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We find the parable of the net cast into the sea in chapter 13 of the Gospel according to Matthew:
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:47-50).
The net is Gospel teaching, the preaching of apostles, those "fishers of men." The sea is the world. The fish of every kind are the human race. This parable shows that the net of Gospel preaching will gather all men - both righteous and sinners. When the net is full at the end of time, those fish, those humans will be divided. The good will be gathered into vessels of the Kingdom of Heaven, but the bad will be cast away. The Church of Christ on earth - the Church Militant - consists of the most varied people, of zealous Christians, who live according to God's commandments, and as well of people careless or indifferent, Christians by name but not in way of life. We cannot discern their spiritual lives, but the dread, impartial judgment of God at the end of time will tell righteous from the sinners. In Lord Jesus Christ's prophecy of the Dread Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) is certain:
"He shall separate the righteous and the sinners one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left."
The parable of the net merely alludes to the separation of the good from the bad. But the prophecy of Dreaded Judgment adds the question that we must answer: How did we serve our neighbor; that is, how merciful were we toward one another? Christ lists six kinds of help to our neighbor. Identifying Himself, in His love, condescension and mercy, with every pauper and everyone in need of help, the Savior says: "For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me" (Matthew 25:35-36). The Savior sets these works of mercy to suffering people and to those in need of our help somewhat higher than all else achievements. "For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice," says God by the mouth of the Prophet Hosea (Hosea 6:6; see also Matthew 9:13 and 12:7).
The parable of the net and the prophecy on the Dread Judgment end with threatening images of the punishment of sinners. The parable of the net mentions how "the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." The Lord's prophecy says that sinners will go "into everlasting fire."
These threatening images frighten some people and cause others to protest, because they see Lord Jesus Christ as angry and condemning. It troubles others that Christ's images of the judgment are physical: sinners given over to torment in everlasting fire.
Interpretation of the Gospel, a scholarly Russian book by the B. I. Gladkov, remarks "Should one understand the words furnace of fire literally, or consider that the punishment awaiting sinners is only likened to torments in a fiery furnace. It seems to us that one might understand these words literally if Jesus Christ always expressed Himself thus about the impending future of sinners; however, it is known that in other instances He expressed Himself somewhat differently: thus, in the Sermon on the Mount, He compared the torments of sinners with abiding in the valley of fire (Gehenna, Matthew 5:29þ "hell" on the Authorized Version). After that, when speaking of the lot that will befall those who have not accepted Him, He said that they "shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, while many shall come from the east and west and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:11-12). Burning in a furnace was known to Jesus' audience from the books of the Old Testament: Judah, the son of Jacob, condemned his daughter-in-law Tamar to burning (Genesis 38:24); David cast into a kiln the inhabitants of his conquered city of Rabbah (II Kings [II Samuel in the Authorized Version] 12:31). "Nebuchadnezzar ordered Ananias, Misael and Azarias, who did not worship the golden idol, to be cast into a furnace made red-hot by fire" (Daniel 3:21).
So, in the time of Lord Jesus Christ, burning captives alive was a customary death penalty, but most horrible and excruciating. When He spoke of the future punishment of sinners, he spoke of fire to awaken his listeners, to make them think of repentance and rebirth. Replying to the Sadducees later, on resurrection, Jesus likened resurrected bodies at the Dread Judgment to spirits and angels. He explained that the bodies of the resurrected will not be our bodies from life here on earth, as if the sufferings of the condemned will also be more spiritual than physical.
We need not understand the words of Christ literally, because all the parables use figurative language to make their meaning easier to remember. The Lord uses especially vivid speech in the Gospel. He says "And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched where there worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:43-44). These words ought not to be understood literally. Evil and sin are not in the human hand, but in the human heart. The hand is only the tool of sin. And cutting off the hand or foot cannot remove temptation. Instead, we remove temptation and sin by force of will and by prayer. Thus, these words of Christ about eternal tortures have only a symbolic meaning to match a vivid image. Equally symbolic are the Lord's words "fire that shall never be quenched" and "worm" that "dieth not."
The hierarch John Chrysostom sees these torments of sinners as deprivation of the glory of God's Kingdom, abandonment by God, and remoteness from God, Who is Love. This spiritual pain is worse than physical punishment. Saint John Chrysostom calls this parable "terrifying," and Gregory the Theologian tells us to fear it more than to interpret it.
In the parable of the net and in the prophecy on the Dread Judgment, Christ shows that He does not cut off His love from us, but we alienate ourselves from His love by our sin and lack of mercy. The Savior calls us, before it is too late, to do good works in His name, to seek sobriety and freedom from everyday cares, and to think about our soul, meeting the Lord.
This ascetic mind set must guide us. It is not dark or melancholy, as people far from the Church may imagine. On the contrary, it is a joy that we see in Christian ascetics and all those on its path. May God grant that at the end of time, when we, according to the parable of the net, are drawn to the shore of the Kingdom of Christ, we will be gathered ... into vessels.