A Fish Story

Everyone who goes fishing has a favorite story about the “big one that got away.” Most of my fishing stories involve me watching other people catch fish, but my favorite fishing story is about someone else (my Dad) NOT catching a fish. We were fishing on Lake Maury years ago, trolling up and down the lake off of a favorite point where we’d often catch crappie and white bass. The problem is that fish often hide around sunken tree or other cover and the trick is to drag a lure just above without getting caught on the snag. And catch a snag is what Dad did… or so we thought. As we went back to get untangled, Dad thought he felt something on line; the closer we got to the snag, the harder the snag started pulling. And then it was really was pulling, so hard that (I kid you not) the boat began moving backwards! We tried to work the boat over into the shallows to we could land the beast, but the line started spinning in feverish circles and then it snapped before we ever saw it. Giant catfish? Snapping turtle? Trophy bass? Bigfoot? Whatever it was, I don’t want to meet it in a dark alley!

 In Matthew 13 (our reading for today), Jesus ends a series of mostly agricultural parables with a fish story. All of the parables in Matthew 13 are old to tell what “the kingdom of heaven is like.” The word kingdom (basileia) refers to God’s domain, reign and rule over our lives. He isn’t really talking about the church, although that is the visible manifestation of God’s rule on earth. And Jesus isn’t talking about heaven, although heaven is the result of God reigning in us. The kingdom of heaven is what happens when God rules over our lives on earth the way that he rules in heaven (Matt 6:10). He ends this series of kingdom parables with one that not about farming; it’s about fishing (Peter, Andrew, James and John would have liked this one, don’t you think?)

47 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a fishing net that was thrown into the water and caught fish of every kind. 48 When the net was full, they dragged it up onto the shore, sat down, and sorted the good fish into crates, but threw the bad ones away. 49 That is the way it will be at the end of the world. The angels will come and separate the wicked people from the righteous, 50 throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 13:47-50, NLT)

Several things pop out here. First, the kingdom of heaven is a net mixed with both good and bad fish. Forrest Gump might say, “Fishing is like box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” When you fish with a dragnet (the Greek word used here means dragnet), you never know what kind of fish will be caught. So the dragnet of God’s rule has been cast wide and all kinds of people get caught up in it.

There are two types of people in the world—those who divide people into two types and those who don’t. Most of us like working with neat categories— the IN’s and the OUT’s. We want God’s kingdom as we see it in the church to work that way. We want a neat roll of the saved and the lost, and we not only want the differences to be neat and obvious.  And we want to manage the list. If I can clearly know who the bad fish are, then I feel more secure I’m one of the good fish! But see, this is the kingdom of God, and He is in sole control of the roll!

Second, the job of sorting the good and the bad fish belongs only to God. We need to be clear that salvation belongs to our God (Rev 7:10-12). We often sing that text as a praise song; do we really believe it? God is the Judge of all the earth, and He needs no help from us. God knows those who are His (2 Tim 2:19). Jesus knows His own sheep (John 10:14, 27-28). As stinky as some of God’s fish may seem to me, I need to accept that only God gets to sort through them. As long as we are in this life, then we swim in God’s big net with all kinds of different fish

Third, God’s will eventually judge all his fish. We are to be fishers of men, but this parable is not about our fishing. Here the fishing is over, and there is a sorting of the good fish from the bad fish by the angels (see 2 Thess 1:7-9). So the kingdom rule of God is a present reality that also points to a future certainly.

  • God’s kingdom is NOW—it’s like a net with all kinds of fish. 
  • God’s kingdom is THEN—the fish are sorted and some are thrown out. 

I once heard someone once classify themselves as a “hopeful universalist.” I can relate to that. I do hope God has a “Plan B” by which all can be saved by Jesus even if they don’t accept him in this life. I do hope that God’s sovereign love can somehow trump our stubborn human rebellion in such a way that ultimately "love wins."  But Jesus says so much about eternal judgment and destruction that it is pretty hard to be too hopeful of a hopeful universalist.

  • Sheep are blessed of the Father; goats are for eternal fire (Matt 25:34,41) 
  • Lazarus was by Abraham’s side; rich man was in torment (Luke 16:23) 
  • Those who overcome inherit God; sinner go to a lake of fire (Rev 21:7-8) 
  • Saints enter the holy city; sinner are cast outside gates (Rev 22:14-15) 

We need to be reminded that this world is hurtling toward a conclusion, and at the end God is going to sort things out. Literally. So we are to live this life to the fullest, but always with an end in view! We can live confidently, because we know that our Father is Judge. But we also live carefully because we know that we will be judged! (see Hebrews 4:13)

By far the most popular fish harvested for human consumption is tuna; it is also the most controversial.Why? It seems that yellowfin tuna like to swim along with dolphins, and so the nets used to catch tuna also catch lots of dolphins (which drown in the process). After a lot of outcry and publish pressure, tuna nets had “escape hatches” built into them to allow Flipper to be spared. And now most of the tuna you buy for your tuna fish sandwiches have a label that says “dolphin safe.”

The net that Jesus uses as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven is definitely not dolphin safe! All of us get caught in that net. The question is, “What kind of fish are we going to be?”