06. The Dragnet

Again, the kingdom of Heaven is compared to a drag net thrown into the sea, and gathering together of every kind; which, when it was filled, drawing it up on the shore, and sitting down, they gathered the good into containers, and they threw out the rotten. So it will be in the completion of the age: the angels will go out and will separate the evil from the midst of the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; there will be weeping and gnashing of the teeth. (Matthew 13:47-50)

We come now to the sixth parable in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that begins with the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like…” or “compared to.” When you look at these parables, in the way they are set out in the text of the Gospel, you will see that they fall into two groups of three parables each and that each grouping is separated by Jesus giving the interpretation of one of the parables of the series. So, in the first group we have The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, followed by The Parable of the Mustard Seed, followed by The Parable of a Woman Taking Leaven and Mixing it into Three Measures of Meal. Then we have Jesus giving an explanation of The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares before delivering the next group of three parables, The Treasure Hid in a Field, The Pearl of Great Price, and finally The Parable of the Dragnet, which is followed by a short explanation, that interestingly is very similar to what is said concerning The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.

In each of the parables we have illustrated a series of principles that govern a person’s experience of spiritual regeneration as they seek to live their lives from the Lord’s Word. We begin by reminding ourselves that the kingdom of heaven is within us and that all that is described as relating to the kingdom of heaven relates to the Lord as the Word operating within our psychological or spiritual world. This is the world that we experience as our mental life. It’s important that we remind ourselves of this when we read the Scriptures so that we avoid deflecting the responsibility the Lord entrusts to us to examine our own life, and not anyone else’s, in the light of His Word.

Let’s look at an example of this tendency to view others rather than ourselves in the light of today’s reading. Look at verses 49 and 50.

So it will be in the completion of the age: the angels will go out and will separate the evil from the midst of the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; there will be weeping and gnashing of the teeth.

If this is read from what is lower in us, we will not understand its meaning or the outworking of the principle of the “kingdom of heaven” being illustrated. Remember that the things of the spirit are spiritually discerned, the natural man or mind cannot grasp spiritual things; they are a deep darkness to it. But the spiritual man, or mind, is in spiritual light and spiritual light is the light of love or charity and when the Scriptures are read from that light, the Lord’s love shines through. Now your natural mind will be limited to one of two responses when reading this passage. It will either accept that the passage is literally true, believing that, at some point in the future, angels will be involved in separating out the evil from the righteous and that the evil will be thrown into “the furnace of fire,” or it will find a difficulty with this idea not seeing how a loving God could allow people to be thrown into a furnace of fire even if this is fire is regarded as a symbolic metaphor for suffering. This latter view could lead to a rejection of the Scriptures as the Word.

Both views present difficulties because both stem from thinking literally about what the Word has to say regarding spiritual realities. The difference between them is seen in the view each holds of the Scriptures. The first hold onto the Scriptures as the Word of God but end up with a false, harsh view of the nature of God and spiritual life. The second group end up rejecting the Scriptures because of their apparent harshness, or if they don’t reject them outright, end up picking and choosing what they will accept or not and so close themselves off from a fuller understanding of the principles and support being offered through them for living a spiritual life. But when we bring to our reading a spiritual perspective the difficulties are removed and we can see the truth of what’s there, not in an abstract sense but within the very experience of our lives.

To read these verses naturally is to think from time and space – so the natural man will understand the phrase “end of the age” as referring to a future time, “angels” will be understood in terms of entities or beings who serve to carry out the will of God, the “righteous” and the “evil” will be understood in terms of two groups of people one of which, classed as “evil,” will find themselves subject to terrible punishments. The problem with thinking naturally or from the literal sense about these things is that they immediately become understood in terms of us and them, the righteous and the evil; “If we are those who are going to heaven, then it must be those others who will suffer torment.” This kind of thinking deflects our attention from applying what we are reading to our own states of life and directing it towards the states of others. When carried further it conceals judgments that simmer beneath the surface that warp our view of others so that they are seen from an uncharitable light. Thankfully the doctrines for Spiritual Christianity offers us a new way of understanding Scriptures such as this. We will return to this a little later, but just let me say for now that none of this is what it seems when viewed from a spiritual perspective.

There is a clear connection between this parable and The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, so in a sense we have come full circle. Both deal with that gathering up of both what is useful and what is not useful, before what is gathered undergoes a process of sorting or separation. You will recall that in the first parable the key principle involved allowing the wheat and the tares to grow together until the harvest, after which the tares could be separated from the wheat. This teaches us that some of the things we see in our lives that we may want removed can’t be taken away until the conditions are such that this can be done safely.  It shows us that we need to be gentle with ourselves and not be overly self-critical lest we end up looking to violently remove evils and destroy the capacity for good along with them. To attack evils from the proprium, rather than from the Word, stems from an unhealthy preoccupation on our short comings, which is characterised by being caught up in guilt and self-condemnation. Through parables like this the Lord gives us what we need to understand the process so that we can work with Him lest in our zeal to be purified we destroy our capacity for expressing goodness in life through an unhealthy preoccupation with our evils.

We see this same principle re-emphasised in this parable of the dragnet, only this time rather than the future harvest of wheat we are given the imagery of being in the actual act of “harvesting” fish using a dragnet and then sorting the catch. In actual fact there is no mention of fish specifically in the Greek text, it’s assumed from the context, but we get the picture. There are important principles here concerning our experience of the operation of the principles of the kingdom of heaven in our living the spiritual life. The first thing is that the net is all encompassing and doesn’t discriminate as to what is accepted into it. The net itself represents what draws together or binds into a single whole all the affections for natural ideas we have swimming around in our natural minds, which is like a great sea of knowledge.

So, we are taught here that the principles of the kingdom of heaven work like a net cast into the sea as they become established in our life. This is because as we learn spiritual principles we gain the means by which our thinking can be reorganised according to our new sense of priorities. As spiritual things begin to take a higher priority in our lives then everything we have taken into our minds begins to be understood and assessed in a new way, and so in this way are drawn into the net of the spiritual doctrine we hold to and are making one with our life.

When this process of ingathering reaches a certain point we come into a new spiritual state of life. That point of change in our state is described by the words “when it was filled,” or if you like when a point of fulfilment or completion had been reached.  We are then told that it is being drawn up onto the shore and then sitting down, the sorting process begins. The first state is one of building up our understanding. In this period we cast our net, our mind, far and wide and draw in all kinds of information. For example if one of the strands of our net is the idea that God is love then we will gather from the Scriptures the stories and facts that support this idea. Another strand might hold that God is a stern judge who condemns the wicked to hell, this strand will be sensitive to everything in literal sense of the Word that supports that idea. Maybe another strand believes in a literal coming of Christ and a final battle of good against evil in the world called Armageddon and so that strand organises pieces of information in the Word and knowledge about world events in support of it.

But there are other ideas, which when heard, everyone knows are true. These ideas are of a different quality altogether, these are those strands of the net that have a direct impact on how we are to live, and include knowledge of the ten commandments, of the golden rule, of loving the Lord and our neighbour etc. The inherent goodness in these ideas as essential to supporting the moral, civil, and spiritual life of human beings and are designed to form the basis for our actual conduct. Other ideas may or may not be true and remain purely hypothetical or theoretical or speculative; ideas like those about Armageddon or what God will or won’t do with the wicked etc, but it is clear, even from the literal sense of Scripture, that ideas like the 10 Commandments and the Golden Rule directly speak to how we live and for this reason can and are to be obeyed. These ideas are like a sure foundation and when we live from them simply because we recognise that it is the right thing to do we, or our net, or our life, is then drawn up onto the shore, or onto a firmer footing.

From this ground we become more settled, which is captured in the statement of the net being drawn UP (Greek), that is, it is drawn higher or toward things more internal (spiritually speaking) onto the shore after which there is a settling or sitting down. When we acknowledge the value of spiritual things for the good they are able to bring into being, we are lifted up or are able to see things from a heavenly perspective. We then have the ability to look into our minds and evaluate what things are useful and what is not; what is worth holding onto and what is irrelevant from the perspective of what is able to serve those things pertaining to the spiritual life.

The end of verse 48 says that at this point the good is gathered into its containers or vessels. This teaches us that the end of this process is to have what is genuinely good and useful from a spiritual perspective placed within its proper vessels. It’s a process in which goodness is adjoined to its own truths as containers, these being ideas and concepts in our minds that can give them expression in loving activities. What this means is that as we look to the Lord in His Word with a desire to live in obedience to it, we are given the ability to discern between what is genuinely good and what is evil within our minds. It is then as we act on what we see that our understanding of the Word undergoes a transformation. What is merely hypothetical or speculative falls away, and what is real, that is, what is good shines forth in a new understanding of those passages of Scripture that seemed harsh and unforgiving, at least on the surface.

We can now see this transformation in our own understanding by returning to our discussion centred on verses 49 and 50.

So it will be in the completion of the age: the angels will go out and will separate the evil from the midst of the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; there will be weeping and gnashing of the teeth. (Matthew 13:49-50)

The Word teaches that the first of charity is to resist evils as sins against the Lord.  At first glance this may seem a little strange, surely charity is doing good. But the teaching is that the life of the Lord is goodness itself and that this flows into every one of us. The problem is not the absence of goodness but the presence of evils, so that when life from the Lord enters into a human mind that is steeped in what is selfish and false, the inflowing life gets turned on its head and is expressed as its opposite in various forms of selfishness. Our minds, when unregenerate, are filled with inappropriate vessels that resist and therefore can’t give expression to the goodness flowing in from the Lord. The problem is not that the good isn’t present; it’s that our state of life gets in the way of it being expressed appropriately. Thus our job is to work with the Lord through practising truths from the Word in order to have the obstacles to this goodness removed through self-examination and repentance. So when we look at these verses from a spiritual perspective, “…the evil in the midst of the righteous,” as far as its application on a personal level is concerned, these are not two groups of people, but are two aspects within ourselves that need sorting out.

The natural mind immediately jumps to thinking of the “end of the age” as some point in time in the future, but the spiritual mind recognises that the phrase “end of the age” refers not to some point in time in the future but to what is going on right now, especially as it applies to the end in view the Lord has for us now and in every moment. This phrase refers to the end state of mind towards which our spiritual life is being directed as we look to the Lord in His Word. The end the Lord has in mind for all people is for love or charity to be more fully expressed in their lives, because this is the kingdom of heaven. Now the process by which this occurs is one of examining ourselves to discover what obstructs the Lord’s love.  What the Lord gives us to support this process are “the angels” we find in this parable. Every time we gain an insight into some aspect within us that blocks the Lord’s love being expressed we are in the company of angels, which are truths from the Word. This is what angels are; they are affections for truth. When these are active in our minds we are given the ability to discern “the evil” and separate it out from “…the midst of the righteous…” or what is of the Lord in us.

Once we truly recognise those things within us that separate us from the Lord, their hold over us is weakened. That’s because we begin to see them in the light of truths from the Word, and so see them for what they really are. It is in this seeing that they are cast into the furnace. The power of evil is stripped in the very act of our seeing that they are from hell and therefore have no place in us.  It is then that we are given the power to reject them, and in the act of rejecting them they are cast back into the hell from which they came. People often mistakenly read the next part of the verse as applying to those in hell – that those cast into the fire will be the ones weeping and gnashing their teeth. But this is not what it says here. When you look at the verse more closely you will see that it is a statement referring to the whole process. Let’s read it again…

…the angels will go out and will separate the evil from the midst of the righteous, and will throw them into the furnace of fire. There will be weeping and gnashing of the teeth.

This last part of the statement can be read as our own struggle to let go of what stands in the way of the kingdom of heaven coming more fully into our lives. So we see now that this refers not to some future event in time or to other people. Rather it refers to our own experience of the spiritual life. Isn’t it the case that as we are confronted with selfish attitudes that need to be removed, or when we feel we have not lived up to our own expectations that we feel like weeping? That in this struggle called the spiritual life we often feel frustrated and unable to move on, that we feel distant from the Lord?  All this is part of the process of having internal things sorted and place in order. Our hope is forever in the Lord. To see what the process brings about we can refer to an earlier verse, very similar to this one, where the Lord comments on The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, but with an additional statement. In verses 41-43 we read this…

The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all the offences, and those who practice lawlessness. And they will throw them into the furnace of fire; there will be weeping and gnashing of the teeth. Then the righteous will shine out like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. The one having ears to hear, let him hear. (Matthew 13:41-43)

May we hear the Word of the Lord…

It does need to be known, though, that angels have absolutely no power on their own, but that all the power they have comes from the Lord. Further, they are powers to the extent that they recognise this fact. Any of them who believe that their power comes from themselves immediately become so weak that they cannot resist even a single evil spirit. This is why angels take absolutely no credit to themselves and turn down any praise or admiration for anything they have done, but attribute it all to the Lord. It is the divine truth emanating from the Lord that possesses all power in the heavens, because the Lord in heaven is divine truth united to divine good. To the extent that angels are open to this truth, they are powers. Further each individual angel is her or his own truth and own good, because the nature of each one is determined by her or his discernment and intent, discernment being a matter of what is true because all its functions originate in truths, and intent being a matter of what is good because all its functions originate in aspects of the good. You see, whatever we understand we call true and whatever we intend we call good. This is why each one of us is his or her own truth and own good. Therefore, to the extent to which an angel is truth from the Divine and good from the Divine, that angel is a power because the Lord is with angels to that extent. Further, since no one enjoys exactly the same good and truth as anyone else (for in heaven and in this world there is constant variety, one angel does not enjoy the same power as another.) (Heaven and Hell 230-231)

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