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.

Exaggerated stuff in Christianity

“Yes, we are Christians,” an elderly man said on the Greek island of Milos after giving directions to my wife Ellen and me. “But we don’t believe the exaggerated stuff.”


Next to this church on the volcanic island of Milos we asked directions from George and Helen. Within walking distance are some of the oldest Christian catacombs, and the site where the Venus de Milo statue was found.

That unexpected comment came after I noticed small silver crosses he and his wife each wore. “You are Christians!” I said. Friendly conversation followed, and we learned their names were George and Helen. I pressed for an example of “exaggerated stuff” in Christianity.

“We like Jesus,” George allowed, “but we don’t believe in the resurrection.” My biblical imagination went on full alert: this was the same response certain Greeks gave the Apostle Paul almost two millennia ago! When Paul mentioned the resurrection at Athens, “some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this’” (Acts 17:32).

Helen and George wanted to hear more, and invited us for coffee in their humble home. There we explained that we were Christians visiting sites in Greece related to Paul and the early church. George told how he had traveled the world in the merchant marine. Learning that I am a minister, he posed a question: How could God punish his Son for sins of humanity? What kind of father would do that?

Don’t think of it so much as God punishing his Son, I said. Think of Jesus as God-with-us. God was fully present in Jesus, taking on the brokenness of the world. The cross shows how much God loves, not how angry God is. Resurrection shows that God has chosen to overcome evil with forgiveness and love.

George and Helen seemed drawn to this image of God, and went on to share concerns about their own health and family. Ellen and I offered to pray with them, and both were in tears when prayer ended. “Jesus is present here,” I said. “This is the power of the resurrection.”

George excused himself to the next room to regain composure. Helen went to the kitchen and retrieved two small magnetic refrigerator icons—not of monetary value, but beautiful. “Take these,” she said with a smile. We thanked them for their kindness, and I left my business card.


Three months later Christmas greetings arrived from Greece—addressed to “Father Nelson.” George and Helen wrote, “We wish and hope you have a mery-mery Christmas. . . Pray Lord for us as you once did in our little house in Milos!”

A letter we wrote after my heart surgery in January prompted a three-page epistle in return. “I can feel it was a serious long vicissitude,” George wrote of my operation, “and obviously very painful for your intimates! . . . For this we’ll pray Saint Judas the Thadeus! He was a step brother of Jesus.”

George was referring to Jude, one of the Twelve also known as Thaddeus. A website says Jude is “patron of desperate situations, forgotten causes, hospitals, impossible causes, and lost causes.”

Not sure I like being placed in such dire categories. But George promised to send me an icon of Saint Jude, and I will receive it with gratitude. “We promise to tell him always about you and pray,” George wrote. “He will hear our words and God will give you health and strength to continue.” Ellen and I will continue to write, and will pray that George and Helen get beyond Saint Jude to know the presence of the risen Christ in their daily lives.

© 2016  J. Nelson Kraybill *****************************************IMG_0425

Join me and others who love the Bible for a Peace Pilgrim tour of Jordan and Palestine in September 2016. See https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope