Parable of the Draw Net, by Father Basil William Maturin

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away. Thus it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. – Matthew 13:47-50

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In the former Parables we have seen under different images the Kingdom of Heaven growing like a plant, working like leaven in the meal. We have seen different types of men awakening to its claims, and coming into personal relationship with its gifts, appropriating its blessings as a thing so valuable that they are ready to sacrifice all that they possess for it.

But it is necessary to take a wider view, and to see this Kingdom of Heaven as a whole; to watch it at work, and to see it as it is in itself. For it is as bewildering a thing to study it as a whole, as it is to watch its workings in our own souls. It is so different in many respects from what we should have anticipated, and yet so true to our Lord’s prophecy of what it was to be.

We are to see, then, a great organization in the midst of the world; seemingly a part of that very world against which it bears witness. It is to be distinct from it, yet not altogether apart from it; it is to separate those who belong to it from those who do not, yet in such a way that there are no visible barriers set up to obstruct the relationship between those who are within the Kingdom and those who are outside of it. It is a Kingdom with its own aims and motives, quite different from, often directly at variance with, those of the world, and yet it is to be largely influenced by the movements of the world at every different age.

Our Lord’s picture of this Kingdom of Heaven in this Parable is not an ideal picture of the Church as it exists in His Mind – that picture is given us elsewhere. Here He draws it for us to the life, as we know it and see it, and He explains to us many of those startling anomalies and contradictions which often present great difficulties to faith.

He takes us, then, in this Parable out of our present surroundings, living as we do amidst the elements of the earth in which the Church finds Her existence and Her struggle, and He bids us come up into another atmosphere, out of all this mixed condition of things, and look down. ‘Come with Me,’ He says, ‘up into the higher air in which I stand and look down upon what is going on in that lower element in which the Church and the world have their home. Living in the denser atmosphere of earth, it is impossible to see and understand, to separate those two kingdoms which are so closely related yet so different in their origin and work. Feeling the tides and currents of earth penetrating everywhere, it often seems to you as if the Church must get carried away and swamped by the stronger forces of earth. You have often dreamed of a Church surrounded by a wall great and high, with closed doors, behind which Her citizens can live a cloistered life, untouched by the movements around Her. A city of refuge into which the weary can run and be safe. Come up here where I am, and look down. See how clear it all is; how true at once to experience and to the purpose of God. You are right in expecting a Church that can give you refuge and protection against the world; you are wrong in the kind of protection you look for. You are right in looking for a Church whose organization is strong enough to withstand all the antagonism and deceit of the world; you are wrong in the kind of strength you look for That strength is not the unbending strength of a wall; it is the elastic strength of a net You are right in looking for the supernatural control and guidance of the Church; you are wrong in expecting to find it uninfluenced by the tides and currents which are ever streaming through it, but can never wrench it from the controlling Hand that holds it Look down into that dense atmosphere from which I have called you up and see. “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.”‘

‘A net cast into the sea;’ let down from a higher world, out of a different sphere, framed to work in a rougher and coarser element than that in which its texture was fashioned – such is the Kingdom of Heaven. It is a net, made for the sea; all is fitted for its work there; its whole design finds its interpretation in the element in which its work is to be done. It is not perhaps the most perfect thing conceivable, but it is the best when we consider the place and the circumstances in which it is to find its home. It has to deal with strong, passionate, rough, unreasoning forces; it has to enclose a vast multitude that often in the strain of circumstances rush, or are driven blindly by the sweeping currents, against the restraints that enclose them; it has to live amidst changing tides and unexpected currents; its home is in an unstable and shifting element that has dormant within it tremendous forces which seem governed by no law and swayed by no motive but destruction. Therefore, if this Kingdom is to be strong, it must have, not the strength of a fortress built upon a rock, which has to stand against powers that can be foreseen and measured, but it must have the strength that can bend and move and yield with the currents, that can stand against a storm or the strain of a heavy pressure, and have sufficient elasticity to recover itself. The unyielding strength that can resist for a time the dash of the waves and the violence of the storm is worn out by the constant fretting of the waters; the fabric of the net is made so as to live in the sea; the texture is light and open and elastic, and its very strength arises from this power to yield and to be penetrated by the waters. It is not the strength that asserts itself, and bears witness to its own power; no, to all appearance it is devoid of strength, but experience shows how much stronger it is than other things that look more robust.

So it is with the Church; while other institutions have worn out or given way under the strain of popular uprising, or been lashed to pieces by revolutionary upheavals, the Church has been able to live on; She was fashioned to live in heaving tides, and sweeping currents, and restless seas. The web of Her organism is so woven that She need fear none of these things. That inorganic heavy mass of netting lying in its formless bulk upon the shore, throws itself out, opens and becomes living in the waters; it has no fear there, it is in its own element, it knows perfectly how to deal with it, how far it must yield, when it must be firm, its apparent weakness, its perfect adaptability is its strength. Some massive pile of rock upon the shore falls at last with a crash, the waters have undermined it; while the yielding net does not present sufficient resistance to feel the stroke of those great waves; it eludes their thundering blows, lets them pass through, and recovers itself. So the Church in Her seeming weakness is stronger than any other institution; the waters are ‘peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues,’ (Revelation 17:15) and amidst these treacherous elements the Church alone is safe.

Look down into those waters below and see it, the thinnest thread scarcely visible, always changing with every wave, always in motion with the waters in which it lives, yet never losing its own essential form, sometimes widening and expanding with the swelling tides, sometimes closing up till it looks as if it never could recover its form again; yet strong enough to weather many a storm and bring its full freight to shore. It is planned above by One Who knows the strength and weakness of the restless element into which it is to be cast; it bears upon its whole system the mark of wisdom and skill; it has a baffling and seemingly miraculous strength under the form of weakness; it has an inexhaustible power of adapting itself to unceasing changes, it can recover itself and swing itself into shape into a moment Its work is to enclose a multitude scattered far and wide, draw them together, and gently bring them to the shore, to that region whence the net came; and it would be impossible to conceive of anything better adapted to carry out this purpose. Yes, assuredly, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a net that was cast into the sea.’

But, again. While the net is, to all appearance, the plaything of the waves, it is as a matter of fact held in the grasp of, and absolutely controlled by, One who stands upon the shore. See it as it is tossed about by the waves; they seem to do what they will with it, to bear it hither or thither as they please; to make or mar its shape and proportions; to all appearance its form and movement at any moment are the result of the action of the waters alone, they toss it hither and thither, expand or contract it, bear it out to sea or dash it in their fury shorewards. Now it is borne with a rush in one direction, and now, in the grasp of some mighty wave, its whole course is altered. But as we watch we see the wondrous yet simple plan by which every thread of that mazy net is controlled by the Mind of Him who holds it in His Hand. His Intelligence, His Will, His Purpose, moves it and governs it, and runs along every delicate fibre, in spite of all its free play in the waters. He knows when to relax His hold and when to draw it in; He knows how to avoid undue strain from the force of the current or the rush of the captives within the net. At the time when all the cords are most lax, and all its movements most free. His Hand gauges the strength of the pull. His Eye, His Mind is upon it all. That vast network is but the Fisherman’s Hand, its movements are the expression of His skill and purpose. The waters may have their way, but never so as to frustrate or hinder His Purpose.

So the whole organism of the Church, spreading like a network throughout the world, so influenced by all the currents of thought and tides of opinion that at times it appears to be but one of many human organizations, is nevertheless all ruled and controlled by the Mind and Hand of Him Who stands above the waterfloods, and Who understands, as we do not, at once His own Purpose and the conditions under which that Purpose is to be carried out It is His design for drawing men out of the restless movements of time to the calm peace of the shore beyond. There is a quiet, steady pull upon all that vast network, enclosing a multitude which no man can number. Sometimes it is scarcely felt; at other times it is strong, definite, even alarming. The wind and the waves may beat with all their force, the currents may set out seaward with a strength that for the moment seems as if it must carry all away with it, but then the power of that firm grasp is felt vibrating throughout every part of the texture, and against all the opposing forces the net is drawn towards the shore. Those who are outside are not strong enough to bear up against the weight of the waters, and, after a moment’s struggle, they are carried out into the depths. Then the strength and purpose of the net are seen and felt; those within are under the guidance and protection of a Hand that can save them from those relentless waters, and that can bear them on against the full flood of the rushing tide.

Such is the Kingdom of Heaven; a thing apparently no stronger than the threads of a net, but in reality strong enough to offer the most invincible resistance to all the forces and tendencies of the world, and carry its freight heavenward. The network of that Divine organization lets the currents flow freely through, is itself borne with them and shaped by them to a certain extent; it is sensitive to all the rush and movement around it, it swings and sways with them, but it is not controlled by them; it is controlled by a power outside and above the waters; it represents another mind and purpose, another tendency than that which the waters generate; on the one hand to a certain extent dependent upon them, on the other hand altogether independent, for its movements are frequently in the opposite direction. Yet often it is only the observant eye that can detect any other force acting upon it than that of the waters; the rush and commotion all about, the visible effect of the waves upon the net, every moment changing its appearance, is so great that the steady pull from the Hand upon the shore is scarcely felt Indeed, many might argue at certain times that all the movement that they could feel or see might be accounted for by the action of the waves alone, and yet at other times a movement is detected that cannot be so accounted for. And thus, while every current of the seething waters acts upon the captives within the net, and often drives them violently against its yielding sides, it can drive them no further; then they feel the pressure and the restraint of their captivity, but also their safety. It is pleasant to swim with the tide; it is unpleasant to feel the jerk that checks their easy movement; but it is the only protection against being carried off into the depths of the sea; for they need to be saved from themselves, from the tendencies of their own nature, as well as from the external forces that would carry them away.

And the one power amidst those blind and restless movements, which is able to resist them, and press on in spite of them steadily towards its end; the one power which can be relied upon always to work towards the shore, towards the upper air, towards the higher world, is that fragile net cast into the sea, and held by Him who stands above the waters. That net floating amidst the waves, and tossed about so easily, betokens another world; it is the only representative of a mind acting from without A higher will, a more intelligent purpose than the battling waves know anything about, is lying there in the depths of the sea, sometimes passive, sometimes active, and each delicate thread is the channel along which that will and intelligence are borne. Whether the net lies slack and shifts with every heaving of the sea, or whether it strains and pulls, it is equally the act of the Mind of Him who holds it

And yet, great as this heavenward force in the world is, how easily for the most part it bears its freight along. Those who are in the captivity of the net often do not know it; it is only in a change of tide, or when strong currents set in, or as they draw near to the shore, that they are conscious of it at all. Those within breathe the same element as those without, enjoy the same liberty, live the same life; they are scarcely conscious how wholly independent of the movement of the waters they are being borne shorewards; only they are safe from any sudden alarms or disturbance of their course. In this sense they are freer than those who, being outside, appear to live in a larger and less confined sphere; they are freer inasmuch as they have not to consider every change of tide, or every fresh current through which they pass; they feel the healthy movements of all such passing changes, but they are protected against their overpowering force or their treachery; they are affected but not controlled by them. These influences, which rule and guide the whole course and direction of those outside the net, do but modify the movements of those who are within; they are not indifferent to them, but they are not carried away by them, for they know that they are encompassed by a force that has all the strength of intelligence and will.

The organization of the Church, the network that encloses those who are led by the Will and Purpose of God, does not rob its captives of their liberty, but protects them from harm; to the honest and good heart these restraints are no restraints; they are shut out from evil and shut in with God. The unrestrained life of the wide sea is not to them as true a liberty as that which keeps them, embraced by the wide sweep of the net, free from the fear of being carried away by some sudden move of the waters. The pressure and strain at times is indeed intense when they pass through dangerous and unforeseen currents, but that is not the normal state. They are for the most part borne along under the guidance and gentle restraint of a power which ever more and more clearly reveals its purpose.

Such is the Kingdom of Heaven seen from above, as we look down upon it from this higher world where He who rules it lives. It is the organization by which God works amidst the stormy passions of the world. It is the network in which He encloses all those whom He is drawing to the shores of Heaven. It is apparently weaker than most of the great institutions of earth, yet in truth it is stronger, and will outlive them all. Its strength and its perfection are only perceived fully when the conditions under which it rules are considered. It is not a compact kingdom, shut out from the world and calling its citizens to live apart from all earthly interests; it is open to every movement of the waters in which it floats, every tide sweeps freely through it; it is so framed that it is strong enough to preserve unchanged amidst storm and calm its own essential organization, and yet to be affected by every changing current.

Such is the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. What more vivid picture could be drawn of it than that drawn by the Hand of our Lord when He says, ‘It is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea; which, when it was full, they drew to shore.’