Matthew 13 47-50: THE PARABLE OF THE NET

Introduction. Read Matthew13:47-50

I realise that a parable is a means of teaching graphically one or two important truths. However, I find this particular parable especially unsatisfying. The fishermen are surely as much part of the Kingdom of Heaven as the net. Secondly, to liken the church to a net full of good and bad fish does not do justice to the fact that wicked people can change into righteous ones. Thirdly, no information is given on how to discern between a righteous and a wicked person.

We have to consider a stark parable - one which is provocative, pointed and disturbing - a parable that I have rarely heard a sermon on.

Lastly, and this is no reflection on Jesus, I think the parable ought to be called: 'The Parable of the Fishermen.' I think it is the fishermen who teach us lessons about the Kingdom of God.

I realise it is foolish to question Jesus' wisdom - so I will try, with the Spirit's help, to identify the lessons that the Master intended.

(1) The Fishermen's object.

Fishermen are very single-minded. They are committed to catching fish. To this end they will fish where there are fish to be caught. Sadly there are stagnant ponds and polluted rivers where there are no fish.

When I was a boy there was a pond on the village green which was from time to time dug out. It was an important source of water for washing clothes. This pond was full of roach and carp which I and my friends revelled in catching. Since mains water came to the village the pond was neglected. Rotting leaves have de-oxygenated the pond and left it stagnant. No fish swim there now.

Galilee was a good place to fish. Fishermen who let down their net into the lake were sure of a catch.

Christian evangelists are committed, life and soul, to catching men and women for Christ's sake. Just as there are an amazing number of seas, lakes, reservoirs, rivers and ponds where fish exist so there are all sorts of places where men and women can be caught for Christ. Although the Buddhists of Myanmar have resisted the gospel the Karen tribal people responded to it in great numbers. Similarly in India, where Hindus are reluctant to convert, the people of the Naga tribe in the northern hills have accepted Jesus gladly.

But just as there are stagnant ponds and poisoned rivers where no fish can be caught there are parts of Britain which are little better than stagnant backwaters where it is almost impossible to catch anyone for Jesus. For the last 20 years I have circulated a newssheet around the Suffolk village my chapel is located in on three occasions annually. So far I have not received a single bite!

(2) The Fishermen's equipment.

The fishermen in the parable used a net to fish with. This net and its contents are called, the Kingdom of Heaven.

Christian activists work with the church to make converts and add to the number being saved. So let us examine the role of the net:

(a) It is designed to catch and contain fish. So the church works to make new Christians and to hold on to the ones it has. As someone has put it: the church makes converts across the street and around the world.

(b) It is let down into the lake. The net is committed to the unknown deep. So, the church produces and supports those who venture into the unknown with the gospel. In this way the Kingdom of Heaven has been extended to almost every nation upon earth.

(c) It is used in a variety of ways. There was no one way of using a net to catch fish. Small nets could be thrown by hand into a shoal of fish to engulf some of them. Long nets could be suspended between two boats and dragged through the water. Sometimes one end of a long net was tied to a post on shore. The other end was attached to a boat which dragged the net out to sea and then round in a circle catching many fish.

There are all sorts of ways of getting people into church. They may be attracted by:

  • Tradition. Historic buildings, the clergy's vestments, the ancient liturgy, the 17th century language may all be attractive to some.

  • Entertainment. Some people find various aspects of worship entertaining: a band, a fine choir, dancing in the aisle, dynamic preaching. There are also many church activities that may appeal to some: sports of various sorts, week end retreats, church holidays.

  • Socialising. The church puts on many activities that allow people to socialise and make friends: women's meetings, men's meetings, young wives and toddlers, youth groups.

There is no doubt that the strenuous and imaginative efforts to attract people to the Kingdom of Heaven results in both Christians and non-Christians being drawn into the church.

(d) It may be damaged. Then of course fish may be lost. There are all sorts of ways that the Kingdom is rent and people spill out. These include:

  • Persecution from without.

  • Internal strife.

  • Grave heresies.

  • Leadership battles.

  • Personality clashes.

One of the most important tasks of fishermen is to mend their nets. Probably more time is spent doing this than actually fishing. It is very important for the leaders of the church to combat the destructive tendencies listed above - to mend the nets.

(e) It needs to be manipulated carefully and skilfully. Fish will be lost if the net handler lacks expertise. The net is easily tangled. In such circumstances it will be ineffective.

The activists in the Kingdom who are heavily involved in fishing need to be much in prayer and supported much by the prayers of others. Prayer less churches are ineffective churches.

During the twenty years I served at a Christian camp for young people all the workers were engaged on a fishing expedition. Each day began with prayer and often ended with prayer. The churches the workers came from also prayed earnestly that the gospel net would not be cast in vain. I recall those days with gladness for the souls saved.

(f) It catches fish indiscriminately. A rod and line fisherman will often target a particular species of fish. He will catch trout in a different way to catching pike. However, when a net is cast into the sea there is no knowing what might be caught. There were as many as 24 different species of fish in Lake Galilee. A net might catch them all!

Some of the contents of the net when pulled to land might not be fish at all but stones, weed, shells or crustaceans. Some of the fish in the time of Christ might have been taboo - unclean for lack of scales, like the dogfish or barbel. A few of the fish landed would be so bony as to be inedible.

There is an important lesson for us here. The church is like the net in that some found in it are not believers at all. They may be caught up in church activities without being devoted to Jesus. However, there are genuine Christians of all sorts - representing all races, classes, backgrounds, ages, interests, aptitudes and gifts.

How wonderful! The net is designed to catch all sorts of fish with the exception of the very small, immature fry. I think this is true of the church - conversion to Christ can only really take place when a person reaches the age of discernment.

(g) It is ultimately a great success. The net in the parable was FULL of fish. So ulitmately there will be a huge number who claim to be citizen's of the Kingdom.

(3) The Fisherman's judgment.

When the net was pulled to land every fish it contained was carefully assessed. The fishermen sat around a heap of the contents and sorted the good from the bad. There were three things that were not wanted:

  • Unclean fish. The Jewish law laid down: Anything living in water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you. Lev11v9to11.

  • Trash fish. These were so bony as to be inedible.

  • Anything that wasn't a fish.

These items were all cast aside. They were not wanted. Only the good fish were kept.

So, Jesus teaches that all those who attend church and belong loosely to the Kingdom will finally be judged - not by fishermen but by angels. This seems strange to me! Jesus is recorded as saying in John's gospel: "I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. John5v25to30.

Paul tells Timothy: Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead. 2Tim4v1.

In the account of the Sheep and Goats it is true that angels accompany Jesus on his return to earth in glory but it is the Son of Man who does the judging.

We can be sure that whether it is Jesus. or Jesus helped by angels, the judgment will be true. There will be no bias or prejudice. So, who will not pass muster? we are just told that angels will separate the wicked from the righteous. However, we are not informed what makes a man wicked or righteous. There is no hint in this parable that a person is saved by grace and through faith - teaching I rejoiced in almost all my life.

Let us go back to the fish that would not pass muster. Perhaps they will help us to understand those that Jesus will ultimately reject.

  • The contents of the net that are not fish, could stand for all those who are found in church but want nothing to do with Jesus personally. They attend church: for the surroundings, for the music, to be with friends and family, to make contacts, to be respectable. They are not there to express their love for Jesus.

  • It is possible the fish that were taboo represent those who are legalistic, pharisaical, hypocritical, harsh, judgmental and uncharitable. It is pretty clear from the gospels that these people, although very religious, were enemies of Jesus.

  • Maybe the bony fish - all spiny bones and no succulent flesh - represent those who are all doctrine but display no love. Paul wrote: If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love I am nothing. 1Cor13v2.

I believe that all those whom the angels adjudge wicked will be the unredeemed and the irredeemable. They will be destroyed. Nothing survives in a fiery furnace. It is the ultimate incinerator. Men and women will weep and gnash their teeth in anticipation of their end - not as they suffer endlessly in the fiery furnace. Why some Christians refuse to accept that hell, or to be accurate, Gehenna, is the place Jerusalem's rubbish was destroyed, is beyond me. People who reject what Jesus has done for them will end up like so much rubbish - in the incinerator - to be utterly annihilated. See my article on the Afterlife.