The One About the Net (A Sermon on the Parable of the Dragnet in Matthew 13:47-50)

This morning we are going to start with some journal writing instead of singing. We are jumping into a pretty tough parable to digest here and so to set us in the proper mindset I want us to center around this idea:

It is so easy to talk about where someone else is going after they die. It’s much more difficult to ask ‘where are all the places that hell is invading my life now?’

When it was originally decided that I was going to do this parable I was a little bit worried. I was worried because generally my theology has brought me to a place where I haven’t been comfortable with some of the terminology and hidden meaning behind many of the words that we us Christians use. Like for instance the word “judgment” we have a lot of baggage with that word. When we say judgment we tend to mean this thing that God does at the end of time when he sends all the sinners to hell, the righteous to heaven with him. You know separating the sheep from the goats, or the righteous from the wicked. It’s not as if that type of language doesn’t exist in the Bible, because it does. I just don’t think it means what we think it means at times. We mean when God looks at all our works and judges them one by one revealing them for what they are actually worth. It’s when God finally judges our hearts and reveals who we really are. Essentially we have equated the idea of judgment with the idea of condemnation. Judgment is automatically considered a bad thing and either it doesn’t happen to Christians at all or Jesus death somehow covers our sins when the judgment actually happens. Or finally, judgment means end times when Jesus finally comes back the second time and puts the sinners where they belong and we all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and our works are judged by the real intent behind them.

So naturally this is an event that we are all trying to avoid. We preach the gospel with the fine print that if you are saved that you will not be judged or at least if you are saved then the judgment goes on Jesus and not you. What ends up happening is salvation becomes reduced to something we do to escape the upcoming judgment as opposed to what it really is. We as Christians have reduced salvation to either going to hell or not. That is so far from the gospel and the biblical picture that it scares me to use words that point to that. This parable when read a certain way will certainly paint that picture for us. With all that said though, we have to face into this head first. So I bring this parable to the table with a warning. We need to bring in God’s all encompassing, redemptive work into a little story like this to help grasp what is really going on.

I’ve replaced a few of the English words with greek ones, which I will explain the meaning of the words then.

Matthew 13:47-50
“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net (sagene) that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the kala in baskets, but threw the sapra away. This is how it will be at the end of the age (synteleia). The angels will come and separate the sapra from the kala and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So this passage at first glance is overwhelmingly negative. It is one of the many passages used to propagate fear and hell into the gospel and scare people into following Jesus. So we need to at least start to understand and grasp what is going on here.

To begin, we need to remember that in parables like these, individual items are not the object or what the kingdom looks like. So in this story, the kingdom is not the net, nor the fish, nor the person fishing. The kingdom is the process of what is described. So let’s first look at the process in the first two verses and then we will dive a little bit into the interpretation of what was just said in the second two verses.

The net here is a sagene, or a dragnet. The word sagene only shows up once in the entire New Testament even though there are other references to nets elsewhere, they use different words. So this is the type of net that gets dragged through the water and picks up EVERYTHING in its path. So when you throw this net overboard you get everything from seaweed, fish, boots and tires. This is the idea that the kingdom touched everything in the world, not just humans or the fish that they are after. If we read the NIV version, and most other translations, it is fascinating to note that the word ‘fish’ never actually shows up in the text. I actually removed it from the reading we did, because it doesn’t actually exist there. It is implied there so the translators put it in. However, with this idea of the net that Matthew writes about and then his absence the fish, could we not make something of this absence? The phrase just says “of every kind.” And if we are talking about a dragnet here, we could be meaning seaweed, boots, and chocolate bar wrappers, big fish, small fish and tires. While this isn’t a major point about the parable I do think it is important to stay on for a moment. It is one thing for the Kingdom to encapsulate humans, and it’s quite another for the kingdom to include all things. It lines much more up with Revelation and the New Jerusalem when everything is reconciled, everything is beautiful and everything is included. Robert Capon puts it this way.

“Not only is the whole human race gathered into the kingdom; the entire physical order of the world is also drawn into it by the mystery of the World”
-Robert Capon

All right, so we remember when we talked about the parable of the Leaven, the emphasis of that parable was on the presence of the kingdom in the entire world. Once you put yeast into the leaven, it is untraceable. You can’t remove it and it is in every single part. It is dissolved completely into the bread with no hope of ever separating it again. This parable however changes it up a little bit and flips it around. This parable points that the presence of all parts of the world are going to be caught up unto the kingdom.

We haven’t gotten to the judgment part just yet. Let’s remember that before the net is tossed over and pulled back up there hasn’t even been a hint of judging between good and bad. The net is thrown over and it just grabs everything in its path, completely unbiased to what is useless or useful, profitable or unprofitable. I want to stop here for a second and reiterate something that we’ve been talking about for a long time with these parables. This is where our story is and exists in. We are caught up in the net along with what is good and what is bad and some rusty old boots.

This is where we are today. I don’t know about you but I see too often that other fish inside the net are trying to do some pre-sorting before we even get pulled up onto the boat. The net itself also doesn’t do any sorting whatsoever, it just gathers up everything within its reach. This is the same message as we saw in the Wheat and the Weeds that Joe talked about when the master said to not pull up the weeds. That will be done at harvest time. In other words, we can’t tell what the difference between the wheat and the weeds are now and we’ll wreck everything if we start putting our fingers where they don’t belong. The message is the same for the first half of this parable. We get caught up in the same net as everyone else, and it’s not our job to sort out everything before being brought up onto the boat, that gets done later. So let’s focus on being fish.

This is why the church cannot act like sport fishermen aiming for big salmon with a rod. We should not get into the habit of rejecting some of the so-called junk that gets caught up into net because it’s never been our job to decide or sort anyway. It’s always been our job to allow ourselves to get caught in the net. The church has a role to play here and now. We do not have a role to play in the sorting process. So if we need a role model for the way it should be done, then we should imitate the kingdom’s non-judgmental way of doing business. We should certainly not attempt to do the kind of sorting here and now in the world, the kind of sorting that the kingdom refuses to do until the next.

All right, let’s jump into the Greek words a bit here that I replaced. Translators translate kala as the word good and sapra as bad. Those aren’t necessarily bad translations but when we think of these words we quickly think about morals and not what they actually mean. For instance, the word kala has overtones of being beautiful or fair. It is the same word used when Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. He isn’t saying he is an ethical shepherd, he is saying he is an admirable and beneficial one. The word sapra is basically the opposite. It gives meaning of the idea of ugliness or uselessness. Either way though what I’m trying to point out here is that the fish or whatever is selected from the net does not depend on the innate goodness or badness of themselves, but rather their acceptability to the fishermen. Whatever serves the fisherman’s purpose is kept and whatever doesn’t is tossed out. It isn’t the fish who set the standard for the day of judgment, but it is the fishermen.

Discussion:
f the standard is set by the fisherman, what is that standard? How do we meet it? What is our part?

(Assuming the discussion goes in this direction at least a little bit) So let’s get this straight. No one is being tossed aside because they had a bad track record here on earth, just as no one is being selected because they had a good one. If we are all in agreement that it isn’t our own works that make us kala to God then we can move on. The only thing we are judged by is what Jesus did for us on the cross. Jesus pronounced kala over the entire world with his death and it is that standard that we are judged by and not anything else. And if the fisherman announces this kala over every single sinner in the world, how much more should the church be stepping up to pronounce the same sort of kala over the sinners that it comes in contact with.

“For if the church is to act as if it dare not have any dealings with sinners is as much betrayal of its mission as it would be for a hospital to turn away sick people or for a carpenter to refuse to touch rough-cut wood.”
– Robert Capon

It is our job not to announce judgment but to announce that forgiveness has already been granted and tell people that they are already kala in God’s eyes. They don’t have to do anything to earn it, it is already done. All right, I’m making this parable sound too nice. I’m just trying to batter it into our heads that while judgment exists all throughout the Bible and in our faith, it is not our job to participate in the process. If that is true, hopefully you can understand my hesitancy to get into the details of it. Let’s leave that to God and let’s also remember that any judgment that does happen, it is done through and because of the reconciling love of Jesus. Ok, now, from that note…let’s move on.

Let’s make no mistake about it; this parable is a judgment parable. This parable is split up into two parts. The first part we have Jesus telling the story and then the second part he explains what he is talking about. In this part we got angels replacing the fishermen and getting the willful sinners out of the midst of the righteous.

Another Greek word to point out here which is synteleia, it stands not just for the end but for an arrival at something that has been in works all along. Telos which is the root word means end, goal, purpose. So Jesus is saying at the end, when this purpose has been brought to completion, is when the kala from the sapra will be sorted. Now what blows my mind about this, is that Jesus goes from these parables and eventually dies on the cross. When he’s hanging there, what are the words he speaks? “It has been accomplished,” or since I’m using the Greek here. It has been TETELESTAI, which is the same Greek word that Jesus uses to denote when this judgment happens. Like tetelestai, “it has been finished” is the same word used when Jesus spoke his last words on the cross. So this means, that from Jesus’ point of view, that the final fruition of Jesus work, the end goal and purpose of what God is up to and the judgment that was to come happened with Jesus’ death on the cross.

This is a major bomb to drop; it was a major bomb for me to read and try to comprehend. This means (that at least in this parable) we aren’t talking about some future date when God is eventually going to sort out evil from good and give us are rightful places on a throne somewhere in heaven. This isn’t talking about after a so-called rapture and it isn’t talking about when we face God after we die. What this means is that what was supposed to happen has already been done. It has been completed. We are there. The judgment that we thought we were awaiting is done on the cross already. Sometimes I think we as Christians have this far out idea of what the Bible is saying about everything. We have a very neat and orderly view of how everything is going to happen. We live and then we die. We find ourselves standing before a big gate and a guy comes to the top and checks some book and depending on which God we decided to follow in the time that we are alive will depend if we are allowed to walk in the gate and be eternally happy for the rest of our lives or if the floor is going to drop out from under us and we will spend eternity in hell for our stupid decision. If we are honest with ourselves, I think that is a pretty good picture of what we think it will be like when we die.

But what happens when the judgment has already been put on Jesus on the cross? What happens when we stand before God and Jesus’s death and resurrection covers all of our blunders and bad decisions? Robert Capon plays a fun little question an answer in his chapter about this parable.

Question: How did those righteous ones get to be righteous?
Answer: By the free gift of Jesus’ righteousness.
Question: To whom was that free gift offered?
Answer: To every human being who ever lived
Question: Do you actually mean that there’s nobody at the Last Judgment who hasn’t been given the righteousness of Christ?
Answer: Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.
Question: Then how come some of them are judged?
Answer: Because even though they’ve got his righteousness, they’ve decided that they don’t like it, they can’t stand the thought of not being accepted on their very own personal merit.

We’ll be doing more on this idea when we get to the parable of the wedding feast and the king kicking out the guy who wasn’t in wedding clothes in Matthew 22:1-14. If I ever needed an explanation handed to me of a parable, it was that one.

As in this parable though, we are reminded that we are not judged on our works of all the good or bad we have done. We are not judged in the right or wrong decisions we have made. We are judged solely on Jesus’ work on the cross. The only way to be separated from the party is to accept the free pass and walk on by. For all those that really want to ruin the party and stay outside and refuse to bask in the acceptance of the father (cough cough older son) can just stay outside, and for them it will be hell. There is no room for those who refuse to accept God’s acceptance of all. There is no room for those who try to get accepted on their own merit.

At first glance, it is the opposite of the parables that we studied last month, which were party parables. However, I don’t think thought that this parable is much different, it’s just focusing on a different perspective of what is actually happening. In fact this parable ends very similarly to the parable of the two sons and their compassionate father. The end of the parable ends with the father parading around in his ridiculous idea of acceptance and takes his son back, why? Because he came back. The one who is left out, the one who is separated from the good is the older brother. The older brother was the good one, the one who obeyed the rules and the one who worked for the father tirelessly day in and day out. When it comes down to the end though, he just couldn’t accept the free-for-all type acceptance that the father was offering. He wanted nothing to do with it. He wanted to know that all the hard work he put in either was noticed or at least for him to get rewarded. But this younger son, he should be accepted. The older son was kept out not by his father’s wishes, but despite his begging. The older son could not handle grace. He wanted nothing to do with it. Through all the parables that we are reading, this is the only way that you are kicked out of the party. This is the only way that you aren’t allowed in. It is when you refuse to accept God’s acceptance of everyone, even people who you think are less than you. If you want God to accept you based on your own merit, well then there is no room for you.

The willful sinners that Jesus is talking about at the end of this parable are those that willfully snub their nose at the free gift that was given to them. Everyone else is in. You have to opt-out of this plan, this isn’t an opt-in plan. And even if you opt-out, it seems like the father will still run out to you and beg you to come in to the party.

Discussion:
How do you feel about this? Does it fly in the face of previously held beliefs? Is it easier or harder to believe? What is nice about the switch between opting in and opting out? What is scary about it?

The last part of this parable needs a few moments just to explain the language. If you want to ever do a Bible study on hell and judgment, let me know. However, the idea of weeping and gnashing of teeth comes from the imagery of dogs at a garbage dump. In some instances of Jesus using the phrase that we interpret hell is actually a specific place called Gehenna. Gehenna was outside of Jerusalem and was a place that pagans used to sacrifice children to Molech, and eventually it became a garbage dump. During Jesus’ days fire was said to have burned their continuously (hence language like “fires that are never quenched”). Vicious dogs would reportedly lurk about the fires, waiting for scraps of food or bone to be tossed toward the flames. When the dogs would fight over the scraps, their teeth clashed together, making what was no doubt a very unpleasant, frightening sound. Thus, this hot, stinky garbage dump had a reputation as a place where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I am not saying this is exactly what Jesus was referring to but this would have been the images and thoughts that would have been going through his listener’s minds as they heard language like this.

Let’s make no mistake, Jesus uses strong language here to highlight what this kind of life is like. A life that refuses to come into the party is a life that is hell. It is a life that continually tries to earn purpose and pleasure through whatever means they can. Judgment is a central part of Jesus’ message. Without judgment there is no need for salvation and life is cheapened. However, like we have already discussed, the beautiful part about judgment is that we are not judged by our own works (because we would fail miserably) but we are judged based on what Jesus has already done. This means that God sees us as beautiful, accepted and righteous and all we have to do is accept that. This is the good news of the gospel. The battle has already been won. The Saviour has already died and rose again and we are cleared free by the blood of Jesus. Let us not fall into the trap of creating anymore loop holes that need to be jumped through in order for this salvation to be realized. Anyone of us that cannot accept the fact that Jesus has died for all and his forgiveness is for everyone, can stay out in the cold with the older brother because in this kingdom the door is wide open and we are having a party. The kingdom of God and hell are realities today that we have to face every morning that we wake up. We could focus on eschatology and guess how it will all play out. Or we could work alongside of the kingdom of God to grab as many people up into the dragnet as possible and like parable suggests, let God do any sorting that needs to be done. Let’s pray.

God thank-you for sending your son to take our place
We know we are sinful and aren’t able to stand up to your standards
We accept your grace
Help us learn to live in it
Help us not hoard it

Thank-you for loving us because of who we are and not what we do
We know we can’t really live the lives we were meant to
We receive your grace
Teach us to live in it
Teach us to share it

Thank-you for the strength to do what is right
We know we wouldn’t without it
We receive your strength
Remind us that it is yours
Remind us that it’s for others

Thank-you for your inclusive good news
We know that all have been offered acceptance
We receive your acceptance
Remind us why
Remind us that its for all

4 Comments

  • Loved it Nate, especially your work on hell.
    The older brother is a message that needs to be preached over and over and over in the NA church, and you’ve inspired me to carry the torch as well.
    My next sermon will somehow relate to the older brother.

    I have to admit, in the beginning I was a little nervous about the direction you were heading, but you flipped the script at the appropriate time and it all came together.

  • Really nice work Nate.

    When did Steve get a website….

  • Fantastic! I was looking around trying to figure out what this parable was about for a Awana meeting where it will be my turn to tell the kids the story. There was alot more going on in this parable than I realized. I learned alot!

  • Nathan,
    I’ve been a Lutheran pastor for over 50 years. Beautiful job of mixing biblical study and gospel. I share your theology but not your scholarship. Thanks!
    Phil Fogarty

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