The following is a short sermon I gave last week on Matthew 13:47-50. This certainly isn’t a text I would have chosen for myself; but apparently lectionaries have a way of making us deal with texts which we would avoid if given the chance. The up side is that I was forced to think through how I might articulate my views on hell, two-fold judgment, etc., in under 10 minutes, and to those who don’t spend copious hours each week reading and thinking about theology. I offer it here, hoping that it may be helpful to others out there in the cyber world.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. (Ps. 19:14)
“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.” (Mt. 13:47-50)
If you’re like me, sometimes when you open the Bible you find texts that encourage you, assure you, inspire you.
Texts like Ps. 23:
“The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.”
Or, like the end of Rom. 8:
“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But other times, when you open the Bible you find texts that, if you are really honest with yourself, you just wish weren’t there.
That’s how I felt when I looked at this evening’s Gospel passage.
This is what the kingdom of heaven is like…
The bad fish are separated from the good fish (the evil from the righteous), and thrown into the “furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Not exactly the kind of thing that makes its way into greeting cards.
I don’t like texts like this.
I don’t like them because just when I think I’m starting to get a clear picture of who God is and what God is up to, a text like this one comes along to screw it up.
And quite frankly, to me, in texts like this one (and there are a few),
God just looks ungracious and arbitrary.
Didn’t the Apostle Paul say:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one”!?
I thought we were all in the same boat,
A sinking boat,
But in it together nonetheless.
I thought there was no such thing as deserving the kingdom of heaven,
that we were saved by God’s grace,
That “while we were yet sinners
yet bad fish]
Christ died for us.”
Traditionally, theologians have said:
“yes, yes, on our own we are all bad fish,
all unrighteous, all doomed to the furnace of fire,
But Christ chose to have mercy on us and save us,
And in the process we become righteous, we become good fish…
But not all of us.”
And there’s the catch.
The majority view throughout Christian history has been that God doesn’t save everyone.
That there are some who remain bad fish.
That the kingdom of heaven is only for some.
There has also been a minority view running through most of Christian history, a view which takes very seriously texts like Romans 11:32, Titus 2:11, and Col 1:20:
“For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.”
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”
“And through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
Those who have taken this minority view believe that when the Bible says “all,” it really means all,
That texts like these carry some serious weight,
And that however real hell may be for some people in the present,
However much weeping and gnashing of teeth we may now endure,
It will not last forever. Not for any of us.
They believe that grace will have the last word,
And that in the end, the kingdom of heaven will really be for all.
There was a 20th century theologian whose name I’ve always envied—
Hans Urs von Balthasar.
I really appreciate his assessment of all this.
He said that “in the New Testament,
[these] two series of statements run along side by side in such a way that a synthesis of both in neither permissible nor achievable: the first series speaks of being lost for all eternity; the second, of God’s will, and ability, to save all.”
We can’t synthesize these two series of statements;
And I don’t want to throw either of them away.
Well, maybe I do.
But I don’t think that would be the right move to make.
I know that these texts are thoroughly human.
Even in their inspiration,
They aren’t divinized.
But if I dismissed a text, or a series of texts,
As being “merely human,”
Or at least “too human” to be of value to us,
Then I’d be assuming that the humanity of the Bible somehow limited God’s ability to speak in and through it.
And I don’t think that’s the case.
I think God speaks in these human texts precisely as the human texts that they are.
Miraculously, of course,
But I think that’s what happens.
This doesn’t mean that God shares all the same assumptions as the authors of Scripture;
It just means that God meets us, and has something important to say to us, in their words.
Also, if I was to start picking through the Bible, saying:
“I’ll take this bit, this looks good to me, this looks divine;
But I’ll leave that bit, that’s just archaic…”
And so on, all the way through,
I’d probably end up with a God who looked suspiciously like myself,
A God of my own making.
It would be very convenient.
This god would like who I like,
Dislike who I dislike,
Vote for who I vote for.
It’d be great.
But it’d be a lie;
And a dangerous one.
This god would be an idol,
made in my own image and cast into eternity,
A way of giving divine status to my subjective opinions.
And that is a profoundly bad idea.
So I think it’s best to assume that God is at work in all of these texts, even if we can’t always see how.
I don’t know what will happen in the end.
I don’t know if the kingdom of heaven will ultimately be enjoyed by all.
But there is certainly sufficient reason to leave the question open in hope.
Texts like this evening’s parable from Matthew remind me that the God who is at work in the world, and in these Scriptures, is not a God of my own choosing.
When I open my Bible to passages like this one I’m confronted with the fact that the God to whom I pray is, in many ways,
A dark, mysterious, and unknown other.
His thoughts are not my thoughts;
His ways are not my ways.
He is utterly out of my control.
But at the same time, God is not wholly unknown.
To leave it at that and say no more would be wrong.
After all, Jesus said: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
We see that God’s love, even for the bad fish,
Is a love which far exceeds our own.
We see that there is no length to which God will not go to save his children—
Even the unruly and hostile ones.
Luther said that in Jesus God went so far as to become
“the one Great sinner;”
He became the one bad fish,
Who went himself into the furnace of fire where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,
And overcame it on our behalf.
And if that doesn’t constitute grounds for hope, then I don’t know what would.
This is a God who will confuse us,
And even offend us at times.
There is no getting around it.
And yet this is a God in whom we can place our trust and our hope.