The parable of the dragnet is the third harvest metaphor in Matthew 13 (The Sower and The Weeds). In this case the harvest is fish from the sea. This parable is “paired” with the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30.
Like the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, the image is of a harvest, although this time the story of the parable is of a fisherman using a dragnet. We know that the harvest is a stock metaphor for the day of Judgment, but what about fishing? It is not as common a metaphor for judgment as it is for the giving of the Gospel – “I will make you fishers of men.” There is perhaps an implicit judgment in the “fisher of men” image, since not everyone that is caught in the net will be found in the kingdom of God!
Does This Parable Allude to Ezekiel 47:6-10?
In the prophet’s description of the future Temple water will flow out of the Temple and flood the Arabah, making the Dead Sea into freshwater sea which will yield “fish of many kinds.” Ezekiel’s “fish of many kinds” is often interpreted as gentiles who become part of the millennial kingdom, and then that meaning is imported into the dragnet parable. Bailey suggests “Jesus was clarifying that now no one, regardless of his or her background, was to be excluded from the offer or message of the kingdom” (Mark Bailey, “The Parables of the Dragnet and of the Householder,” 283).
Jesus’s parable is focused on the judgment when the kingdom is established, the separation of the wheat from the weeds or the sheep from the goats, not on the gentile inclusion (or not) in the future kingdom.
A Net Catches All Kinds of Fish
A “dragnet” is a net held in place by floats; weights would sink part of the net to snare any fish that happen to swim into it. The fisherman would take up the net, return to shore and “sort” the fish.
In the parable there are two categories, good fish and bad fish. It is possible the difference between the good and the bad is what the fisherman can sell (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 399). A fisherman might throw back a small fish since he would have more money on a larger fish.
On the other hand, the good fish may refer to which are edible, according to the law, the bad fish are those that are inedible according to the law (Lev 11:9-12; Deut 14:9). The clean fish are those with scales, therefore shellfish, shark, or other “swarming creatures” are forbidden. Most of the forbidden fish are not native to the Sea of Galilee, the most common fish in the Sea is tilapia, but there are sfamnun, an African catfish. Since it has no scales, it is not to be eaten according to the Law. Since the sfamnun is a long skinny fish it is sometimes mistaken for a snake.
Jesus draws an analogy to the end of the age. As with the Parable of the Weeds, angels will separate the evil from the righteous and put the evil into a fiery furnace. Why would the fisherman destroy the “bad” fish if they are simply forbidden as food for Jews? Could he not sell the catfish to Gentiles? Why destroy them? To throw them back would counterproductive, next time you let down the nets you might very well catch the same unclean fish. Better to get rid of the bad so it doesn’t reduce your take the next time!
In the parable the fisherman is the Son of Man at the end of the age sorting out those that are prepared for the kingdom, so the image is of a fisherman who would not use the fish unlawfully.
There is a brief interpretation of this parable in 13:49-50 which is virtually identical to the words of 13:41-42. There is a repetition of theme of separation at the end of the age and the angels gathering out those that are unworthy and throwing them to the “furnace of fire” to destroy them, the place “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”