Wednesday, April 22nd
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.
(I have excluded the last two verses — “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.”— because many scholars believe that these two sentences were later additions to the original text.)
During these days when we have so much time on our hands, Lisa and I have been going through closets, old scrapbooks and even books, in an effort to downsize some of our collections, lest we be described as hoarders. In some cases the work is tedious, going through our pasts, as it were, but in other ways it has been a time of treasured discovery. For instance, we find an old photo, a letter, or even a piece of clothing from days gone by, and the discovery calls us to pause and take time to reminisce and even reclaim the essence of events and relationships. In a way, the experience has been like Jesus’ parable for the day, as we toss out a wide net and pull in all kinds of things that need to be sorted out.
To understand this parable, one needs to have some idea of what fishing was like in the first century. I received a valuable lesson in this years ago when I heard a lecture by Jodi Magness, professor of Judaism at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Magness’ expertise in this field is enriched by the fact that she is an archeologist. Her lecture so piqued my interest in archaeology that I readily bought a book by Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus. The book’s premise is that we can learn much about the life and time of Jesus by paying attention to ongoing archaeological discoveries.
The prologue explains how Israel’s droughts of 1985 and 1986 exposed a large area usually hidden beneath the waters of what was known in Jesus’ time as the Sea of Galilee. In January of 1986, two Israeli fishermen brothers, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, noticed something sticking out of the mud in the newly-formed beach. It turned out to be a small fishing vessel that dated back to the time of Christ. After painstaking reconstruction by Orna Cohen, of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, the boat was placed in the Yigal Allon Museum.
Until this point, historians had basically relied on biblical data for all their information about the region’s fishing boats and fishing practices, and now here was confirmation — a boat from the very region of Peter’s and the disciples’ hometown, Bethsaida, known as “The House of Fishing”, on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. The boat was 26 feet long, shallow, flat-bottomed so that it could come in close to the shore. However, its main purpose would have been to sail out to deeper waters where a large net — a hundred feet or so long, with corks along the top to keep it afloat and weights along the bottom—would be cast out behind them. One end of the net would be tied to the shore, and the boat would move in a great arch out into the lake, then around to another point on the shore, so that it would have scooped up in a great sweep as many as possible of the roughly twenty-four different species that lived in that part of the Sea of Galilee. Once the catch had taken place, the hard work of separating, sorting through the fish began. Some fish, according to the Law of Moses, had been designated ceremonially unclean. If the fish had no scales or fins, the Jewish people were forbidden to eat them (Leviticus 11:9-12), and so those would have been discarded. (For your information, the Texas Parks and Wildlife regulations require a bass be at least 14 inches long to be a keeper. This gives fisherfolk a guide to discriminate between keepers and those fish that should be tossed back.)
Of course, this parable can spark multiple, centuries-old conversations about eternity and the concept of divine judgment. However, my attention today is drawn more toward the personal perspective, considering the idea that all of our choices may be evaluated at the end of time. In contemplating this, C.S. Lewis’ novel The Great Divorce comes to mind. The book is an imaginative account of residents from hell, a fussy and irritable group, getting a holiday visit to heaven. They each receive an invitation to stay in heaven and accept boundless, unconditional love, but most of them cannot abandon their own pride and biases, so they end up rejecting heaven and leaving of their own accord. The idea is that heaven is open to all who truly seek its love, and that our ultimate destinies will be ones of our own choosing.
This perspective is marvelously described by John Claypool, who was mentor to so many of us young Baptists going to seminary in the 1970s. Dr. Claypool once shared in a sermon:
“I dreamed I died physically, moved through a dark tunnel, and came out into what can be described as ‘kindly light.’ There was no visible object or figure, only a great sense of warmth and acceptance. Then a Voice said, ‘Welcome, my child. I want to ask you some questions.’ I stiffened in fright, and thought to myself, “Here comes the judgment and my condemnation.’ But the Voice said, ‘First, I want to ask you, can you weep over all the mistakes you made, over all the pain you’ve caused other people, over all the ways you’ve failed to live up to your highest and best?’ I began to think about the many things in my life that were occasion for regret. Genuine tears begin to come up from my being, and I cried as if my heart would break.
But then the Voice spoke again. ‘Let me ask you something else. Can you laugh over all the good experiences you’ve had, at all the good jokes you heard, all the funny things you’ve seen?’ Again, I began to remember back over all the joys of my life and started laughing as I’d never laughed before, and so help me, it seemed that the ocean of light was laughing with me! If you’ve never heard the laughter of God, you’ve missed something absolutely ecstatic.
Then the Voice spoke yet again. ‘I need to ask you one more question. This wonder of aliveness – do you want any more of it? Do you want to go on living?’ I remember thinking that this was no automatic issue. I really did have a choice! I pondered slowly all the pain and pleasure that I’d known from living, and then from the deepest place in my being I said, ‘Yes! Yes! I do want some more of it!’
With that the Voice exclaimed delightedly, ‘Come, then, you blessed of the Father, and enter into the joy of your Lord. Plunge deeper in and further on,’ and with that I swam off into the ocean of light.”
The parable today calls us to inventory our lives, to deep clean, if you will. Why? …“to enter into the joy of our Lord”!
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Let today be a time of guided prayer:
- Consider those things that you regret, those things that have injured not only others, but you. Give those over to God.
- Consider the graces that have come your way in life, those things that have given you joy. Give those over to God.
- Consider the way forward, asking God for assistance in determining a life now dedicated more fully to grace.
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Billy Collins’ “Afterlife”
While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.
They are moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
You go to the place you always thought you would go,
the place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.
Some are being shot up a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.
Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air-conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.
Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.
There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals—eagles and leopards—and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,
while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.
There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of a furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.
The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.