The Dragnet Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 August

Matthew 13.47-50.

You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what a dragnet is, and think it has to do with cop shows, or police putting up roadblocks in order to catch a suspect. Police have certainly borrowed the term, but properly a dragnet is a fishing net.

There are many kinds of dragnets. The type most commonly used today is a seine (a word descended from the ancient Greek word for dragnet, σαγήνη/sayíni), a fishing net with floats on the top and weights on the bottom, pulled behind a boat, which catches everything swimming in the top part of a body of water. Another is the kind which sinks to the bottom of the lake or sea, and pulls up everything from the floor. And since it catches everything, it might catch garbage… or endangered fish or marine mammals, like dolphins. It’s an efficient way to catch fish, but it’s not popular with environmentalists.

Jesus’s base of operations was Kfar Nahum (Greek Καφαρναοὺμ/Kafarnaúm, KJV Capernaum), a fishing village on the coast of Lake Tiberius, the Galilee’s freshwater “sea.” No doubt a lot of his followers were fishers. Four of his Twelve definitely were: Andrew and Peter bar John, and James and John bar Zebedee. Mk 1.16-20 Four more might also have been: Thomas, Nathanael, and two unnamed others. Jn 21.2-3 So, two-thirds of the Twelve. And the other four were not unfamiliar with fishing practices… epsecially after several years of hanging out with fishers all day.

Y’notice Jesus tended to tell parables about agriculture and sheep-herding. This is the only one about fishing. He also told a few about building and carpentry too, but the reason he didn’t tell as many about his old vocation, is because he was concentrating on his audience. What’s gonna connect with them most?

Matthew 13.47-50 KWL
47 “Again, heaven’s kingdom is like a dragnet,
thrown in the sea and gathering together every species.
48 When it’s full, it’s dragged to shore and set down.
The fishers gather up the good into containers, and throw out the useless.
49 This is how it is in the end of the age:
The angels will go out and separate evildoers from the middle of the righteous,
50 and they’ll throw them into the fiery furnace;
there will be wailing and grinding teeth.”

Like all parables it’s about God’s kingdom, and specifically the people who will be judged worthy of it in the end. Or not.

Using the dragnet.

To fish with a dragnet, you needed two boats to hold either side of the net, and stretch it out. Then the fishers sailed or rowed their boats together, and the net would encircle the fish. The fishers pulled the net into one of the boats, or if too heavy they dragged it to shore. They didn’t use pulleys and winches in Jesus’s day; they just used brute strength. (Pulleys and winches were invented by then, but they’d only be any good if they were made of iron, and iron doesn’t last long in a wet environment. Steel was too expensive, and also rusts. Stainless steel, i.e. chromium steel, wasn’t invented till the 1840s.) Because it required human effort, the type of dragnet Jesus is talking about isn’t that large, and it was rare you’d get a catch so big it’d rip the nets. But size isn’t important; the analogy is. The dragnet collected everything. Same as the angels will collect everyone, at the End.

So just like the Wheat and Weeds Story, the angels will harvest humanity, and sort out the good from bad. Fishers put “the good” into baskets and sold them at market; or salted them, packed ’em into barrels, and shipped them elsewhere. As for “the useless,” they either threw them back into the water, or chopped them up for chum. But Jesus didn’t take the analogy that far. He has a different destiny in mind.

See, if Jesus hadn’t spelled out what was going to happen to “the useless” in this story—the evildoers—we Christians would have assumed they’d get thrown back in the water. “The good,” meaning us followers, will be raptured out of the world, whereas “the evil” would get thrown back down into the world. And again, Jesus has a different destiny in mind. He’s not rapturing us to leave this world. He’s rapturing us to join his invasion. Our rapture takes place at his second coming. Nobody’s leaving; Jesus is taking possession of his world, to rule it and save it.

But at the end of his reign, after the millennium—which Jesus doesn’t bring up in this parable, ’cause he’s not trying to give us a comprehensive timeline of the End Times—the good are getting sorted from the evil. The lambs and the kids are getting divided. That’s the point of Jesus’s story: There’s an End, and a judgment, and we don’t wanna be one of “the useless.”

Fish of every species.

The ancient Christians were fond of pointing out Jesus said the net would catch fish ἐκ παντὸς γένους/ek pantós yénus, “out of every genus,” which means exactly what biologists mean by genus: The larger category of species. We’re not talking three different kinds of tilapia; we’re talking tilapia, carp, tristramella, and sardines. In the same way, the ancients figured Jesus wasn’t talking about different kinds of Jews, i.e. Galileans, Judeans, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians. He was talking about every race of humanity. Namely gentiles like them.

Did Jesus’s first audience recognize that’s what he meant? Don’t know. There were gentiles in the Galilee, namely the Syrian Greeks living in the Dekapolis on the far side of the lake. And of course there were the Roman troops. But did they realize Jesus’s kingdom extended to them too? That when Messiah took over the whole world as they expected, he’d include the whole world in his kingdom? That the kingdom of God isn’t just for brown people, but white too? Isn’t just for middle easterners, but Europeans, Africans, Asians, Americans, Australasians, and islanders? (Have I left anyone out? Jesus hasn’t.)

While the ancient Christians might not have been conscious of this, I am ’cause Jews pointed it out to me: Lake Tiberias has catfish. And while we gentiles might love us some catfish, this particular species of fish doesn’t have scales, and is therefore ritually unclean. Lv 11.10 Observant Jews won’t eat it. Catfish, these Jews claim, would get thrown right back into the water. It’s one of “the useless.”

And yeah, I’ve heard some preachers repeat that claim. But catfish aren’t useless, because Jewish fishers weren’t only selling fish to fellow Jews. They sold to everybody. Gentiles would buy catfish. It’s why Jesus, in his story, noted the fishers would sort the fish into containers, multiple: They were sorting by species, for sale; and they were making sure catfish didn’t get mixed in with the ritually clean fish, and contaminate them. But they did sell ’em. It’d be foolish not to. Gentile money is still money.

See, the assumption Jews, and fans of Judaism, frequently make is they assume all Jews were devout Pharisees. And fishers, because they might touch dead animals, Lv 5.2 or treyf animals, and therefore render themselves ritually unclean, can’t have been devout Pharisees, or certainly weren’t devout enough. But that’s falsely defining Pharisaism by its most conservative understanding. As you can tell from the Mishna, there was a vast spectrum of devotion among Pharisees. They ranged from indistinguishable-from-atheists irreligion, to hardcore legalism, and of course every type of religious sentiment inbetween. Just like Christians. There’s an old joke that if you put two Pharisees together you’d get three different opinions.

So while some Pharisees would be outraged at the very idea of fishing, much less selling unclean fish to unclean people, others would figure, “Meh; I can touch and eat whatever, and so long that I get ritually clean before Sabbath, I’m good.” The legalist Pharisees might consider the libertine Pharisees to be horrible heretic sinners—same as Fundamentalist Christians often think of mainliners—and vice versa, same as Christians who practice grace, look at those who don’t as cultists. Obviously Jesus had a problem with legalists… but really, he had more of a problem with hypocrites who only pretended to be legalist, but used every loophole they could find.

Anyway. If you were hoping to pull some insight into this parable from knowing there are catfish in the lake… there’s nothing to pull. If you could sell the fish to somebody, it wasn’t useless. If you couldn’t sell it at all, it was. Fishers were capitalists, and would wring any profit they could out of whatever they caught. If you want a valid takeaway, it’s that the things Jesus called “useless” were indeed useless. Dead fish and trash.

And we’d better not be that when Judgment Day comes along.

Sorting humanity.

Those who still fish with nets, still gotta sort fish this way. Pull ’em up, keep the tuna, throw back the dolphins (as far as you know). Some activists are outraged at how nets indiscriminately catch everything, ’cause why kill sea creatures unnecessarily?—although some of ’em are annoyed we eat any fish at all. But I won’t get into that debate today.

Jesus compared his kingdom to a fishing net, because it likewise catches everything. Good people and evil. Clean and unclean. Useful people and trash. Kingdom citizens and people who want nothing to do with Jesus. At the end of the age (i.e. the end of the millennium, though some Christians insist when Jesus returns he’ll judge us immediately) humanity gets sorted. No exceptions. Nobody falling through the larger spaces in the net, like small fish or small trash.

I’ve heard preachers claim the reason Jesus’s story is of a dragnet, is because little fish can get through such a net. Supposedly this means little children aren’t gonna be included, ’cause they’re below the age of accountability. I don’t believe in any such age; I believe in grace. God only holds us accountable for what he’s revealed to us, and if a child honestly doesn’t know any better, that child’s not getting judged as if they should’ve known better. God doesn’t condemn innocent people. Of any age.

I’m fully aware there’s a debate between Christians who insist people burn in hell forever, and others who insist the soul perishes and is gone. But if either side is looking for an argument in their favor in this parable, Jesus didn’t make one here. There will be wailing and grinding teeth in hell, regardless of whether the suffering lasts forever, or lasts till the evildoer is burnt up. If you’re trying to deduce the nature of this fire from the parable, you’ve overanalyzed it.

Again, Jesus’s point isn’t to describe hell. It’s to warn us to stay out of the fire!

When Jesus returns to stand on the earth yet again, and save the world, the time will come for him to declare that age complete… and sort out humanity. Those who stood with him, continue with him to New Earth. Those who don’t, won’t. Where you stand is up to you. But if you don’t choose the kingdom, you’re gonna hate the hot ’n stinky alternative.

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