In a bad world steadily going worse one always wonders whether there ever will be an end to the bloodshed, the violence, the crime, and the corruption, and whether the wicked will ever be punished or go free as they often seem to do in the world. Well, there will be an end, and there will be a reckoning, and Jesus speaks about this in another parable he told about the end days.
To be found only in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:47-50).
A net by any name
There are several different words for fishing nets, but the word used here in the original Greek translates as a seine. This is a net that hangs vertically in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. Typically, it is stretched between two boats, or have one end anchored to a boat with the other end secured on shore. Everything in the path would be caught. This principle is used by police to apprehend criminals and is commonly known as a dragnet.
There are nearly 24 species of fish in the Sea of Galilee. Fishermen would haul their catch onto shore where the bad fish would be separated from the good. “Bad” fish wasn’t fish that had spoiled, it was fish without scales or fins, which were considered unclean by Jews and not eaten according to Mosaic law. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams—such you may eat. But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and among all the other living creatures that are in the waters—they are detestable to you and detestable they shall remain (Leviticus 11:9-10). This automatically disqualified prawns, crabs and lobsters from the Jewish menu!
Before we get to dissecting the parable, I would like to introduce you to a teaching method used by the Jews. It was called the ‘Mashal and Nimshal method’. It is a relevant digression, especially because Jesus used it in his teachings.
Mashal and Nimshal
When a rabbi wanted to teach a lesson, he would make up a fictional story, crafted in a manner as to disguise its intent but simultaneously designed to intrigue. This was the mashal. For a wonderful example, consider the story Nathan told David. After the king had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him” (2 Samuel 12:1-4).
The story was so well crafted, it was guaranteed to elicit an emotional response from the listener. At the same time it was so opaque that although the sin of the rich man was evident, David couldn’t determine the point the storyteller was trying to make, which was point out David’s sin.
Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” (2 Samuel 12:5-6).
And now it was time for the nimshal, which is an explanation of the mashal.
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! (2 Samuel 12:7a).
And, voila, understanding dawned!
We sometimes forget that Jesus was Jewish. And as a rabbi he used this method in the stories that he told, although he would very rarely provide the nimshal. This was a deliberate omission because he wanted the listener—the interested listener—to think deeply about the mashal. In the process the listener would gain several insights into the subject because in the absence of a clear-cut explanation the mind travels in many directions. When the nimshal is provided, a lot of the work is already done for the listener.
Jesus provides the nimshal—the explanation—in this story. He doesn’t do so in the other parable we look at in this issue (see The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree) and you might want to contrast the two, especially in the conclusions each arrives at. However, there is still plenty to discover, so let us get to it.
Fish and nets
Jesus tells seven parables one after another in Matthew 13, but this one is different from the others in that while they speak about the present kingdom, this one speaks about the future kingdom—what follows after Judgment Day. The only exception is the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds (see Cornerstone #10), which also uses judgment language, and although there are other similarities between the two they have significant differences.
The imagery of nets and fish have been used many times in Scripture. Habakkuk wrote: You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. The enemy brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults. Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his seine; for by them his portion is lavish, and his food is rich. Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy? (Habakkuk 1:14-17). The enemy is Babylon.
Ezekiel wrote: Thus says the Lord God: In an assembly of many peoples I will throw my net over you; and I will haul you up in my dragnet (Ezekiel 32:3). The “you” here is Pharaoh whom God will haul with his seine!
Other Jewish writers also use similar imagery to represent hardship, captivity, and judgment. So when Jesus was narrating this mashal, his Jewish hearers would have been mentally preparing themselves for a tough ending. And Jesus delivers it by saying that the angels would come and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into hell! There is no mention about what will happen to the righteous.
Also do note the sudden shift in narrative. While the mashal speaks about fish, there is no mention of fish in the nimshal; we are suddenly talking about people. In the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, Jesus sticks to metaphor. He also ends by describing what happens to the ‘wheat’, the ‘righteous’ he speaks about in this parable. “At harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ” (Matthew 13:30).
The parable understood
The parable begins thus: Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad (Matthew 13:47-48; emphasis added).
Interpreters have suggested that the sea is a metaphor for the nations, the catching of fish prefigures Christian evangelism, the fishermen are the missionaries that are to come, and the net is the good news that they will proclaim. But this is taking the story into the stratosphere. We need to remember that Jesus is speaking primarily to a Jewish audience, and although his words will benefit us too, they are mainly targeted towards them. This makes the task of interpreting the Scripture easier.
We have already taken a look at the ‘net’. What is the ‘sea’? This is the world. What are ‘fish of every kind’? These are people from every nation.
Now we come to the million-dollar question: which are the ‘bad fish’ that get thrown into hell? Again, let us bear in mind that Jesus is speaking to the Jews, many of whom believe they have a ticket that puts them in the First Class coach going to heaven where they will be greeted as heroes by Abraham and Co. whose descendants they claim to be. This was typically the scribes and Pharisees, who looked down upon everybody else, especially the tax collectors (they were considered extortionists and traitors because although they were Jews, they served the Romans) and “sinners” whom they believed were headed straight to hell. (Don’t we too, often imagine the same?) Listen to what Jesus told them: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).
Why? Where is the logic in that? Jesus continues: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:32).
A story, often repeated by this author, might help us to understand. You will find it in Mark 10, Luke 18 and Matthew 19. A rich young man once goes to Jesus asking him how he could gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. Rather self-righteously the young man says that he keeps them all; what else does he need to do? Jesus replies that if he wants to be perfect, he should sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and then come follow him. The young man leaves in a big hurry because he couldn’t bear the thought of being parted from his money! Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23).
The bad fish
What was wrong here? I believe the young man was genuinely trying to be good, because he thought that this was his ticket into heaven. But he didn’t realize that faith was more than obeying rules and regulations; more than a series of do’s and don’ts; more than a concern with keeping God’s law as an end in itself. It was about being in a relationship with God and understanding his great love. Despite his claim to keeping all the commandments, he didn’t realize he was breaking the first one to put God above everything else. He wasn’t. On the contrary God was far from being first. The moment he had to choose between God and money, he revealed his heart. How different are we? A concern with keeping God’s law as an end in itself is legalism, and it is something many of us are guilty of. However, this is only one aspect of legalism.
Another aspect of legalism is putting on an external show for the benefit of others, rather than ensuring the internal condition of the heart is right. Jesus constantly tried to bring this to the leaders’ attention. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” he scolded on one occasion. “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28). Their goodness was external, like cups clean on the outside but dirty inside. “First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean,” Jesus said (Matthew 23:26).
A third form of legalism consists of adding our own set of rules to God’s rules and insisting that everybody else follows them. The Pharisees had thousands of such rules, which they forced down the throats of others without showing them how they could do so, leading Jesus to rebuke them again. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). We also are guilty of the same, often telling people to do things that can’t be validated either in Scripture or the teachings of the Church, placing loads on their backs that they simply cannot carry. This is what prompted Jesus to say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
These things that one imagines earns ones way into heaven don’t make one good enough to get into heaven. After the rich young man left, Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10: 24).
“Then who can be saved?” they wanted to know. Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:26-27).
So who are the good fish?
There is a clue in the parable itself, when Jesus says: The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous (Matthew 13:49).
Jesus doesn’t use the word ‘good’ when describing the sorting on Judgment Day; he uses the word ‘righteous’. So who are the ‘righteous’, then? Nobody can answer this question better than Paul, who was the “perfect” Pharisee before he encountered Christ and did what the rich young man couldn’t do. This is what he says: Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith (Philippians 3:7-9).
We obtain our righteousness from God based on faith, and then continue to lead a righteous life by faith. Habakkuk says the righteous live by their faith (Habakkuk 2:4), a statement that is quoted three times in the New Testament in different contexts (see Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38). The Catechism also speaks about it. Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith “man freely commits his entire self to God.”For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God’s will. “The righteous shall live by faith.” Living faith “work(s) through charity.” (CCC1814).
Those who live a righteous life by faith are the ‘good fish’.
What's the lesson for us?
Many of us today make the same mistake the Pharisees made: believing that doing right makes us right. We believe that if we clean up our actions, our hearts will become clean too. But it’s the opposite that holds true. If our hearts are clean, our actions will become clean too. As Jesus said, “First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matthew 23:26).
So let us focus on the internal state of our heart, making that right with God, and forget about the externals which only serve to make us legalistic people without any joy, love, or passion in our lives.