Fish Swimming All Together: Reflections on the Parable of the Fishing Net

When I was young, my parents shipped me off to Oklahoma every summer to visit both sets of my grandparents. Time spent with my paternal grandparents included fishing out of their boat dock —  long boring hours of silence in sweltering heat while I waited for my bobber to move. As soon as the bobber would move, I’d squeal and my grandpa would jump up to come to my side of the dock — trying not to lose his balance and fall into the lake. Meanwhile, I’d reel in my line to see what prize I’d caught.

I hoped for crappie or perch. Those were my favorite from Grandpa’s famous fish fries. They’re still my favorite in fish fries even now.

Sometimes I came back with an empty hook. Smart fish ran off with my minnow or worm.

Other occasions I had a drum or a carp, which my grandpa would mutter about and throw it at the board at the end of the dock. The poor fish would flop around a bit and end up back in the water, but usually floating instead of swimming. Drum and carp weren’t good eats.

And then there was the time I hooked a gar. I screamed. Grandpa yelled. Grandma hollered. That fish still gives me nightmares. It went berserk all over that boat dock while my grandparents danced around struggling to untangle it and keep it from biting us.

Aiming for crappie, perch and catfish, we sometimes reeled in undesirables instead. But, we didn’t know whether we had treasure or trash until we hauled it up from below the surface.

030316 galway fishing gear

Fishing Gear in Galway ca. 2005

The parable of the fishing net

That’s a different kind of fishing than the net fishing Jesus talks about in Matthew 13. Net fishing is a laborious enterprise of casting and hauling, not idly sitting and waiting for a single bobber to move. Net fishing, when successful, hauls in a multitude of fish — not just a single catch.

And still I find myself hooked by a similar theme: waiting to know what’s good or bad.

I want to know ahead of time. I flip to the end of a fiction book before I sit to read the whole thing cover to cover, and I often watch the last episode of a Korean drama before I commit to the whole series.

Why do I want to know? I desire control. I like to know the outcome before I get emotionally invested. If it’s all going to end badly, I prefer to avoid the roller coaster of feelings.

When I was young and read anything in the Bible about fiery furnaces and the wicked, I was all about saving my skin. I wanted to live. I wanted to be seen as good. I still fall into the trap of having to earn it or prove it, as though grace and faith weren’t enough. I want to hedge my bets with perfection, even as I know better.

I want to be the good fish. Insecurely I find myself preoccupied with earning God’s favor. And so I read this parable on the edge of nervousness. I fear being weighed and found wanting.

But, what if the point is not our terror, but settling our egos into taking a chill pill? What if the point here is actually one of confidence, instead of fear?

The lessons here were spoken directly to the disciples, not the masses. Jesus speaks to a group who have left everything to follow him; they’re presumably already “good” fish. So, why would the parable they heard be intended to incite fear?

Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a fishing net that was thrown into the water and caught fish of every kind (Mt. 13:47). When the net was full, then it was dragged onto shore, and the fish were sorted. Good fish into crates, and the bad fish thrown away.

And then there’s the scary part about the end of the world with the angels separating the wicked people from the righteous and throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace. Meanwhile, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

After such stern words, Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you get it?” And they nod, “Of course we do (Mt. 13:50).”

Then Jesus adds more layers, saying, “Every teacher of religious law who becomes a disciple in the Kingdom of Heaven is like a homeowner who brings from his storeroom new gems of truth as well as old (Mt. 13:52).”

Enough with my sorting.

God casts nets far and wide, and we’re caught up together — good fish and bad fish. The fish don’t decide who’s in and who’s out. That’s above their pay grade. They’re all caught up together in the net. Perhaps they’re all even fighting against the net.

Neither fish makes it out alive. Good and bad — they wind up dead.  That factor upends my expectations. I want the directions on how to stay alive and comfortable. But, the parable doesn’t teach me that.

Instead, dead fish are packed into crates or cast aside. The difference comes from what is rendered valuable and what is rendered waste.

Perhaps weeping ultimately comes from recognizing what was ultimately empty and meaningless, and realizing it after there is no longer anything to be done about it.

As a person who grew up in church and spent her academic career studying Bible and theolgy, there’s lots of truths and baggage mixed up in my brain with new ideas trickling in all the while. Every so often the new and old beliefs are hauled to shore.

And the sorting begins: which led me toward God? Which distort God’s character? Which do I find myself bitterly regretting for its meaninglessness — like the thought that if I just did all the right things, if I pleased God enough, God would give us a baby. God’s not bribed, nor is my infertility a curse from a vengeful God. I had much to learn from the wisdom of Job.

I’m pretty spectacular at flaying myself for all sorts of minor to major flaws, transgressions and weaknesses — whether theological, relational or general life stuff. I tend to err on the side of seeing everything I do as less-than, and I struggle to see the good in me. I judge prematurely, and forget that I can’t see myself clearly (none of us do). We all look through distorted lenses.

How might I find freedom if I withheld the impulse to judge myself? What if I accepted that within the net of my life — good and bad swim together? While in the water, I can’t see clearly. Instead, I can trust the One who will sort it all out eventually, and I can see the net as an ally instead of a threat. I can trust that the One who began a good work will carry it to completion.

Stop worrying so much about who is in or out like the Pharisees did. Stop frantically trying to label “good fish” or “bad fish.” Evil creeps up with the way we humans like to draw artificial boundaries of “my peeps” and “not my peeps.” The fishing net isn’t ours. Nor is the task of sorting.

The fish don’t haul themselves or determine their usefulness; the One fishing does.

And when we try, we do it prematurely, and on the basis of factors God doesn’t use. We look at appearance and rest on our preconceived judgements — instead of looking toward the heart as God does.

Instead of preoccupation about which fish are in and which are out, what if we were freed to recognize that concern is not our problem? Whether it is judging others (or ourselves) or fear of others judging me (and kicking me out of the net), all that worry and useless thinking is not my burden to carry.

This is not to say justice doesn’t matter. The parable is pretty clear that God cares about justice, and it invites us to trust the God who will sort out good from bad.

If we’re worried about justice (and I hope we are), what if we trusted God that is still a righteous judge? In my anxiety about politics, I lose sight of this, and I’m frantically trying to hold on to it.

We still speak of justice (of course). But we do it with the frustration of living in the middle of the process, not the finale. We’re still in the water being dragged to shore, and we’ve not been sorted yet.

We speak with the recognition that we’re not the ones who determine welcome at God’s table. God does, and the net is wide.



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