Let God do the sorting

casting net on Sea of Galilee

From a boat on the Sea of Galilee, a fisherman demonstrates the ancient art of casting a circular net. Weights along the outer edge sink rapidly, pulling the web around any living thing below. Waters next to Jesus’ ministry base at Capernaum teemed with tilapia, carp, and sardines when his first disciples plied their trade.

Fishing was a significant part of the regional economy in the first century, evidenced by names of nearby towns: Bethsaida (“house of fishing”) was hometown to Peter, Andrew, and Philip; Tariacheae (“pickled fish town,” called Magdala in Hebrew) probably was home to Mary Magdalene. Disciples of Jesus appear in the Gospels variously mending nets, fishing all night, counting fish, extracting a coin from the mouth of a fish, and eating seafood breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind,” Jesus told his followers. “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” (Matt. 13:47-50).

At a time when some Christian denominations excommunicate or divide over sexuality and other contested matters, Jesus’ fishing parable is instructive. Galilean fishermen typically used nets, not hooks, to harvest their catch. Evangelism and church discipline, according to this imagery, are broad and inclusive. Nobody gets hooked individually by ruse or violence. Rather, the wide embrace of a net draws in a motley and diverse catch. At the end of the age these get sorted–not by you and me, but by angels.

How tempted I am to start sorting  now! Chuck out fish whose politics irritate me. Discard those not to my taste. Get rid of any whose views on sexuality don’t seem biblical according to how I interpret the Bible.

But instead of putting you and me into the sorting business, Jesus implies that we are to cast a wide net. “Follow me, and I will make you [net] fish for people,” he said (Matt. 4:19). Other biblical images likewise suggest that Jesus advocated an inclusive people-gathering. The kingdom of heaven is like a farmer’s field with both wheat and weeds, he taught. These grow side by side until harvest, then reapers (angels?) sort them and destroy the worthless plants (Matt. 13:24-30). In John’s Apocalypse, it is Christ who can remove lampstands (congregations), not the churches themselves (Rev. 2:5).

Our Lord did not suggest that belief and behavior are irrelevant to salvation. There are consequences for those who do not measure up. When God brings harvest at the end of the age, weeds will go up in smoke and bad fish end up in the furnace, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” We do well to learn, practice, and teach what God requires for holy living. But thank God, we can focus on net-casting and let God do the sorting.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************JNK mugshot 5.18 small (3)
Experience the “fifth Gospel,” the lands where so much biblical drama unfolded! Join Audrey Voth Petkau and me for a “Journey of Hope” tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019 (https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2019-jordan-palestine-israel/). In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and view Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site along the Jordan River where God parted the waters for his people to cross, and Machaerus fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth. We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect on themes of mission and reconciliation as we travel and worship together.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ruben Chuppp says:

    Nelson, an apt use of texts in our day of fractures and divisions. Good metaphors.


  2. Hermann Woelke says:

    The fisherman did select some and discarded others. Bible verses like 1Timothy 5:20, 1 Corinthians 5:2, Revelation 2:20 show that the churches have to do already now some selection, others will be done at the end of the ages, when Jesus comes back. Matthew 18:15-22 also speaks about this.


    1. Well stated, Hermann. Perhaps there’s a difference between what we teach/admonish and what we do in the way of excommunication and division. Jesus set a high ethical standard for his disciples, and so should we. Then, like Jesus, we should bring an abundance of grace to how we discipline. That’s a difficult balance to maintain!


  3. Cheryl says:

    This is just the writing I needed to answer those questions of…”What about so and so? Should we have anything to do a person who….?” It has been consistently shown to me that we are called to love people and tell them about Jesus. God will take care of the rest. Thank you so much for your thoughtful posts. I learn from each and everyone of them.


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