Wednesday 23 October 2019

The bottom-trawling-fishing-net kingdom

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
20 October 2019

Habakkuk 1.1-2, 14-17
  The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.
 2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?
14 You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler.
 15 The enemy brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults.
 16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his seine; for by them his portion is lavish, and his food is rich.
 17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy?

Matthew 13.47-51
  "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;  48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.
 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous  50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
 51 "Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes."

"Have you understood all this?" Jesus asked
            They answered, "Yes."
By which I really hope they meant, ‘No, not at all’!

This is not easy stuff to understand,
            and we have to give it time and thought
if we are to get to grips with what Jesus was doing
            with these deceptively simple sayings
            that we call the parables of the kingdom.

I’d like to start our reflection on the parable of the drag-net by asking a question,
            and the question is this:
‘By what criteria do you think we can judge things as good or evil?’

This isn’t a straightforward question, of course,
            because it touches on so many areas of our life together,
            both as a church and more widely as a society.

The definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ have shifted over time,
            and still differ from place to place.
You don’t have to go back very far in history,
            or travel very far in terms of geography,
to find people who believe that the death penalty is a good thing;
            whereas most of those who live here in London
                        would probably be of the opinion
                        that the abolition of the death penalty was a good thing.

Or, if you had travelled with our church group to Palestine this time last year,
            you would have seen first-hand the complex and tragic outworking
            of the old adage that ‘one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.’

And within church life, you will find some Christians who condemn, for example,
            women in ministry or same sex marriage,
and others such as ourselves who celebrate both of these
            as the good gifts of God.

Sometimes, it seems, the call on what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’
            is just a function of where you’re standing when you make the call…

So, are ‘good’ and ‘evil’ relative?
            Are there any absolutes here?
‘By what criteria do you think we can judge things as good or evil?’

This is not a new question,
            although the issues around which it coalesces
            change from generation to generation.

Humans have, it seems, always tried to work out
            what constitutes good, and what constitutes evil,
and one of the ways they have done this
            is through the telling of stories,
exploring in narrative the complexities of the problem.

The ancient Babylonians told a story
            that the world was created in violence;
and in their myth known as the Enuma Elish,
            which you can go and see recorded on a clay tablet
            just round the corner from here in the Biritish Museum,
they told of how the great god Marduk killed Tiamat, the goddess of the oceans,
            splitting her carcass to spread it over the heavens
            to keep the waters above from falling to the earth.

By the Babylonian worldview, violence was not evil,
            it was the will of the gods and woven into the fabric of creation.

However, the ancient Jews, exiled in Babylon, told a different story,
            which said that the world was created in goodness and love,
            and that violence entered the world a result of wrongdoing.

So, from a Jewish perspective, violence was evil,
            something to be resisted and avoided.

The reading we had earlier from the prophet Habakkuk
            comes from precisely this time of the Israelite exile to Babylon,
and he is distressed that God appears to have abandoned the people of Israel
            to the violence of the Babylonians.

Habakkuk is concerned that the violent worldview of the Babylonian gods
            is going to triumph over that of the Israelite God
                        who calls the created world good rather than evil.

If you go back to your Bibles afterwards
            and read the first chapter of Habakkuk,
you’ll find it’s actually a dialogue between the prophet and God,
            with the prophet raising his concerns and God answering back.

In our reading today,
            we just heard a small part of the prophet’s side of the conversation,
in which he gives voice to the theological problem that has vexed the ages
            - that question of why it is that God seems to allow evil to prosper,
            and doesn’t intervene to rescue victims from their oppressors.

From Habakkuk’s perspective, Israel has been praying faithfully
            for release, for an end to their suffering,
but God appears to be allowing evil to prosper over good.

Habakkuk uses the image of a fishing net to make his point,
            and complains that God has reduced humans to the level of fish,
                        caught in the Babylonian drag-net of violence,
                        with no opportunity of escape.

In Habakkuk’s image, the drag-net is a symbol of punishment,
            of violence, of hopelessness, and of evil.
And this idea of a fishing net as a symbol of God’s judgment
            surely lies behind Jesus’ parable from Matthew chapter 13.

We’ve been looking at these so-called ‘parables of the kingdom’
            from Matthew’s gospel in our communion services this year,
and we’ve discovered over and again
            that they are rarely quite what they seem.

Consistently, the way Jesus tells these short stories
            has subverted the way in which the Pharisees of his time
                        were making use of traditional images from the Hebrew tradition
                        to justify their version of nationalistic pride and religious intolerance.

So, the parable of the mustard seed undermined their desire
            for Jerusalem to tower over the nations of the world like a mighty cedar.
The parable of the yeast undermined their desire
            for Israel to become so ritually pure
            that all other people were excluded from God’s love.
The parable of the treasure undermined their desire
            to make following God about duty rather than joy.

We have even had a go at writing some contemporary versions of Jesus’ parables
            to see if we could do similar in our world,
undermining those values that tend towards exclusion and nationalism.

And here, in today’s parable of the drag-net,
            we meet a similarly subversive parable;
which goes head-to-head with the Pharisees’ understanding of judgment,
            undermining their desire to declare themselves and those like them as ‘good’
            and everyone else as ‘evil’.

A contemporary version of this parable might go something like this:

‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like a bottom-trawling fishing boat with fine-holed nets.
            It scrapes and scoops everything in its path without distinction,
            and the ecosystems it disrupts are never the same again.’

It’s fairly shocking, isn’t it?

I mean, we hear on the news that bottom-trawling fishing is indiscriminate,
            and highly destructive to the environment.
To compare this to the kingdom of heaven feels counter-intuitive.

And yet, this is a similar effect that that which Jesus achieved
            in his parable of the drag-net.
‘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.’

I think it helps us understand what Jesus was doing
            when we realise that he was basing his parable
                        on our passage from the book of Habakkuk,
            which described the people of Israel as fish,
                        victimised by the Babylonians
                        and crying to God for release from their evil net of violence.

The Pharisees would have been very familiar
            with the us-and-them mentality of Habakkuk.

‘We’re right, and they’re wrong;
            we’re the victims, and they’re the oppressors!’

This would have been the repeated cry
            of the nationalistic Pharisees of Jesus’ day,
as they constructed their narrative of victimhood,
            rehearsing all the enemies of God’s people,
                        from the Egyptians, to the Assyrians, to the Babylonians,
                        to the Greeks, to the Romans of their own time
            - all the gentile nations
                        who had sought the destruction of Israel down the centuries.

But Jesus turns this on its head.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a narrative of victimhood
            leading to policies of exclusion.
It’s not a story of us-and-them.
            It’s not a story of us being good, and them being evil.
Rather, it is a story of inclusion,
            of radical and disruptive intervention in the global ecosystems of violence.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not the few faithful fish caught in someone else’s net;
            it is the net itself, trawling the world and gathering everything in its path.

As I said, this is a disconcerting image….

From a contemporary perspective,
            I think we can sometimes tend towards an idolisation of the created order.
Any good marketing executive knows that ‘natural’ is ‘good’,
            and that ‘natural’ sells.
I certainly have no wish here to undermine
            a properly Christian concern for the environment:
we are a registered eco-church,
            and we flew an Extinction Rebellion banner for a couple of days last week
            in solidarity with those who are wanting to preserve our planet.

But nature is not always fuzzy and cuddly,
            and we do it a disservice if we idolise it as such.
It can be violent and dangerous.

Tennyson’s famous line that nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’,
            has frequently been used to characterise Darwin’s theory
                        of evolution by natural selection;
perhaps unconsciously echoing the Babylonian mythological perspective
            that creation was born from an act of violence.

In nature, the fish caught in the bottom-trawling drag-net,
            have no knowledge of good and evil.
That distinction is something that is reserved for humans,
            and humans alone, to make.
The fish don’t call the destruction of their habitat as evil,
            they just know elemental moments of pleasure and pain,
                        contentment and fear,
                        the joy of killing and the fear of being killed.

To call these ‘evil’ or ‘good’ is beyond any created being except ourselves.

And this, surely, is the point of the Jewish creation story
            which took shape in exile in Babylon.
Only the symbolic descendants of those
            who have eaten the fruit of the tree
                        of the knowledge of good and evil
            can make such distinctions.

And we humans have become so very efficient
            at imposing our categories of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ onto the world;
we do it all the time,
            and always according to criteria of our own devising.

For the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, the world was very binary
            - you were either ‘good’ or you were ‘evil’,
            and for them ‘good’ was defined in terms of purity.

Now I don’t know if you’ve spent much time reading the book of Leviticus,
            but it is an astonishing treatise on purity legislation,
labelling the created order ‘good’ and ‘evil’
            in terms of ‘pure’ and ‘un-pure’, ‘clean’ and ‘un-clean’.

Here are a few examples for you:

·        Clean: Animals with divided hoofs that chew the cud
·        Unclean: The camel, the rock badger, the hare and the pig.

·        Clean: Birds
·        Except: Buzzards, kites, ravens, ostriches, night-hawks,
            seagulls, hawks, owls, storks, or herons of any kind;
            plus bats.
such as the locust, the cricket and the grasshopper - you can eat these if you want.
the land crocodile, and the chamaeleon.

·        Unclean: All insects that walk on the ground
·        Except: those that have jointed legs for leaping

·        Unclean: The weasel, the mouse, the gecko,

And so it goes on, and on, and on,
            with regulations as to what to do
                        if you accidentally eat something you shouldn’t,
                        or touch something you shouldn’t,
                        or touch something that has touched something it shouldn’t…

And then we come to the fish:

Leviticus 11.9-12
These you may eat, of all that are in the waters. Everything in the waters that has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the streams-- such you may eat.
 10 But anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and among all the other living creatures that are in the waters-- they are detestable to you 11 and detestable they shall remain. Of their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall regard as detestable.
 12 Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you.

So, picture the scene:

You’re a fisherman on the sea of Galilee.
You might even work for James and John,
            fishing partners incorporated 23AD.
Your boat has been drag-net fishing,
            and has come back with a good catch,
            but now it’s time to sort.
Into one pile goes all the fish with fins and scales,
            and that pile goes to market.
Into the other pile goes the rest,
            declared detestable according to the purity laws of Leviticus,
            despite the fact that it may well be perfectly edible,
                        and possibly even delicious.
The second pile gets burned.

Picture another scene.

You’re a fisherman working a trawler in the north sea in the twenty-first century,
            and you come back with bottom-trawling drag net full of fish,
            and now it’s time to sort.
The criteria for what goes to market
            is no longer the book of Leviticus,
it’s the cold hard economic decisions
            of what can be sold, and what can’t.

It’s a decision based on the cost of processing and marketability.
            Of course, that which is discarded as unwanted is not necessarily of no value
                         - the corals and urchins and turtles and so on -
                        have great value in terms of beauty and biodiversity,
            but no economic value,
                        and so they go in the pile to be incinerated.

In both ancient and modern contexts,
            catch that are ‘good’ by one criteria:
                        good to eat, but with the wrong scales;
                        or good for the environment, but not profitable to process,
            are called ‘bad’ and discarded and burned.

As I said, humans are so very good
            at destructively and divisively naming creation ‘good’ or ‘bad’
            according to our own arbitrary criteria.

If you were here last week,
            we heard Karen challenging us that the eternal sin
                        is calling that which is good, bad;
            and she observed that we do this all the time.

Well, here, in Jesus’ parable of the drag net,
            I suggest we hear him challenging the criteria of judgment that humans use.

Jesus takes the narrative of the Pharisees,
            that the people of God are the eternal victims
                        forever prey to the violent nets
                        of the unclean, impure, evil gentile nations;
and he subverts this with an image of judgment
            where all creatures, clean and unclean,
            are gathered in the great net of the Kingdom of Heaven.

From this perspective,
            the disruptive judgment of the drag-net is a good thing,
because the social, ethical, and political ecosystems of our world
            are fallen, corrupt, and corrupting.,
            and it is right that they should be challenged.

But when it comes to the sorting of the catch,
            the criteria are not those devised by human minds.
It’s not, in the end, the human fishermen who decide:
            the Pharisees don’t get to write the sorting script.
It’s not done according to purity regulations,
            or the rules of the free market economy,
            or any other basis on which humans try to divide people one-from-another.

The angels sort the catch
            according to righteousness and unrighteousness.
Jesus takes the power away from the Pharisees and those like them,
            who delight in saying who’s in, and who’s out,
and instead moves the basis of judgment from ritual to ethics.

The point is, that it is evil itself which is excluded from God’s kingdom,
            not those whom others have called evil.
The basis of the sorting is not ritual cleanness
            or indeed any other external feature or measure.
Rather, the basis on which judgment is passed is ethical.

As Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s gospel,
            in the sayings on judgment in chapter 7 (v.20),
“You will know them by their fruits.”

It seems that a Jesus-ethic of judgment
            is very different from that which the world normally operates.
And those who have found themselves on the receiving end of the world’s judgment,
            will find liberation, and good news, and acceptance
                        in the judgment of Jesus.

However, the universal picture of the kingdom of Heaven here
            must never be taken as an excuse for avoiding judgment.

We need judgment - I need it, and you need it.
            Without judgment there is no need for salvation,
            and a person who cannot critically assess their own behaviour
                        is a person with deep psychological damage
                        who will inevitably hurt themselves and others.

Here at Bloomsbury, in our little corner of the kingdom,
            we have our own decisions to make about good and evil,
            and what we are going to take our stand on.

In our prayer, as we seek God’s will for our lives and our community,
            we will need to be open to the whisper of the Spirit
who tells us time and again of the love of God,
            that subverts our assumptions
            and keeps us open to God’s mercy.

We will need one another, to keep each other accountable,
            and to share in the task of discernment
            of good and evil in our time, and in our place.

We will need the wisdom of the angels,
            if we are to rightly discriminate good from evil,
            in this complex world of ours.

And we will need the wisdom of the angels,
            if we are to rightly call the world to account
                        for the evil we do to one another and to creation.

And we will need the wisdom of the angels,
            if we are to rightly proclaim the love and mercy of God
                        to all that has been made.

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