On the shores of tropical islands, lakes and rivers around the world, and even here (although, I suspect, less and less) a daily ritual takes place which few of us witness.
It is the use of nets to catch fish. On reflection, I’ve seen nets being used late at night in Sydney Harbour. And I’ve stood in awe as, on a gently sloping yellow sand beach in Sri Lanka, a team of men brought to shore over some considerable time a net which had been cast wide across a small bay with a resultant catch which would soon find its way to market.
The net on that tropical beach brought in both great and small. It had to be sorted. There was a team leader who made the decision as to what was useful for market and what went back into the ocean. It is precisely this sorting out that is held by many as a perilous, in-balance – hope and yet lurking fear about what is called ‘the end of the age’.
We don’t like the thought, but what if there is a judgement of us as people after death? Many of us in the baby boomer and previous generation have heard fire and brimstone preaching which can be emotionally scary and leave a lurking suspicion that ‘God is going to get you in the end’.
This parable should give us salutory pause for thought. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net, which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted then good into vessels but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”
At first blush it would appear to reinforce those hidden fears about a God who is determined that only goodie-goodies will make it into whatever ‘heaven’ has been set aside for them, because the angels have the fire-pit on the go and soul
bar-b-q is imminent. But, as with a great deal of what Jesus says, all is not as it seems.
The angels’ sorting is carried out to a specific instruction. “Separate the evil from the righteous”. I get the sense from here and from other statements which Jesus makes, that the ‘evil’ are those who have deliberately decided that whatever life-instructions God has put in place are not for them: “I’ll make my own rules; it is all about me.”
If I read the bible stories about Jesus, he deals gently and understandingly with normal humans who are struggling with their humanity and their circumstances. He does not condemn or sentence them but encourages them to push on in the framework of what God has shown them about himself, others and themselves. These, despite what the thunder preachers may tell us, are the righteous precisely because they are, in an accidental universe, loved with an eternal purpose by a God who, at the end of the age will welcome them beyond the struggle to something beyond their wildest expectations.
We get just a hint of it in the breath of a new dawn. In the glory of sunset. Or in the eyes and smile of a loved one. Far from being ‘pie in the sky when you die’, this is a spiritual reality of which we sense glimpses now. How can we know? Because the parable teacher went through death (as we inevitably must) and came back alive to show that what he said was true. Which is why we then respond to Jesus’ major teaching of: “Love God and thy neighbour as we love ourselves”. It is hardly a prissy righteousness; rather it is an entry into the very borders of the ‘heaven’ which waits if we deign to be there.