The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 2014 – Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
NB: I am greatly indebted to Fr. Robert Farrar Capon and his work on the parables of Jesus, for which I am deeply grateful.
“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,” (Matthew 13:47-50).
There was no shortage of material from which to preach this week. Our gospel reading alone contains no less than five distinct parables about the kingdom. Nevertheless, I’ve chosen to preach mostly on this final parable of the net, because it is the last of the kingdom parables in Matthew’s gospel which Catherine has been preaching on these last two weeks. As such, it serves in many ways to sum up, if you will, the kingdom parables that precede it — the sower, the weeds and the wheat, the mustard seed, the yeast, and so on.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea.” This isn’t just any kind of net, though. No this net, this is a particular kind of net. In fact, this is the only place in the New Testament that this particular Greek word (sagēnē) shows up and it describes a dragnet — one that reaches to the very bottom and, as it is dragged through the water, indiscriminately takes everything in its path.
As the dragnet gathers up everything in its path so too the kingdom of heaven indiscriminately gathers up everything in its path.
Now, you and I picture the net containing fish and the fish being representative of people but, in fact, the word “fish” does not actually occur here. We naturally supply it and perhaps that is just what Jesus had in mind but since it is not present maybe something can be made of its absence. Indeed, the net of the kingdom touches everything in the world — not just souls, but bodies; not just people, but all things. Not only is the whole human race gathered into the kingdom, the entire physical order of the world, the whole cosmos, is drawn into the kingdom by the mystery of the Word — “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,” (Colossians 1:20). Just as the net gathers all things it meets in the sea and brings them to shore so too the kingdom gathers home to God everything in the world: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all,” (1 Corinthians 15:28). The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken; it is the created order, all of it, raised and glorified (Capon).
From this parable we can already begin to see revealed two things about the kingdom, what we might call it’s catholicity and its actual working. The parables of the yeast and the mustard seed enlighten here. Regarding catholicity, just as all things are caught up into the net, so too the whole loaf has been leavened. The hiding of the yeast in the dough is both more mysterious and more pervasive than any of the hidings Jesus has used thus far to illustrate the kingdom. For example, seeds, if you are willing, can be found and dug up again. Not so with yeast.
Just as the yeast, once it is in the dough, is so intimate a part of the lump as to be indistinguishable from it, undiscoverable in it, and irretrievable out of it, so is the kingdom in this world (Capon). The Word, who is the yeast has left not one scrap of this lump of a world unleavened.
On the actual working of the kingdom, just as the net does its job and brings all that it has gathered to the shore so too the small mustard seed grows up into the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree. This parable reveals the wonderful discrepancy between the hiddenness of the kingdom at its sowing and the lush manifestation of it in its final successful fruition. Notice that in the parable of the mustard seed there is no element of a response, either hostile or receptive, lest we think the kingdom might need our cooperation in order to come out right. Like the mustard seed and the net, the kingdom of heaven will accomplish all that it will accomplish.
Alright, back to the net. If the kingdom is like the net, gathering every kind and rejecting nothing, then the church as a sacrament of the kingdom — that is, a visible sign of a presently invisible mystery — should avoid the temptation to act like a sport fisherman who is only interested in this or that particular prize fish. Specifically, the church should not get itself into the habit of rejecting as junk the human equivalents of the old boots, bottles, and beer cans that such a dragnet would inevitably dredge up (Capon). At the very least, we should definitely not attempt, in this world, to do the kind of sorting out that the kingdom quite clearly refuses to do until the next. But alas, excommunication has been a favourite past-time of the church since the very beginning. In the words of Capon, “the practice of tossing out rotten types while the net is still in the water has been almost everybody’s idea of a terrific way to further the kingdom — everybody’s, that is, except Jesus’”. The church, not least the Anglican church, would do well to keep this in mind especially in light of our present and ongoing struggles within the Communion. To be sure, a sorting, a day of judgement, is quite clearly on the way, but it does not take place before then, not least by our hands.
I was speaking with someone just the other day who had no real issue with division in the church because some matters were simply worth dividing over. “What about reform?” this person might ask. Well, like everything else about the kingdom, reform comes not when we decide to enforce it but only when God brings it about in his own good time. If he is willing to wait for it, why should the church be in such a rush (Capon)?
Of course, Jesus does indeed get around to the subject of judgement. In the parable we hear: “when [the net] was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.” However, the text does not suggest that the “good” and “bad” are so judged based on theirown inherent goodness or badness. In fact, “good” and “bad” are rather confusing translations. The word translated “good” (kalos) has overtones of “beautiful,” “fine,” or “fair” and as such is not as narrowly moralistic as the other common Greek word for “good” (agathos). The distinction is blunt rather than sharp, but the distinction is nevertheless there. The word translated “bad” (sapros) means, “rotten, putrid, corrupt, worthless, useless.” Thus, the criterion is not the innate goodness or badness of the fish themselves, but their acceptability to the fisherman — whatever serves the fisherman’s purpose is kept; whatever does not is tossed out.
There is always the possibility, note, that some of the damnedest things might be saved: old rusty anchors and hunks of driftwood might just make the cut if somebody took a shine to them. Anyone who is married to a garage-saler knows this well — one person’s junk is another person’s treasure, sort of.
The net contains many things, but there is nothing, however weak and feeble in and of itself, that absolutely has to be gotten rid of. Whatever sorting is done depends entirely on the the disposition of the sorters — goodness is in the eye of the Beholder (Capon).
And just as the fishermen, not the fish, set the standard for the day of judgement on the beach so it is the King of the kingdom who sets the standard for the Last Day of the world. Note first that this occurs after the general resurrection so that every last person who arrives at it arrives in the power of Jesus’ reconciliation, that is his death and resurrection: “The only sentence to be pronounced as far as the Judge himself is concerned is a sentence to life, and life abundant,” (Capon).
No one has to accept that acceptance, of course, but nobody goes to hell because they had a bad track record, at least not any more than anyone goes to heaven because they had a good one. The point is that we are not judged based on our performance — if that were the case, who could stand? Rather, we are judged by what Jesus has accomplished on the cross for us, when he pronounced an ultimately authoritative “good” (kala) over the whole wide world that he has caught in the net of his reconciliation. Only those who would rather argue with that gracious word are pronounced “bad” (sapra). Or as Capon put it:
“Both heaven and hell are populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is just a courtesy for those who insist they want no part of forgiveness.”
And if on the cross King Jesus has reconciled every last sinner to himself should the church — the sign to the world of this kingdom forgiveness — not pronounce this same “good” (kala) over sinners? Everybody is somebody for whom Christ died. What a catastrophic misrepresentation then when the church chases questionable types from its midst. If indeed all people and all things have been caught up in this pervasive net then may the church resemble less a refined group of folks who are happily married and never get drunk and just be what we really are, “a random sampling of the broken, sinful, half-cocked world that God in Christ loves, dampened by the waters of baptism but in no way necessarily turned into perfect peaches by them,” (Capon). And if this reality should at times tempt us to despair, may we be patient and trust knowing that the kingdom is, and has never not been, at work in the world and in us and that its successful fruition does not depend on our cooperation — though let us hear the call to come and repent and really participate in the work of the kingdom as we really are. Let the Pharisees take care of whatever judging they want to, but let the church stay a million miles away. But no matter what we do — like the seed, the yeast, and the net — the kingdom works anyway, and that’s something to be joyful about. Thanks be to God.
Sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 27th, 2014.