A Fish Story To End All Fish Stories

The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore, sat down, and gathered the good fish into baskets, but threw the bad away. (Matthew 13:47–48)


Ezekiel 47:6–12
The river from the temple

Then he led me back to the bank of the river. When I returned, I saw on the bank of the river a great number of trees, on one side and on the other. He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region, and goes down into the Arabah, where it enters the sea. When it flows into the sea, the water there becomes fresh. Wher­ever the river flows, swarms of living creatures will live. There will be large numbers of fish because this water flows there and heals the waters. Wherever the river flows, everything will live.

“Fishermen will stand along it; from En-gedi to En-eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish in it will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be left for salt. And by the river, on the banks on both sides, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because their water flows out from the sanctuary. Their fruit will serve for food, and their leaves for healing.”

Matthew 13:47–52
The parable of the net

“Once 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, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore, sat down, and gathered the good fish into baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how 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 weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Jesus asked them, “Have you understood all these things?”

They replied, “Yes, Lord.”

He said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his treasury things new and old.”

Heaven and Hell #425
Sorting good from evil

So that we may gain either heaven or hell, after death we are first taken to the World of Spirits. There, if we are going to be raised into heaven, goodness and truth are brought together in us. But if we are going to be cast into hell, evil and falsity are brought together in us.

No one in heaven or in hell is allowed to have a divided mind—to understand one thing and intend something else. Whatever we intend, we understand; whatever we understand, we intend. So if we are in heaven and our intentions are good, we also understand what is true. And if we are in hell and our intentions are evil, the things we understand are false. If we are good, our false ideas are taken away, and we are given true ideas that go with our virtue. If we are evil, our true ideas are taken away, and we are given false ideas that go with our vice.


The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore, sat down, and gathered the good fish into baskets, but threw the bad away. (Matthew 13:47–48)

It’s been a long time since I caught a fish—over thirty years! And I don’t intend to take up fishing now. But I do remember walking down the path along the Saco River, headed to the little spring-fed sand bar at the river bend where we kids used to go fishing during camp in August. For me, going fishing was not as much about catching fish as it was about being down on the river with my friends. I loved that little sand bar—and I was very disappointed when, some years later, I went back and found that in the ever-changing river, that special spot of my boyhood memories was gone.

None of us was all that good at fishing anyway—except for my cousin, who actually knew what he was doing, and generally caught the best fish. Most of the fish we caught were too small, and we just threw them back in. Even when we did catch something big enough to eat, it was usually a chub—which was nowhere near as exciting as catching a “real” fish like a trout or a bass. Still, we would put any edible fish we caught into our bucket or fishing basket, take them back to camp, and the cooks were nice enough to cook them up for us. As I remember, those chub had more bones than flesh. But at ten or twelve years old, we thought it was really great to eat something we had caught ourselves. We were never able to parlay our catches into much of a fish story, but we sure had a lot of fun!

The Bible, on the other hand, does have some great fish stories. In fact, the first four disciples Jesus called were fishermen. Three of them, Peter, James, and John, became his closest followers. When he called Peter and his brother Andrew from their fishing nets, he said that from then on they would fish for people. And that is exactly what they did. Jesus himself explains that the parable of the fishing net is about catching people for the kingdom of heaven. And the results of that fish story will last to eternity!

Let’s explore the meaning of this parable. We’ll do it on two levels: what it means for humanity as a whole, and what it means within each of us as individuals.

On an individual level, the sea represents our mem­ory of everything we have learned in life. Water is truth, or understanding. Rivers of flowing water are the things we are actively learning and experiencing. All of this knowledge and experience flows into the vast reservoir of our memory, where it is available for our future use. However, as long as it remains in our memory, even if it includes knowledge about spiritual things, it remains on a natural, worldly level because it is not being actively used for our spiritual life.

On a collective level, the sea, as compared to the land, represents the entire vast sum of human culture that is focused on the things of this world rather than on the things of heaven. As we look at the human world around us, there is a whole sea of work, recreation, and leisure activities that focus primarily on our material needs, and on physical and social pleasures.

And it is right and proper that this vast sea should exist. As long as we are here on earth, we do need to take care of our physical and material needs. And having done our work, it is also good and healthy for us to enjoy this beautiful earth that God has given us, to take full advantage of these incredible bodies that God has blessed us with, and to enjoy the company of the friends and family that God has provided for us.

For people whose lives are built around spiritual motives and values, the sea becomes a place of recreation and a source of supply for spiritual living. In compari­son to fish, spiritual people are symbolized by the land-dwelling animals, and by human beings. Personally, though I don’t go fishing anymore, I love to go to the beach and romp in the water! And as I said, God does want us to take a break from time to time, and enjoy the pleasures of this life.

Swimming in the world of earth-bound work and play is a vast school of human fish: millions of people whose entire lives are focused only on the things of this world. The job Jesus sent his disciples out to do was to catch as many of these human fish as they could, and draw them out of the sea of worldly life and onto the dry land of spiritual life. It is the same job that the Lord, through the church, sends each one of us out to do. Those of us who have committed our lives to the church are also disciples of the Lord. And it is part of our job as disciples to reach out to others who may be receptive to a more spiritually oriented way of life.

What is the “net” that we are to use in this work of spiritual fishing? Let’s think about it. A fishing net con­sists of a whole system of cords knotted together in a highly regular and orderly way to make a container that will capture fish, while letting the water they swim in flow through. In precisely the same way, our personal faith—the system of beliefs we have woven for ourselves according to the orderly divine pattern found in the Bible and the teachings of our church—is the “net” that we can use to capture worldly people’s minds, and draw them out of purely materialistic living into a more spiri­tual way of life.

The New Jerusalem Church provides an especially good net. All of the beautiful teachings of this church fit together to make a broad and comprehensive system of spiritual and natural thought that applies to all areas of life. This can be very attractive to people who want something more out of life, but must have something that satisfies their minds as well as their emotions. It is true that many people come to the New Jerusalem Church either by family connections or through friends who invited them. Yet what keeps most Swedenborgians in the church is the reasonable and soul-satisfying answers it offers for the deepest and most difficult ques­tions we face.

This is the net with which each one of us can equip ourselves for the job of fishing for people. The more we learn about the teachings of the new Christianity, con­necting them with all our other thoughts, and the more we ponder those teachings and make them an active, working part of our lives, the bigger and more effective a net we will have at our disposal.

As we go out among family, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, we can cast that net out into the world, seeking other souls who might also be captured by this net of spiritual doctrine, just as we ourselves were.

And the parable is very clear that we are seeking to catch fish of all kinds. We never know who will end out being receptive to a higher way of life, and who will not. So we must spread our nets broadly, and not count any­one out—even if he or she looks like a poor prospect for the church. Later in the parable, the good fish are sorted from the bad. But we have to catch them first!

I encourage you to engage the people you see each day in conversation, and let the subject move to spiritual subjects when it is appropriate and there is a willingness to go in that direction. Be willing to look below the sur­face of people’s lives, and listen for their deeper struggles and questions. If you find that you have something to offer from your faith, have the courage to offer it with no strings attached, as a possible pathway of thought or action that might be helpful to them. As time goes by, you will find out which ones also get “caught up” in this wonderful faith.

Let’s get back to the individual level. I mentioned that the “sea” in us is the reservoir of our memory—the gathering place of everything we have learned and of all our experience. Our mental fish, then, are those parts of our learning and experience that have come alive for us. And what comes alive for us are the thoughts, ideas, and experiences that relate to things we love and enjoy.

We can tell where our mental fish are from the things we pay attention to and gravitate toward in the sea of information and activities around us. It is like standing in front of a big magazine display rack in a store. Which magazines catch our interest? Which ones do we take off the rack? Sports? Cooking? Science? Politics? People? Nature? Expand that to all the things we encounter in the world around us each day that engage our mind, and we have identified our mental fish.

As with fishing for people, fishing for living ideas in our minds involves forming some orderly, coherent principles of life that we can use as a net to draw out of our memory those particular living ideas and experi­ences that will feed our mind and heart, and help move us forward on our chosen path. Each of us has many life experiences. Each of us has learned many things. All of them form a part of our memory and our life. But some of them will stand out especially strongly for us, and become an integral part of how we live each day. Others we will throw back into the sea of our memory, perhaps to catch again some time in the future when they have matured, or perhaps to leave them behind for good. We will need to sort one from another, and decide which, for us, are the good fish, and which are the bad.

This time of sorting is a time of judgment.

When speaking collectively of humankind, as Jesus does in his explanation of the parable, the time of judg­ment is the time when we are gathered into the spiritual world after death, and our true inner character becomes known. Then we will each find ourselves sorted out according to our own desires, inclinations, loves, and actions. If we enjoy serving our neighbor and doing the Lord’s will, we will feel more and more strongly drawn toward heaven, where others like us live. But if the only things we love are having others serve us and gaining money, power, and pleasure for ourselves, then we will find ourselves drawn strongly toward hell, where others live who care only for themselves, and not at all for oth­ers, and who actively hate and reject God because they have chosen a path contrary to God’s way of love.

If we do choose hell, the fire we encounter there will not be literal fire burning our bodies, but the fire of our own burning hatred for others who stand in our way, and the flaring of anger and revenge against one another. The weeping will be our frustration at never being able to fully satisfy our destructive desires. And the gnashing of teeth will be the continual clash of one person’s false, self-serving beliefs against the conflicting false beliefs of others.

Within ourselves, we also need to sort out our thoughts and desires. There are many things we enjoy; some of them are good, and some of them are not so good. Some of them lead to health and happiness, to peace and mutual love in our relationships with the peo­ple around us. Others lead to sickness and sorrow, and to interpersonal conflict, anger, and ruptured relation­ships. As we gain more experience in life and a greater knowledge of the ways of God and spirit, we come to turning points, to times of judgment in our lives, when we must evaluate and sort out our thoughts and desires. At times of major life change, we must make choices about which of our ways of thinking and acting we will keep, and which ones we will reject—just like those ancient fishermen who collected the good fish into bas­kets, but threw the bad ones away.

Perhaps you are at a time of change and personal re-evaluation right now. Perhaps you are facing these kinds of choices. If so, you have a great opportunity to begin a new stage in your life. You have an opportunity to leave behind thoughts, feelings, and habits that are dragging you down, and move forward on a path of higher and more spiritual principles and motives.

Just as he asked his disciples, the Lord will ask each one of us, “Have you understood all these things?” If we have been doing our spiritual fishing, we will be able to answer, “Yes.” Then, nourished and enriched by the new knowledge and understanding we have caught for our­selves, we will become like the homeowner, bringing out of our storeroom treasures both new and old. The old treasures are the good experiences of our earlier life, before we embarked on a spiritual path—such as my memories of youthful days fishing in the river. The new treasures are the greater depths of spiritual life and joy that we gain when we turn our soul toward the Lord, and our lives toward serving our fellow human beings.

(This post is the seventh chapter in my book, On Earth as it is In Heaven, originally published in 2005. For a description and Table of Contents, please click here. This material is copyright 2005 by Lee Woofenden.)

To review or purchase On Earth as it is In Heaven in paperback on Amazon, click here.

To review or purchase the Kindle version, click here.


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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2 comments on “A Fish Story To End All Fish Stories
  1. Andrew Mclain says:

    Boston doing Flu shots today!

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