“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 blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:47-50).
Once again we return to the parables of Jesus where he says, "the kingdom of heaven is like..." In these verses, this is now the third time Jesus begins "once again" linking the previous parables and the sixth time Jesus uses the phrase in Matthew 13. If we are to enter the Kingdom Life we need to understand these parables together, because Jesus is taking us somewhere and we need to understand how to live in relation to them. We'll do a future recap to considered these parables together. For now let's look at this parable of the net.
Matthew doesn't use this parable to describe the net itself but to describe the function of the net, being deployed, and the results of that function - gathering fish. There is however an old adage in kitchen design that says "form follows function." While the form of something is important the function should be primary. A beautiful car doesn't serve much good if it doesn't run, although some Duck Dynasty folk might use it as a lawn ornament. But since I was once a kitchen designer I appreciate good form as well, so what can we know about why Jesus might use such a form to describe his Kingdom. It was certainly familiar to his audience as a device essential to their diet.
To begin to unpack this parable, we can note that a net is utilitarian but is there anything about the form we should consider in relation to the Kingdom? In Jesus day, just as nets are still made today, a net is comprised of crisscrossing ropes, tied together at the overlaps. It is the tying together of the many parts that makes the whole functional. Without those binding points the net comes apart, the fish escape, and the function becomes an exercise in futility.
I am reminded of another parable told by my friend Marsha Miles who served as a Bible translator in Papua New Guinea. The women of the tribe she was working with would do the fishing in a river. They used hand held nets that would extend between their outstretched arms, submersed into a river for the catch. This was a team effort as the women would line up in a row along the river bank and proceed together across it in unity of effort and oneness of purpose. If one of the woman didn't have her net placed she left a hole for the fish to escape through.
Likewise, the Kingdom must be bound together, working together, for the uncommon but vital function of people fishing (Matthew 4:18-20). Only then is the "catch" maximized and the Kingdom best advance. If there are holes in the net, or one part of the net is not doing its job, people slip through and what a tragic thing that is. Today, nearly 2000 years after Jesus gave us this parable, 2 billion people still have not heard the Good News of Jesus - even once. Many slip through each day into a Christ-less eternity. The form of the net does matter for Kingdom impact and it is important to note that no piece of the net is more important than another. It is our task to be fishers together in unity of effort and oneness of purpose. The organization I serve with, the Mission America Coalition (U.S. Lausanne Committee), has as our ethos the saying "serving better together" for this exact reason.
Now with respect to function, let me suggest three ideas we can glean from Jesus' parable of the net:
First, the net "caught all kinds of fish." A fishing net is indiscriminate in what it catches. The net doesn't care what comes into it, rather the net captures everything in its path. Likewise, there can be no discrimination by People Fishers when it comes to any part of the spreading Kingdom. We have no right to decide who comes into the net, just as we cannot pick and choose who comes into the Kingdom. The Church throughout history has not always done a good job of being indiscriminate, from the start (see Acts 15) and to this day. While things are changing, the most segregated place on Sunday morning still remains the Church. We tend to like those who are like us but we are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28) and must fish for him with that in mind.
Second, note that the net will become full. The task of fishing will one day be completed. The task is finish-able when we function together and use the proper form to do the job. There are currently 7,162 unreached people groups (UPGs) in the world who must be gathered in with the Gospel net from every nation, tribe and tongue to one day be gathered around the throne of God, the number of which will be immeasurable (Revelation 7:9). It is not our job to be concerned with the number in the catch but rather that every part of the stream (world) is fished (Matthew 24:14, Acts 1:8). Where the Gospel has not yet gone, someone must go and fish there - that is the missionary task. However there is no reason that someone can't be you, at least to some extent, since many of these unreached "fish" are now swimming in our pond.
Third, it's not our job to judge the catch. According to Jesus, the task of deciding who the good fish are and who bad fish are belongs to angelic fish-mongers. The good fish will be kept but the bad fish will be discarded. We who fish have no part in deciding who is in and who is out when it comes to entering the Kingdom. We are simply to do the fishing. When understood, that should help eliminate the burden of judgmentalism that can and has often kept the Church from the fishing task. We are to cast our net wide and bring to shore the catch the Lord determines. We all must take our place on the net if we're to see the catch brought in sooner rather than later.
After finishing this parable Jesus asked his disciples, "Have you understood all these things?' 'Yes,' they replied." (Matthew 13:51). Following Jesus resurrection, during the 40 days leading up to Pentecost (which this year is Sunday, May 19th) Jesus taught extensively on the Kingdom (Acts 1:4). Following the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), from a handful of fishermen through the first three centuries the Kingdom grew exponentially to over 25 million. It seems that the early disciples did understand and then did something amazing with what they understood. Jesus asks the same question of us today. How will we answer?
One of my favorites Kingdom thinkers died last week, Dallas Williard. One of my favorite quotes from Dallas is this wake-up call to the Kingdom life:
“The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”May we live the Kingdom life into every part of the stream that remains unfished or inadequately fished.