Summary: Through this parable of the nets and fish, Jesus is telling disciples then and now that we don’t get to decide who’s in and who’s out. Our only concern should be to be good fish.
So we have this special summer sermon series going on, “Gone Fishin’.” For the last couple of weeks we’ve taken a sort of light-hearted trip through the fishing stories of the gospels, and we continue that special fishing trip with Jesus this week. But as you probably noticed here we are today with a fishing story that ends with “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” As you can tell, our fishing trip takes a bit of a turn today, but before we get into the “heavy” stuff, another fishing story that’s a bit more whimsical.
A young woman was preparing for her wedding. She had spent weeks ironing out the final logistical details, and as she worked on getting her wedding dress on on the big day, she started to think more deeply about the significance of the event before her. So as her mother helped her get zipped up she decided to take the opportunity to ask for any last tidbits of profound wisdom. “Mom,” she said, “Can you give me any advice that will help me as this marriage begins?”
The Mom thought for a moment and finally she said, “Yes, I can. Here’s a really important lesson I wished I had learned a little earlier on in my own marriage to your father, it’s this. If you give a man a fish, you can feed him for a day. But if you teach a man to fish, you can get rid of him for a whole weekend!”
For the last two weeks, as we have explored the fishing stories of the gospels, we focused on the call stories of the first disciples. First, we read Luke’s account of the calling of the first disciples, and we talked about how we always have to be ready to offer all of ourselves to Christ so that when he calls us to the deeper waters, we can follow him to those places of blessing. Last week we read Matthew’s account of the calling of the first disciples, and we talked about how our most important mission is the same as Christ’s mission, to tell people about the kingdom of God that is drawing near, and to invite them to be a part of that, to “fish for people.” This week, as we continue in Matthew’s gospel, we move from an account of one aspect of Jesus’ ministry to a parable spoken by Jesus himself.
This parable, known as the parable of the nets and the fish, is a rather disconcerting parable, isn’t it? This isn’t the kind of thing we want to hear. We want to believe that we’ve got it made and that there is no chance that we might be thrown into a burning furnace, and yet that is the possibility Jesus lays out quite clearly here. As with all parables, Jesus is taking a familiar scene, and using it to say something about the kingdom of God. So, let’s focus for a minute on the familiar situation that Jesus was lifting up in this parable.
Remember that many of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen, and that much of his ministry was done in the area around the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus talked about fish or fishing, the people listening knew what he meant. So let’s step back to the first century and look at what Jesus was referencing when he told this parable of the nets and the fish.
“Commercial” fishing of the 1st century, not unlike commercial fishing today, consisted of dropping large nets off the side of a boat, waiting for the nets to fill up, and then hauling them in. Now, such a fishing technique means that you will not only catch the kind of fish you are fishing for, but probably also some fish you don’t really want. In Jesus’ day, there were primarily three kinds of fish that populated the Sea of Galilee; sardines, a kind of fish that is now called St. Peter’s fish, and the final kind, as sort of catfish called a barbel. Among the Jewish people, sardines and St. Peter’s fish were considered kosher, but the barbel was considered an unclean fish. So every fisherman knew the drill; after pulling up the nets, the fish had to be sorted. The kosher fish, the sardines and St. Peter’s fish, would be put in baskets and kept, but the unclean fish, the barbels, were thrown away.
It seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Right about now you’re probably thinking, “Yep, just as I suspected. Christ is going to throw out the ‘bad fish.’ So, I need to be sure that I am one of the good fish.” And you’re right, that is certainly an extremely important message of this parable, but there is an even more important message that becomes clear when Jesus explains the parable. Before we get to that message, though, we need a bit of background about what is happening here as Jesus shares this parable with the disciples.