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.
‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ — Matthew 13:45-52
When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time down near the river not far from my house. The river wasn’t as big as the Mississippi but we considered it a “good size” river, maybe half a mile or more across at that point. Like all good salt water rivers it had fish in it, and one of the great summer pastimes my family and I enjoyed was going out on our boat for the day to do some fishing. Mama always took some chicken just in case, but if we caught some spot or croakers or even a flounder, we could cook it and eat it right there within minutes of its being caught. When we didn’t go out on the boat, occasionally a couple of us kids would get fishing lines and go down to the wharf that jutted out into the river and fish from there. It didn’t always matter what the bait was, sometimes crab and sometimes hot dogs. It was the act of fishing it was important, or maybe it was just the excuse to sit and let the river soothe all my adolescent problems and anxieties while I appeared to be doing something useful.
Of course there were kinds of fish in the river other than the spot, croakers and flounder we usually caught, and if we happened to be fishing on the wharf and caught an oyster toad, which has to be one of the ugliest fish imaginable, or a blowfish, whose prime defense mechanism was to puff up like a balloon when threatened, we would usually bash their heads against the deck and throw them back into the water to become part of the food chain. Now and again, though, someone would see us catch one of these undesirables and rush over, asking if we would give them the fish. Evidently where they came from the single strip of meat along the spine of the blowfish were considered a delicacy. I ate one at the local high-class restaurant once, and, not knowing what it was, announced that the chicken had a bit of a different flavor. My dinner companions had the kindness to not tell me what it was until later. Even having tasted it, I never could warm up to eating blowfish although flounder was a whole different story.
Jesus knew about fishing. He knew there were good edible fish and fish that weren’t, whether because they were too bony, were poisonous, tasted awful or were considered unclean by kosher law. His audience knew about fishing too, and the metaphor would not have been wasted. Jesus was telling them that at some point in time there would be an ingathering similar to pulling in the nets and bring them to shore for sorting and separating, only this time the fish would be people. Having a fish fry or even a fish-baking on the beach is one thing, having a furnace to eliminate the undesirable or inedible fish in something else entirely. I wonder if anybody ever figured they would be considered an undesirable fish.
We meet a lot of different people in the course of our lives, and, to use the illustration of the gospel lesson, some are keepers and others are definitely not. I’m not saying I would like to consign some people to a furnace because I don’t particularly like them, don’t agree with them or don’t find them useful in any measurable manner, but I do try to separate them from my life in much the same way we separated the fish that we caught back home. Looking at the story personally, I can’t say that I relish being hauled in by angels and then waiting to see if I’m going to be invited to dinner or become part of the heating system. Similar images of hellfire frequently populated the sermons I heard as a child and I am still uneasy with the image. Perhaps my belief that God will find a way so that nobody goes in the fire comes from a discomfort with the idea that I might be found undesirable myself. I know I’m no saint, but I’m not one of those people whom most people in the world would gladly condemn to the fires of hell because they were mass murderers, despots, or heinous criminals responsible for the slavery, imprisonment or even death of other human beings in the most callous way. I hate to add that “but” because often it is a sign of minimizing my own responsibility while maximizing that of others and I certainly have my own flaws to answer for.
I also wrestle with the dichotomy that I learned as a young child. On one hand I heard teaching that it I said the right words I would be saved and nothing could take that away while on the other hand I heard I was a miserable sinner and if I did not live right I could go to hell. I’ve still never figured that one out, and reading the fish story brings it all back. I think that is where I get what I have been told is universalism as a theology. If so, I don’t really want to change it. I want to believe in a loving God who, in the words of the King James version, says “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11 c-d). I certainly don’t intend to be a wicked person but I mess up, sometimes pretty badly. Given that, when Jesus comes to the beach to separate the catch, where am I going to be placed? Will I be a good fish, like a spot or a flounder, or am I going to be an oyster toad or a blowfish? I can repent, but will that be enough? The stakes are awfully high. I guess I will never know until the time comes. All I can do is my best and hope that will be acceptable to God.
I will probably never fish in my river again, but I will remember it and the bounty it produced, both good and (in my opinion) bad. Remembering that makes this gospel lesson for today among the most memorable and the most poignant for me.
It also makes me wonder if there is some fish in the freezer for dinner. I am suddenly craving it. I know it will be “good” fish.