Sunday, December 6, 2015

Question & Response: Parable of the Dragnet (Matt 13:47-50) - Brad Jersak with Jacob McMillen

Question (Jacob McMillan):
Jacob McMillen is a freelance writer and the editor of Brazen Church 

A friend of mine just directed me to this passage, and I haven't read anything on it. After spending a few mins on it, nothing really comes to mind in terms of as an alternative conclusion. Any thoughts?
Matt 13:47-5247 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind; 48 and when it was filled, they drew it up on the beach; and they sat down and gathered the good fish into containers, but the bad they threw away.49 So it will be at the end of the age; the angels will come forth and take out the wicked from among the righteous, 50 and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51 “Have you understood all these things?” They *said to Him, “Yes.” 52 And Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old.”

Response (Brad):

The parable of the dragnet, similar to the parable of the wheat and the tares a few paragraphs earlier, is a good example of St Matthew’s dualistic eschatology. By dualistic, we refer to the segregation of two classes of people (just and wicked) to two destinations (the kingdom of heaven and the furnace of fire). What do we make of this (usually Matthean) approach to eschatology vis-à-vis the various monistic theologies (found especially in the Pauline corpus and John’s Gospel)?

‘Monism’ in this context mean that all persons pass through the same fire of judgment (Mark 9, 1 Cor. 3) and all come to the same destination (God’s throne, from which flows the river of fire – Dan. 9). The consuming fire of God’s glorious love either refines everyone for universal redemption or is experienced as heaven or hell, depending on one’s orientation to the love of Christ.

In dualist eschatology, ‘hell’ is seen as separation from God in outer darkness or a fiery prison, whereas a monistic ‘hell’ would be the torment of standing in the fiery presence of God unprepared (though monistic eschatology hopes the divine fire will also purify and glorify everyone eventually (Mal. 3).

Harmonizing the two eschatological visions is difficult and various approaches have been attempted. Among these:

·    Matthew is sometimes seen as the culprit, espousing an earlier theology still bound up in retribution and dualism because the gospel message was still in the process of transforming the apostles’ worldview. Indeed, a comparison of parallel passages between Matthew and Luke reveals that either Luke has pared back the violence of Matthew’s descriptions or that the violent themes are Matthew’s own editorial accretions (for rhetorical effect).

·    Von Balthasar proposed that dualistic eschatology in the Synoptics represents pre-resurrection Jewish theology that Jesus assumes (borrows) as a concession to his first listeners, precisely in order to subvert it. On the other hand, monistic eschatology in John or Paul represents post-resurrection understandings in light of Christ’s mission to save the whole cosmos and his decisive victory over hades.   
·    Gospel preterists in the stream of N.T. Wright would see ‘the end of the age’ here as referring to the fall of Jerusalem rather than the Final Judgment at the general resurrection. The gleaning by the angels would then refer to those who obey Christ in fleeing when they see the signs of the forthcoming siege. Those who are cast in the fire are those who ignored the Jesus Way and joined the Jewish rebellion.

·    A basic consecutive approach harmonizes the texts by seeing an initial dualist segregation of righteous and wicked, followed thereafter by the redemption of all through whatever processes that bring the nations (outside the city) into the city of God (as in Rev. 21-22).

In any case, I personally take the parable of the dragnet as an authentic Jesus tradition. I hear its original context and intent while interpreting it in light of broader canonical revelation. It is essential, in my opinion, not to race past the raw, first read of what the text actually says into a sterilized conclusion that conforms to one’s ideology (or even to later biblical revelation).

So we begin with the original point of the parable: the separation of the righteous and the wicked … the points possibly being:
  • Don’t be wicked!  There are definitely two ways to live (even for the monists) and there will be a day where we will face the meaning of our lives and pass through the judgment.
  • Don’t judge! It is not for you to determine who is ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Such judgment is left to the angels and is left until the end. Beware of being presumptuous judges making premature judgments. [Later, Matthew’s Jesus shifts this responsibility from angels to the Son of Man himself].
  • Perhaps most surprising, this judgment addresses God’s people: not those in the church versus outside of the church. Rather, the angels have already gathered the fish into the one dragnet (just as wheat and tares were in one field). It’s only after the gathering into the nets that the angels then sort between the righteous and the wicked from among the people of God.
If this parable does describe the Final Judgment, then the facts of the parable are that the wicked will be thrown into the furnace and there will be weeping and great regret. But post-resurrection theology can then add, ‘And that’s not the end of the story.’

Those who pass through the fire may indeed suffer loss and a great crisis as their lives our opened to them for examination, particularly the ‘worm’ of regret where the conscience accuses us for rejecting perfect love or failing to love with the love we were given.

Nevertheless, it is at least possible that all will pass through the furnace refined, having the wood, hay and stubble of our old or false selves consumed in the fire of divine love, while gold, silver and precious stones of our true or Christ selves shine forth in their glorified states.

Now Jesus did not take the parable that far, because this was a word of dire warning to Jewish dualists in spiritual peril in the presence of the Judge himself. It was not a word of comfort to post-resurrection Christian monists seeking God’s mercy as they face their future. Might the parable still function today as it did when Jesus first uttered it?

It is possible. For example, St Silouan the Athonite, an Orthodox monk of the twentieth century, spoke to a fellow Christian who showed too much glee at the prospects of the exclusion of others. He said,

“If the Lord saved you along with the entire multitude of your brethren, and one of the enemies of Christ and the Church remained in the outer darkness, would you not, along with all the others, set yourself to imploring the Lord to save this one unrepentant brother? If you would not beseech Him day and night, then your heart is of iron – but there is no need for iron in paradise.”

Yes, perhaps some should yet consider this parable and fear exclusion from paradise. Not the pagan, the murderer or adulterer, for their hearts are often softest to the Bridegroom’s call (so says the Jesus of Matthew many times). But the one who perchance ought to tremble is that soul who knows they are ‘in’ and knows someone else is ‘out,’ and insists on dogmatizing their own privileged dualism. Hell may be a mysterious existential reality for those who have wielded it as a threatening club at others.

Far better the humility of hope for all that imagines no one in hell but oneself, yet (as Silouan says) despairs not. 

Does this help? 

Question (Jacob): 

Absolutely. On multiple levels. I appreciate your willingness to take it piece by piece without forcing it into a predefined narrative. I also find your final exhortation to be particularly meaningful, although I must say that, while I despise religious dogma more than most, I can't make sense of a perspective that places religious dogma in a special class of "sin".
I've noticed this idea in several of your writings - the idea that perhaps the Pharisee will be deserving of unique consequences (if I understand it correctly). I feel like there is a place in the NT, maybe Paul's writings, where he potentially alludes to this idea - that a shepherd or leader who leads others astray has a greater weight of consequence - but as much as I am horrified by those who mislead the religious masses, I find it hard to think of them worse than the rapist or child abuser who I believe God will still reach out His hand to.
I might be misunderstanding your comments, but if not, I'd be interested to hear more about your thought process here.

Response (Brad): 

Yes, of course you are right, re: the Pharisees (modern and ancient) ... they of course aren't more deserving of, or destined for, hell, but what Jesus did and what Silouan and I am attempting is a kind of rhetoric that says to those who use hell on others that they must ponder what it's like to put themselves in the shoes of those they torment ... not least because the pride of presumption (that leads them to condemn others without any thought that others could enter the kingdom before them) is like running with scissors.


I see. That makes a lot of sense. And Jesus is talking to Pharisees in many of these situations, so it would make sense he is making a point that highlights their issues, as you mentioned.