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The term “hermeneutics” is the seminary term for the science or study of interpretation, particularly the Bible. The better one’s hermeneutical skill, the better one can interpret the meaning of scripture. One of the most common problems when interpreting the Bible is when the interpreter inserts or imports into the text their own bias, assumption, or presuppositions. This error is called “eisegesis.” I mention this, because the parable I will share today has a gravitational pull which almost guarantees the reader will eisegete a common theological assumption directly into the text. My hope is that we can pause just prior to this insertion, and examine the text to see what it is saying first, then we can strive for a more accurate interpretation. Below is the passage of consideration from Matthew 13:47-50.
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
At first reading, we quickly see that Jesus is using a parable to illustrate for his disciples what heaven is like. In this passage he compares it to a dragnet. The term “sagéne” refers to what was called a seine net, or a long net that would be dropped off the back of a boat and would “drag” along behind. Its purpose was to gather all sizes and types of fish, and as you can imagine it would gather everything else. It’s a passive way of fishing. So Jesus is revealing that heaven is like this, heaven has every kind (pantòs génos) of fish from the sea. Since the previous parables taught us that heaven is here and now, and that it is objective and subjective, we know that this metaphor of fish refers not only to different groups of people, but different aspects of each person. This rendering holds the most fidelity to the chain of parables within the larger context. The context of each passage is vital to good hermeneutics.
Here this passage depicts the great “sorting” through which is a metaphor for the day of judgment, decision, or separation. Again Jesus is pointing us to the heaven at the end of the age (sunteleia tou aiōnos). Like the weeds that grow together until the end, so the fish are grouped together until this end. When the parable refers to the men sorting fish, it refers to them as good or bad, but when it refers to the end of the age, it refers to angles sorting the evil from the righteous (ek mesou) or “from among.” The implications are first, there is a moral valuation placed on us, and second, it doesn’t necessarily mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. That is where so many of us get tripped up. It’s very easy to see this “great judgment” or “separation” as the throwing out (ballo) of people who must be entirely evil. It uses the term “autos” which can me “them, it, they, the same.” I think religion has inserted here it’s assumption of what makes a person entirely evil or righteous. My point is that the text allows for distinction from among people, but religion doesn’t.
Notice how no one ever interprets righteousness as a person is entirely righteous?
As I’ve already shown in the previous parables, this “Day” of judgment is depicted in scripture in many places and it clearly reveals not only the separation of complete people, but the separation of parts of people, “that part of them”to meris auton, (Revelation 21:8, 1 Corinthians 3:15). Thus, it seems more textually accurate, and far more contextually accurate, to view this passage in the same light as those who would have already understood it in this way, prior to the heaven/hell narratives taking root in Church History.
I have already dealt with the idioms of Gehenna, the fiery furnace, and weeping and gnashing of teeth in numerous posts. Again, the temptation to insert our bias cannot be overstated. Jesus audience would have understood that he was talking about the city dump, where they burned trash and where the marginalized would be relegated who could not live in peace within the safety of the city walls. Dantés Inferno and Hollywood would not influence the understanding of Hell as a subterranean torture center for centuries to come.
All this means that this parable is revealing something truly amazing about heaven. First, heaven is here and now and includes every single person. Second, heaven is also not fully here and when it comes in its totality, it will be sorted through every citizen that abides within it. Each person will have the evil removed leaving only that righteous part. The “pseudo” the, unknowable part, the evil, will be consumed or burnt in a fire which consumes it completely. This means heaven, in perfection, is the place of perfection where all humanity is united to their Maker who has rid each child of God from the evil of this life, enabling each to live in the righteousness, graciously given by their Heavenly Father. This is essentially the teaching that religion has arrived at, but has insisted rather that only those in their tribe, who share a subscription to a very narrow and particular belief system, will have their sin removed. Whereas, in this passage, Jesus makes no mention of a religious requirement. In fact, such a requirement goes against the corpus of Christ’s teaching.
The dragnet reminds us that we are in the middle of the process. We all belong together, and we will all undergo a separation, not between the fish, but the evil will be separated from among (ek mesou) the righteous (haphorisusin tous ponerous ek mesou ton dikaion). Let this sink in. Take some time to think and re-think again the kingdom of heaven. The term for that is metanoia, which means to repent. So just as John the Baptist said, rethink for the kingdom of heaven is here, so this parable echos the same good news. Like all parables, they apply to those who have ears to hear.
Can you hear it? Can you see it?