected the good fish in baskets’ ” (Matt. 13:47, 48; emphasis added). Such a translation is partially misleading because the original Greek text does not mention fish at all, anywhere in the parable. It simply says that they caught all sorts. Now of course, a dragnet obviously catches fish, but more than just fish. In the last two or three years, fishermen off the coast of Great Britain have hauled in all kinds of things in their dragnets, such as a World War II torpedo warhead with 100 kilos of high explosive. And 200 kilos of cannabis worth €1.4 million. And perhaps most remarkable of all, a married couple who decided to spend the day scuba diving off the south coast of England instead found themselves being hauled up on deck in a dragnet. Yes, fishermen land more than fish when they draw in their dragnets. So Jesus is saying, I think, “They caught all kinds of stuff.” And this, says Jesus, is just like the kingdom of heaven.
Anyone who has read the Gospel of Matthew should not be surprised by this. Right at the beginning of His ministry, Jesus said, “ ‘I will make you fishers of men’ ” (Matt. 4:19). And now, Matthew says, as Jesus tells this parable of the fishing net, crowds surround Him. As Jesus casts His eye over that crowd, He would have seen all kinds of folk. Matthew already told us the variety of people Jesus attracts. So there are likely to be Pharisees and Sadducees (3:7); paralytics (4:24); people from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond Jordan (4:25); Roman centurions (8:5); scribes (teachers of the Torah) (8:19); rulers of synagogues (9:18); ostracized women (9:20); blind men (9:27). Plus those whose interest in the kingdom is a passing fad. Others who will soon be sneering at it when their friends make fun of them. Some who will be too busy getting on in life and earning a living to make any commitment. And those who will commit their lives to the kingdom, day in, day out, for the rest of their lives. There would be Matthew the tax collector and Roman sympathizer, standing next to Simon the Zealot, anti-Roman terrorist. Jesus would also see Judas who would betray Him; Peter who would deny Him. All kinds of stuff!
All kinds of stuff
Makes you think, doesn’t it? Well, it made me think. First of all, it made me think about my ministry as a teacher of the gospel, preparing students for their ministries. What kinds of students should we expect to find in our colleges and seminaries? In my classes I have black and white, young and middle aged, intellectually brilliant and academically challenged. Ghanaian, Albanian, Swedish, Spanish, Zimbabwean, British, Korean, and others. Fundamentalists, conservatives, traditionalists, moderates, liberals, and undecided. Some students who will never ask a question. Some students who never stop asking questions. And some students I wish would not want to ask questions! “All kinds of stuff.”
And what about us, ministers of the gospel, called to teach and preach the Word? Are there any differences among us? Any differences of opinion on what the mission of the church actually is? Differences of opinion on doctrines like revelation and inspiration? Differences of opinion on how to deal with differences of opinion? We are all slowly being pulled to the shore. All kinds of stuff.
Perhaps it is worth clarifying one point. While some scholars read this parable as describing general diversity in the world, most read it as illustrating the diversity within the kingdom. I would agree with this majority. Ellen White strengthens my hand by making the same point.3 The act of fishing with a dragnet is likened to the kingdom. The diversity within the world produces diversity within the kingdom. As in the world, so particularly within the kingdom, there are all kinds of stuff.
And there are all kinds of stuff in the kingdom because the kingdom remains indiscriminate. That is how Matthew brackets this collection of Christ’s parables. In the first parable, that of the Sower, the sower sows the seed randomly, in an untargeted way. The sower is completely indiscriminate. He just scatters seed around, all over the place. He makes no distinction between footpaths, rocky soil, thorns, or fertile earth. The seed falls on all kinds of soil. And now, in the last parable, the fishermen are using a dragnet. They trawl through the lake and catch, indiscriminately, all kinds of stuff. That’s what the kingdom is like. Like a sower scattering seed everywhere; or a dragnet capturing everything.
Dealing with diversity
But what do we do about that diversity? About all that stuff in the kingdom net? Well, that is where another of Christ’s seven parables of the kingdom helps us. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, just a few verses before, there is a similar issue. Not everything growing in a field is wheat; not everything caught in a dragnet is an edible fish. The farm workers, on discovering the act of agricultural sabotage out in the field, want to rip out the weeds. The farmer says, “No, if you do that you’ll do more harm than good. No, we’ll separate them at the harvest.” And that harvest, says Jesus, occurs “ ‘at the end of the age’ ” (13:40). In other words, be patient. The harvest has not arrived yet. And even when it does, judging between one and the other is not your business but God’s. Just like the parable of the fi shing net, sorting the catch is done “ ‘at the end of the age’ ” (13:49). And even then, the sorting stays as God’s business. “ ‘The angels will come and separate the evil from the righteous’ ” (13:49; emphasis added). So, in the meantime, what do we do? Keep on fishing. With a dragnet.
For the parable of the fishing net teaches that the consummation of the kingdom at the end of time, when the final judgment takes place, will reveal how indiscriminate the kingdom has been up to the end.
And, we might well ask, is that it? A parable simply to tell us that there will be all kinds of stuff in the kingdom? No wonder the parable of the net is not that well known. But I do not think Jesus wasted His time telling parables of no consequence. In fact, He wanted to make sure His audience understood them. “ ‘Have you understood all these things?’ ” (13:51), He asked them.
This parable, on the one hand, speaks to those who do not want diversity. To those who believe, God is glorified by our marching in step to the gates of the kingdom, never deviating to the left or right. To those for whom entry into the kingdom, and remaining in it, rests on adherence to ever more detailed definitions of truth and the ecclesiastical infrastructure to enforce it. “No,” says Jesus, “the kingdom contains all kinds of stuff.”
This same parable, on the other hand, also speaks to those who are simply satisfied with diversity. To those who believe God receives glory in the sheer variety of faith and practice. That to expect any conformity in faith or practice betrays a lack of spirituality. To those who believe that the more inclusive we are, the better. “No,” says Jesus, “there will be a judgment at the end of the age. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. It actually does matter what you believe and do.”
I will try to remember this parable in my ministry of teaching theology. I have students who love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, and minds. They will live lives as persuasive witnesses for the gospel, as diligent ambassadors for the kingdom of God. Also, there are those on the brink of making that decision—or turning away. And a few, perhaps, if my 30 years of lecturing are anything to go by, who, in the future, will be hosting vitriolic Web sites attacking my church, Christianity in general, or promoting atheist propaganda. I will consider all of our differences and theirs. I will look at my class with all of its diversity, all of its potential for glory and heartache, and all of its differences of theological opinion, spiritual maturity, and varieties of commitment. All kinds of stuff. I will remind myself that God is the Judge, at the end of the age. And I will say to myself, “This is the kingdom of heaven!”
1 All Scripture passages in this article, unless otherwise stated, are from the New International Version.
2 This article is an adaptation of a sermon delivered at the European Theology Teachers Convention, Adventist Theological Institute, Cernica, Romania, April 27–May 1, 2011.
3 “The casting of the net is the preaching of the gospel. This gathers both good and evil into the church” (Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons [Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1900], 122.)