A reflection on Matthew 13:47-50 for Sunday, September 12, 2021 at Mosaic Baptist Church
‘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 (NRSVA)
I wonder if there is good reason for the author of Matthew to situate this confronting parable immediately after two stories pointing to the value of the ‘kingdom of heaven’.
The sentiment Jesus offers here is not new. In the telling and explaining of the parable of the weeds and wheat there was already a clear indication of a time of reckoning. There we considered the possibility that that story pointed us in the direction of humility and a non-judgmental approach to the world. Neither we – nor the angels – can tell the weeds from wheat. That is impossible before the harvest.
Now we have a confirming parable with strong echoes of the harvest already attested to. Once again it is situated in the familiar. Fishing. A boat. Nets – and a catch. Fishermen sorting a catch was unlikely to be any more unusual that farmers scattering seed across their fields.
It seems that this separating of edible or sellable fish from anything else that was gathered in the angel’s nets is very deliberate. They wait for a catch. They bring their boat ashore. They sit and arrange the baskets. A conscious, deliberate, and careful sorting. The insistence that ‘every kind’ of fish is caught suggests an unimaginably – even provocatively – wide casting. Could this be a reference to the gospel for Jew and gentile? I suspect so.
The picture here is of good and evil being separated on a cosmic level.
We have an alarming tendency to read this as a sifting of the ‘good’ people from the bad. Worse, we read this as a separation of the Christians from the non-christians – as though claiming Jesus as ‘Lord’ was the same as being ‘good’ (see Matthew 7:21-27).
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provocatively wrote that ‘…the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” According to this, if there is to be a separation it cannot not made along the lines of religious affiliation, or any dividing line between those who are pure and those who are evil.
Life is more complicated that that.
I suspect this sifting is a making right of all things. An untangling of the web each of us is caught in by virtue of being both perpetrators and participants in the ego-centred – rather than God-centred – ways of this world. Each of us is wounded by ’evil‘. Each of us has also wounded with this same ‘evil’. Similarly, each has been blessed – and been a blessing – through the ‘good’ we have received and shown. None of us can easily be summed up as ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
The angels have a big task – one that is far beyond us – to make things right.
Perhaps it is this dividing of the heart that is alluded to by the ‘furnace of fire’. Certainly the word ’Hell’ is not used here and we do well to avoid inflicting its implications where neither Jesus nor Matthew use it.
As I alluded to at the beginning of this reflection, it may be that there is a stronger link between the two treasure parables situated immediately before this story. Could it be that the only one who is truly ready for this sifting is the one who has humbly and wisely ‘sold all’ for the kingdom?
Or could it be that the only way to be truly ready is to embrace the one who ‘sold all’ to find us – the treasure of heaven?
If so, that forgiveness and grace is truly a treasure found.
In what ways does this reading challenge that way you have been used to understanding this parable? How does this interpretation help? What further questions do you have about this parable?
The author quotes Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: ‘…the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” How do you respond to this statement? In what way might this allude to the pain of Matthew’s ‘fiery furnace’?