The parables of Matthew 13 are one example of what Jesus teaches about “the end of the world.”
2 Samuel, chapter 1; Psalm 140; Matthew, chapter 13
Matthew 13:47-51 (NLT):
“Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a fishing net that was thrown into the water and caught fish of every kind. 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. 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, throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Do you understand all these things?”
“Yes,” they said, “we do.”
Jesus shares two parables about “the end” in Matthew 13. The first is the story of the weeds in the field, in verses 24-29. Our passage for today, verses 47-51, is the other. Both parables share several common elements:
- “Good” mixed in with “bad”
- A sorting-out process
- The final disposition of both “good” and “bad”
However, there are also some differences. In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, an “enemy” is responsible for the weeds. In the story of the fishing net, there is no “enemy” involved. The workers in the parable of the weeds propose trying to sort things out immediately: “Should we pull out the weeds?” That is not possible with the fishing net.
That demonstrates the main difference between the two stories: the parable of the weeds looks ahead to “the end.” The point of that story is that it is not helpful to try to sort the “good” from the “bad” while the crop is still growing. However, in the parable of the fishing net, the point is the sorting out process at the end.
“The end of the world”
The parable of the weeds does not use the phrase, “the end of the world.” However, Jesus does use that phrase in explaining the parable to his disciples. He then repeats that phrase in the story of the fishing net. The idea that at the end of the world there will be a sorting-out process is central to both parables. The first parable’s lesson is for us to leave that sorting-out process until the end; it’s not our job to do it now. (Nor are we really able to do it.) The second parable confirms that there will be a sorting-out process at the end of the world.
Interestingly, Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that “the angels” are the ones who will do the sorting. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (13:41, emphasis added). In our passage, Jesus says, “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…” Clearly, there will be a sorting process – a judgment at the end of the world.
That sorting-out will result in a determination of eternal destiny:
- “And the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom” (13:42-43a)
- “The angels will come and separate the wicked people from the righteous, throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:49b-50).
Do you understand all these things?
Jesus closes the parable of the fishing net with the question, Do you understand all these things? Earlier in the chapter, he had told his disciples, “You are permitted to understand the secrets (or ‘mysteries’) of the Kingdom of Heaven, but others are not” (13:11). That was not intended to be a permanent condition; the whole point of Jesus’ ministry was to proclaim and reveal the Kingdom of Heaven. But the disicples needed to understand, because they were called to join in the work. So Jesus asks, “Do you understand all these things?”
Well, do we?
I grew up in an era where revival preachers routinely preached about hell and the final judgment. While fear is a powerful motivator, the motivation only remains as long as the fear is present. I’m also an attorney, and one of the things I learned in law school was that the effectiveness of a punishment as a deterrent is a function of the severity and the certainty of the punishment. The more uncertain the punishment, and the more remote, the less effective the deterrent.
I don’t believe that fear is an effective way to bring people into God’s Kingdom. In these parables, Jesus isn’t trying to scare his disciples; he views them as already being in the Kingdom. I believe he wants them to be motivated by urgency – the urgency to let people know the good news about the Kingdom. But “good news” implies the presence of an alternative – “bad news.” And the bad news is that at the end of the world, the wicked will receive their punishment.
So what are we to do?
I believe that this passage reminds us of two important parts of our calling to follow Jesus. First, we are to make the Kingdom known to others. In the parable of the fishing net, the fishermen weren’t trying to limit the number of fish they brought in; they let the net down and hauled in as many fish as they could.
Second, connected with the first, we don’t need to waste time trying to “sort out the fish.” Jesus says that’s the angels’ job, and they’ll do it at the end of the world. When the net’s down deep in the water, we can’t really see well enough to know which fish are “good.” We just need to haul them all in, and leave the rest of Jesus!
Father, we confess that we are prone to wanting to “sort things out.” Thank you for reminding us that you will see to that, at the right time. Help us to do the things that will bring the fish in. Thank you, also, for reminding us that although we shouldn’t try to scare people into your Kingdom, neither should we shy away from talking about an eternal judgment and destiny. If Jesus talked about it – and he did – so should we. But Jesus didn’t only talk about judgment and hell, and neither should we.
Help us each day to be ready to talk about all of the truth connected with your Kingdom, just as Jesus did. And help us to model the life of peace and wholeness which only comes from knowing Jesus. Amen.