The Fish-Sorting story.

What kind of fish are you?

Matthew 13.47-50

But before the Fish-Sorting story, let’s have the Fish Slapping Dance.

You wanna watch the whole thing, do it here. Monty Python

’Cause this parable’s about the End, and about judging the wicked, so it’s a bit of a downer. So I thought I’d first cheer you up with some grown men hitting each other with dead fish.

Considering a few of Jesus’s students were fishermen, stands to reason he’d include a fishing parable. This one compares sorting fish to sorting the wicked. Bad fish get tossed; bad humans get burnt.

Matthew 13.47-50 KWL
47 “Again: Heaven’s kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea, gathering every kind of fish.
48 Once filled it’s pulled up onto the beach and sorted.
People gather good fish into a vat, and rotten fish are thrown out.
49 It’s the same at the end of the age:
The angels will come out, and separate the evil from the middle of the righteous.
50 The angels will throw the evil into the fiery kiln.
It’ll be weeping and teeth-grinding there.”

O vrygmós ton odónton/“the grinding of teeth” refers to grinding ’em in anger, not suffering. These folks will be outraged they’re headed into the fire and not the kingdom: They expected the kingdom. They figured their public good deeds made ’em worthy, or the sinner’s prayer guaranteed them a slot. But, as Jesus elsewhere stated, they had no relationship with him, Mt 7.23 didn’t abide in him and produce fruit. Jn 15.4-5 Their “good deeds” were all tainted with self-promotion, instead of provoked by God’s love. Of course they get tossed out like stinky dead fish.

Fishing with a net.

When you read about fishing in the New Testament, you’ll notice these guys weren’t fishing with a hook on a line. They were fishing with nets. Fishing with a line did exist back then, Mt 17.27 and it’s fine if you only want one fish at a time, but the Roman Empire had a huge demand for freshwater fish. (Their most popular condiment was garum, a sauce made from such fish.) So to speed things way up, they used nets.

Four words for “net” come up in the gospels:

  • Amfívlistron. A throwing-net. Mt 4.18 Plus a verb-form, amfivállo, which means to throw such a net. Mk 1.16
  • Díktyon. A hunting-net. Mt 4.20-21, Mk 1.18-19, Lk 5.2, 4-6, Jn 21.6, 8, 11
  • Sagíni. A net, or loose bag made of rope. Mt 13.47

Any significant difference between the three? Nah. Though you’ll have some commentators insist the net in this parable, a sagíni, was a dragnet, and the others were just ordinary fishing nets… except ordinary fishing nets are also dragnets. It’s kinda like nitpicking the difference between a backpack, knapsack, and kit bag: Same function. Same with these nets: Weight the ends, throw it in, and pull it back out—dragging in as many fish as it’d catch.

For Jews, there were certain fish the Law forbade ’em to eat: Anything without fins and scales. Lv 11.9-10, Dt 14.9-10 So no shellfish, no squid, no catfish (it has no scales), no jellyfish, no sea mammals. All such fish had to be thrown back, or if dead, thrown out.

I’ve heard preachers claim this was why Jewish fishermen had to sort fish after they landed: They had to sort out the clean from the unclean fish. True, they had to do that too. But all fishermen sorted out what their nets caught, because dragnets pull in everything. Including trash. Or fish you’d rather not catch. Nets were woven loose enough so they wouldn’t ordinarily pull in small fish or small trash. Still meant they’d sometimes get big trash… or long-dead fish. ’Couldn’t bring that to the marketplace; it’d drive away customers.

Plus they had to count the catch for tax purposes. The Romans wanted their cut.

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 the 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 (which some Christians figure is the end of this age, when Jesus returns; and others at the end of the next age, the millennium), humanity gets gathered and sorted.

But unlike a net, all humanity gets gathered. No exceptions. Nobody falling through the larger spaces in the net, like small fish or small trash. I’ve heard preachers attempt to claim the reason Jesus described it with a net was ’cause of the age of accountability: Innocent little children aren’t gonna be included in the judgment, but get to go straight into the kingdom—so they’re the little fish who get to escape through the larger spaces in the net. Obviously they’re inserting something into Jesus’s story which isn’t there, in order to defend their age-of-accountability theory. A theory I don’t buy, because a fixed age of accountability is too arbitrary (and a sliding age of accountability isn’t an “age of accountability”; it’s a maturity level, and still tends to be arbitrary). God is gracious, not arbitrary. Everybody gets judged. Graciously, but still.

Into the kiln.

I’m fully aware there’s a debate between Christians who insist hell extinguishes the soul, and others who insist the soul suffers in it forever. But if either side is looking for an argument in their favor in this parable, I don’t believe you have one here. I don’t believe Jesus made one here.

Contrary to popular belief, the way Jesus ended this parable was not with a definitive statement about hell. It’s simply comparing hell with what fishermen did with trash and dead fish. Lazy ones might throw them back in the lake, and pollute it. Responsible ones would throw them into the trash fire. Here, the angels sort the humans, and toss the evil ones into the fire.

That’s all. If you’re trying to deduce the nature of this fire from this parable, you’re overanalyzing it.

Yet that’s what Christians do. Those who insist hell is eternal, point to the bit about weeping and teeth-grinding, and say, “See? This proves those who are tossed into hell will suffer there forever.” Those who insist hell extinguishes, counter, “No; it only means people will pitch a fit on the way to the fire. Once they’re tossed in, that’s the end of them.” Both of ’em think the passage can support their viewpoint. Or at least not kick its legs out from under it.

The real lesson Jesus was trying to teach with this statement: Stay out of the kiln!

The kingdom has not yet arrived. Comes a time, however, when it will arrive, when Jesus will stand on the earth yet again to save the world. And after he sorts out the world, he’ll sort out humanity. Those who stand with him, enter the kingdom. Those who don’t, don’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.