Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a net, and specifically a dragnet, which is different from a casting net, which was used by the fisherfolk Jesus called to be disciples. For a dragnet was about 2 meters in height and might be up to a hundred meters in length. It was fitted with floats along the top while weights were placed on the bottom so that when it goes into the water, it would spread out. This fishing method was rather effective but the meant that it could not be selective. Their catch was always a mixed one. So when the boat returned to shore, the net would be pulled out into land and all kinds of fish, big and small, would be enclosed in it.
The word ‘gather’, in ‘gathered fish of every kind,’ is exactly the same word used in another key parable - the parable of the sheep and goats - where the idea of separating the good from the bad is repeated. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another (Matthew 25:32). Note well however that, in Greek, ‘to gather (sunago)’ also means ‘to welcome.’ It is used in that sense in Matthew 25, where instead of the word ‘gather’ we have ‘welcome’ – for example ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed (sunago) Me … When was it that we welcomed (sunago) you?’ This means that the kingdom of God stretches out a welcoming hand to everybody. Again, it is not selective or exclusive in its invitation. Everybody without exception is invited to enter the kingdom of God. Just as a dragnet naturally gathers fish indiscriminately, so there is clearly an inclusiveness and universality in God’s invitation to the kingdom.
3) filled and drawn to shore
We are told that when the net was filled, it was drawn to shore. The fullness of the net here is echoed elsewhere in the New Testament - for example in Romans 11:25, where Paul speaks about how, when the fullness of the Gentiles has come in, the end of the age will take place. Or to use the words of our parable, we can say that the net is brought to the shore when it is full. In other words, when God’s purpose is complete, when the net is full, the meaning of all is revealed.
The net is also significantly cast into the sea. For the sea is a picture of the world in all the depth of its darkness and its unknown. It is the world system as we have it now. The meaning of the shore then becomes obvious. The shore is where a limit – a bar – is set upon the sea. The sea comes to an end here at the shore where ‘the world will be judged’ – where what is good will be highlighted, just as in Matthew 25..
Of course, before we can sort the fish, the net has to be hauled out of the water. Jesus says that the fishermen ‘drew it ashore’ (v. 48). This word, ‘to draw up (anabibazo),’ is an interesting one. It occurs only once in the New Testament, and in Greek it means ‘to cause to go up, to ascend.’ Do we get the picture? The net is drawn out of the sea. It is lifted up with all the fish in it. This can be seen as a picture of the resurrection.
the rotten fish
But now we come to the tricky bit - what is meant by the good and the bad fish? It is quite easy to understand that the good fish stand for the people that God declares righteous, those who received the gospel in true love. What about the bad fish? The answer is not as simple as some might suggest….
For, to ask a key question, is this parable really an eschatological warning of a judging God or is it a parabolic description of the kingdom of God like Jesus’ other parabolic descriptions?
At first glance, this passage can indeed be easily be interpreted differently to other parables, and not least the party (banquet) parables, which are full of celebration of undeserved grace. However, is this parable really that much different – is it really about a judgemental God, or is it actually instead also about celebration and grace, like the party (banquet) parables? I’d suggest the latter – for me, it is just focusing in a different way on living justly in God’s compassion...
In fact, if you think about it, this parable ends very similarly to the parable of the two sons and their compassionate father. The younger son was accepted but the older son could not accept it. So he was kept out of the party not by his father’s wishes, but because of his own, as he could not handle grace as the way to God’s party. He wanted nothing to do with it. So he decided to reject sharing in the party and, as it were, rotted away on his own. For, through so many of Jesus’ parables, this is the only way that you are ever left out of the party – isn’t it? This is the only way that you start to stink. It is when you refuse to accept God’s acceptance of everyone, not least the people who you think are less than you – the other fish in the sea with whom we all mixed up….
So, two vital messages we might draw from today’s parable are:
firstly, that God’s net of love is a hugely generous, undiscriminating, including net,
and secondly, that if you want to avoid some of the other fish in this net of love, well then you’ll truly become a stinker, metaphorically at least….
Or, in other words, like the older son in the parable of the father’s generous love, you will rot like a bad fish when you turn your back on grace.
Therefore, I’d suggest, this parable, like other teachings of Jesus, is not so much about an ‘after death’ warning, or an ‘at the end of times’ judgement, but a here and now, and always, moment. Like the sheep and the goats, we have the choice to live justly in God’s compassion, or not. This is what discloses whether we flourish, or whether we stink. We are all caught all up in God’s net, and God does not intend for any of us to rot, but we can still choose to be stinkers if we please. In my case I prefer beautiful perfume. How about you?
by Jo Inkpin, Matthew 13.47ff