Jesus said to his disciples, "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. 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.
"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old." (Matthew 13:47-52)
This text is appointed both for the Feast of Alcuin (May 20, 2005) and for the Feast of The Venerable Bede (May 25, 2005). As a result, I have heard two sermons preached on the same text within a single week. But, here's the catch: I've had a difficult time hearing the sermons because as we near the end of the reading, Jesus asks the disciples, "Have you understood all this?" And, we are told, the disciples answered, "Yes." Jesus' response is "great. . . let's go on then, here's the rest of the message."
But I want to say, perhaps on behalf of the disciples (or at least those who were of a similar mental constitution), "WAIT! I don't get it! The fish in the net that are thrown out because they are "bad" - o.k., pretty straight forward; but, the fish in the net that are kept because they are "good" - um, don't they get eaten?!" Maybe the metaphor breaks down at this point and this is why, the Gospel writer uses anaphora to create a piling of images - in the hopes that by the third time, the disciples really DO get it. . . Here are the three verses which precede this pericope:
"‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.' ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.'"
So, the Kingdom of Heaven makes us want to sell everything we have in order to partake AND, at the same time, it's like a net full of fish - some good, some bad - which will be sorted out in the end. After which there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth." This is no help: now I am to sell everything I have in the hope that I will not end up in the trash heap.
I suspected that the answer sat emerged in the final verse:
"Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
And yet, I can make neither heads nor tails of it (sorry about the switch in metaphor).
The explanation offerred by M. Eugene Boring in The New Interpreter's Bible, while it may be apt from a scholastic standpoint, does little to relieve my anxiety. Boring suggests that this last verse is actually an autobiographical parable - that is the Gospel writer is referring to himself as the scribe. That which is old includes such things as "Scripture, stock of traditional imagery, perspectives, and concerns" and the new is the manner in which the old has been appropriated by the Gospel writer in his storytelling (314-5). Great! Bottom line - the sorting is going to happen.
I wish Jesus had stopped the metaphor just after the net was cast into the sea, catching fish of every kind. This is a comfortable image of the Kingdom of God - everybody gets scooped up and included (we'll set aside that image of fish getting eaten at this point - very unhelpful!). But then, as Boring reminds us, in a paraphrase of Ulrich Luz, "On the sofa, the parables of the kingdom cannot be understood" (316). Perhaps my struggle with this text is intended to motivate me to leave the comforts of my metaphorical sofa, to leave this cozy place and seek the Kingdom of Heaven so that, upon discovering it, I too will be so moved as to sell all that I have in order to partake of that treasure. It sure is hard to imagine a place more comfortable than the sofa . . .on the other hand, how long was I really planning on just sitting here anyhow?