Without a “sense” of the Church, Jesus’ parables can be reduced to exercises in moralism. Fundamentalist readers, or even those who would call themselves evangelicals, may miss the fundamentals of what Christ says about the Church, for the Church tends to be peripheral to a congenially de-historicized vision. In previous parables, Jesus rivets the eye on the nature of the Church: what makes the Church work, how it works, and how to discern its workings. In the parable of the net (Matthew 13:47-50), His majestic countenance gazes upon the results. Visionaries may try to do that, but only the Divine Vision can see it for sure. This is why He walked with such a quick step and spoke with such vividness—dare one even say whimsy?—when He urged His disciples along the Galilean roads.
To the fishermen he described a shore with no sea, which is but one way of describing a sea without a shore. I am not playing word games in saying this, for once literary conceits confront eternity, the games are all over, and all grammar becomes hard literary construction work. The culmination of the Church will be a life with no ebb or flow, no waves, and no retreating of time with the tide. The parable disdains the romantic melancholy of poet Matthew Arnold watching faith itself withdraw. In his “Dover Beach,” Arnold was morosely delectating on the fragility of confidence without the Church. But this parable is all about the Church, and the men who thought they had lost their faith because empires and combustion engines had distracted them were paying the price for not having measured all things in the sacramental perspective of eternity.
When Christ told the parable of the tares, He was warning against haste in separating the evil from the good in the Church. This applies to all the contradictions of each churchly day: the ballet between the saint and the sinner, the screeching contest between Chartres and the modern suburban church that looks like a washing machine, the light of grace and the electric votive candle, a Bach cantata and “On Eagle’s Wings.” The parable of the net is not less patient than that of the tares. The latter says to put up with the present state, for things eventually will be sifted out. The net is the sifting out, and so it is the proof of the parable of the tares.
The parable of the tares is about an immediate moral reality, while the parable of the net is about an ultimate moral realization. To use terms beloved of theologians with little apologetic skill, the net is teleological and eschatological. That is to say, the parable of the tares is a discourse for pastors, while the parable of the net is the Pastor of pastors showing His hand. When Jesus describes the day-to-day life of the Church in terms of tares, His human nature becomes the megaphone of time. When He describes the Church as a net, He pulls back the veil between time and timelessness. And this is the meaning of the ineffable shore: In the Church, life is not concluded so much as it is consummated. The Church on earth is a prelude, a mystery as much as an institution, and indeed a mystery by the fact of being an institution. To derogate the “institutional Church” is to forget that Christ did the instituting.
When a parish gets mired in the practical business of budgets and programs, its practical vigor ironically suffers. Worse still, the actual graces of its ecclesial mystery wane. Gleams of the highest heaven are everywhere in parochial life, and that is why it is very shortsighted to use the term “parochial” as a slur. To walk from the baptismal font at the entrance of the church to the tabernacle in the sanctuary is to walk quick-step from Eden to New Jerusalem. Much as one esteems and reveres academe, teaching in a university is tame compared with teaching in a parish. A professor is fishing in an aquarium, while a pastor is fishing in an ocean.
All kinds of fish are caught up in the net, but none is trapped in the end. All are dragged to shore, but not all are fit for the shore. This net is different from the net St. Peter saw when he was told that all creatures in it were worthy. In the parable of the net, the universal call to holiness is distinct from universal salvation. Not all will be saved. Not because Christ does not will it. The problem of the will is the problem of those who deliberately will not to be with Christ. The refusal would seem breathtakingly impossible were it not for the experience of willfulness in the rogues of history and in what each soul knows of its less worthy moments as it is pulled to shore beyond this world’s horizon.