“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)
This parable from the Gospel of Matthew is very similar to a resurrection account that appears in the Gospel of John. (John 21:1-14) The placement of John’s account, which appears toward the very end of his Gospel, is suggestive of what will occur “at the end of the age.”
In John’s story, the Apostles bring their boat and their large catch of fish to shore where Jesus is waiting for them. The Apostles caught so many fish that their net was in danger of being torn, but miraculously it remained intact. When the Church, the ark of salvation, is finished navigating the waters of this world it will reach its final destination of heaven where Jesus is waiting for it.
In both Matthew’s parable and John’s story the net that catches “fish of every kind” can be understood as the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church. What the Catholic Church has taught and continues to teach regarding issues of faith and morals has drawn in fish of every kind, people of every nation.
And the teaching of the Catholic Church, like the net that wasn’t torn, has remained consistent and unbroken over the centuries. As Catholics, we profess in the Nicene Creed the same faith that has been handed on to us by the Apostles, a faith that we continue to profess until the end of the age.
This parable informs us of the reality of heaven and hell, of a final judgment where the good and bad are separated. The good (righteous) share communion with God while the bad (wicked) will be excluded from the kingdom. The parable makes clear that exclusion from the kingdom of heaven is not a pleasant experience, it involves a fiery furnace where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. It is foolish to deny the existence of hell, of a place of separation from God, when Jesus himself described the concept over and over again throughout his life.
Furthermore, the concept of a final judgment, where good and evil are finally separated is consistently presented in Matthew’s Gospel in a variety of ways, such as with the separation of the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:36-43) or with the separation of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46). This parable makes clear that at the end of the age God will do the separating, and as the parable describes he will do the separating with the help of his angels.
We are not to judge people here and now, that responsibility belongs to God and his angels at the end of the age.
It is also worth noting what separates those who are included in the kingdom of heaven from those who are excluded from it. Matthew repeatedly emphasizes the importance of good deeds.
Wheat that bears the fruit of good works is separated from weeds that do not. Sheep who perform good deeds are separated from goats who do not.
In Matthew’s various stories of judgment, good works are quite clearly emphasized as an essential element of salvation. The angels do not simply separate the believing from the unbelieving, but rather the righteous (those who act uprightly) from the wicked (those who do evil). A combination of faith and works are present in the life of a true disciple of Jesus Christ.