Blessed Are the Mourners

“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

Humans understand that physical death, pain, and suffering are the curses we must all at times endure. But that does not mean that we like it. And it certainly does not mean that we enjoy it when we endure it or have to watch loved ones endure it.

There are many reasons that we mourn. We mourn when a loved one dies. We mourn, in a sense, when beloved things, situations, or circumstances are ended. Children grow up. We get older. We might have to move away. We deal with our own emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We have to watch spouses, family members, friends, and others endure emotional and physical hurts and sufferings. We may understand it is all a part of life, but it is not pleasant. They’re not events to which we look forward. We “feel” for all those who mourn.

That is why it is natural to think that it is quite a stretch to say that those who mourn are “blessed,” or fortunate or happy. Most people under those circumstances would not consider themselves very fortunate. Those who look upon them would not consider them fortunate. Therefore, it would not be surprising at all if a few heads turned when Jesus uttered this line, and if a few people seemed a bit incredulous at such a declaration!

Jesus understands that the statement is controversial and completely ridiculous in terms of conventional wisdom. But that is partly why He said it–He wants people to think about their conditions in life, and to see things in a different light.

In what perspective, however, are those who mourn fortunate? Jesus provides a bit of an answer here in Matthew 5:4–those who mourn shall be comforted. When He makes a similar declaration in Luke 6:21, 25, He indicates that those who weep will one day laugh, and those who now laugh will one day weep and mourn.

One could attempt to figure out what Jesus means by saying that they shall be comforted, whether He has human or divine comfort in mind, when that would come about, and under what circumstances. But Jesus does not provide detail; perhaps the details would get in the way of the point. The point is not that there is some inherent merit in mourning but is really a matter of perspective.

When one is mourning, one is plumbing the depths of human pain and suffering. In a very real sense, when one is mourning, the only way to go is “up”–to return, at some point, to life. And, as the Preacher noted in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, there is wisdom, experience, and growth that takes place when one walks through the vale of mourning, suffering, and pain. We learn just how fleeting life can be. We perceive how the pleasures of this world are fleeting and are nothing on which to depend. We have to come face to face with the brutal realities of evil, pain, suffering, and death, and we walk away the wiser for it. Comfort will come, be it through time, friends, God, or a combination of those and other factors. Those who mourn are fortunate not because they are mourning, but because for them things can only get better. It is when we emphasize laughing and the positive that we get into some trouble, for if we are enjoying opportunities of mirth, where else is there to go but downward? When we mourn, we can hope for and look forward to better days. But when we experience better days, to what have we to look forward? At best, a continuation of good days. But even then, we live with the fear and apprehension of what we know is most likely going to happen–darker days are ahead.

We should not imagine that Jesus is really saying that we should look forward to opportunities to mourn, or that we should really enjoy those opportunities in life we are given to mourn. Instead, we are to understand that mourning is a part of life, one that can lead to growth and a renewed appreciation for the gifts of God, life, love, friendship, and the like that we all too easily take for granted. When we mourn, things can only get better; when we laugh, things can only get worse. Let us be prepared for the vicissitudes of life; if we are currently mourning, let us take comfort in the hope of a brighter tomorrow, and let us all appreciate the bountiful gifts of grace and mercy that God has given us through Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Dragnet

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was filled, they drew up on the beach; and they sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but the bad they cast away. So shall it be in the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the righteous, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:47-50).

As Jesus is preaching and teaching in Galilee near the Sea of Galilee, it is all but expected that He would use some kind of image from the fishing industry in His parables. And as Matthew finishes the presentation of a good number of Jesus’ parables in Matthew 13, we have a fishing parable to show us the significant consequences that will come on the basis of what we will do or not do with Jesus and His Kingdom.

We find that parallelism among the parables is maintained in Matthew 13. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23) stands at the fore of the parables, perhaps understood as the parable of parables. We then find the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 37-43), which is parallel to the Parable of the Dragnet we are considering (Matthew 13:47-50). The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-32) and the Parable of the Leaven (Matthew 13:33) are paired together and are parallel, as are the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46).

The dragnet is a time-honored fishing technique, one that would be well known to Peter, Andrew, James, and John (cf. Luke 5:1-11). A large net is lowered into the water and pulled along, catching within it anything that gets in its way. When full– or whenever desired– the net is pulled back up into the boat and its contents emptied out. Ideally, one would have made a good catch of fish that could fetch a nice income from the marketplace. Regardless, many things will get caught in the net that are not desired– smaller fish, perhaps some other creatures, and the like, and those are best cast back into the water or as refuse.

So we have the Parable of the Dragnet: the fish are people, the net is the Kingdom and its upcoming day of Judgment, and the fishermen are the angels. Those who are worthy shall be kept; all others shall be reckoned as refuse, cast into the hell described as the “furnace of fire,” where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:47-50). As it was with wheat and weeds, so now it is with fish: some will be preserved, and others will be burned with fire.

Therefore, we see that the basic message of the Parable of the Dragnet is the same as the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. Yet there are some differences in detail and explanation, and then there is the question of placement.

There is a qualitative difference between wheat and weeds: they are different types of plants. Fish, however, are fish; we are not given the impression that the “good fish” are one species of fish, and the “bad fish” are another species, but that the fish might very well be of the same species but of different quality. In the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, the “tares” are to be harvested first; the Parable of the Dragnet vividly describes the separating of the good fish from the bad fish. The tares are to be burned; the bad fish are “cast away.”

We should not press these distinctions in detail too far; we must remember that these are images designed to help us understand the spiritual reality behind the image, and not to get too enamored with the images themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus is not simply repeating Himself with the Parable of the Dragnet.

The fact that the fish are not really described has significance. It is not as if people are inherently divided into different classes, with one group of people who begin well, remain well, and end well, and another group of people who begin as refuse, remain as refuse, and end as refuse. Just as the fish are fish, so people are people. There is no distinction made between people based upon their birth, class, ethnicity, gender, or any other similar measure (Galatians 3:28). Put another way, God does not show partiality toward some and not others (Romans 2:11). No one is irrevocably destined to be a “weed” or a “bad fish.” Instead, in this parable, the distinction is based on the value of each fish, which in the spiritual reality can be understood as the character of each person. Is our character bad, evil, and natural, or does our character have Jesus and His Kingdom impressed upon it (cf. Romans 8:1-11)? The Judgment is not based in who we are; it is based on what we have become and what we have done (Romans 2:5-11)!

The day of Judgment will come at once for everyone– it will not be that the wicked go before the righteous, or vice versa (Matthew 25:1-46). The sorting does not happen in this life; it will happen on the day of resurrection when Jesus is glorified in His Kingdom (1 Corinthians 15).

There is also some significance to the idea of the wicked as refuse– as something thrown away as no good. On the spiritual level, there is no distinction between the “tares” and the “bad fish”: Matthew 13:42 and 13:50 are precisely the same. Nevertheless, in the parables themselves, the tares were destined for fire (Matthew 13:30). The bad fish are to be thrown away (Matthew 13:48). This “casting away,” what is done to garbage, evokes the Valley of Hinnom as a place where garbage was collected and burnt, and the “inspiration” behind Gehenna as hell (Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33). Just as people would take garbage to the Valley of Hinnom to be burned, since it had no use, those who have not served God and who remained evil and in rebellion will be taken to hell– Gehenna– for burning, since they were no good and provided no profit.

In that “furnace of fire” there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, images of great suffering and torment otherwise associated with the “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). Thus we see all kinds of images of hell brought together: the fiery furnace, the place for refuse, a place of suffering, separated far from God and the righteous with Him.

Yet one question remains: if the other parallel parables came right next to each other, why does the separation exist between the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet?

Perhaps this was just the order Jesus used, and there was not much thought put into it. Such, however, is highly unlikely; Jesus is very deliberate with His words and how He presents His message of the Kingdom.

Perhaps the Parable of the Dragnet is designed to be some sort of conclusion; its ultimate message, however, is quite consistent with the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares, even ending on the same note (Matthew 13:42, 50).

Yet if we look in more detail at the presentation, we see a type of order. The Parable of the Wheat and Tares is presented (Matthew 13:24-30), but its explanation comes only after the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven (Matthew 13:31-43). We then see the Parables of the Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:44-46), and then we have the Parable of the Dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50).

What could this mean? It seems as if there is a deliberate “sandwiching” of the parable sets, with the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the Parable of the Dragnet providing the overall structure. Perhaps we are to understand these parables as representing some kind of structure within the Kingdom: the righteous and the wicked will remain together until the end of time. The Kingdom will start small and grow large; the Kingdom is worth more than anything else, and therefore costs more than anything else. Not everyone will appreciate the growth of the Kingdom. Not everyone will appreciate its value, and even more will not want to pay the cost. Yet, in the end, God is going to separate people based on whether they participated in Jesus’ Kingdom as His servants.

Let us not miss the force of this parable and the way that the parables are laid out in Matthew 13. The message of the Kingdom goes out to all sorts of people, many of whom hear, many of whom fall away. We must understand that the Kingdom starts with humble beginnings, and that just as the Kingdom is of supreme value, so there is great cost involved in obtaining the Kingdom. We must persevere and obey, for we know that the day is coming when God will judge everyone, and those who serve Christ in His Kingdom will be redeemed and honored, while those who did not serve Him will be bound up, cast off as refuse, and burned in eternal suffering. There can be no sitting on the fence; let us make our decision and follow after our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Receiving Good and Evil

Then said his wife unto him, “Dost thou still hold fast thine integrity? Renounce God, and die.”
But he said unto her, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”
In all this did not Job sin with his lips (Job 2:9-10).

No one enjoys pain, difficulties, and suffering. We all would much rather enjoy the good life, pleasures, and success. We often believe that we “deserve” to obtain the good things, and we do not “deserve” the bad things.

When pain, difficulties, and suffering come, we have an impulse to blame some higher authority. Many people blame God for their problems and difficulties. They do not understand how God could do evil to them, or, at least, allow the evil to be done to them. Where is God when there is pain and misery and suffering?

But notice, if you will, how one-sided we humans tend to be. While many will blame God for their failures or pain or suffering, who “blames” God for the fact that they are successful and healthy and prosperous? Many will claim that God does not exist on the basis of the existence of suffering, but no one in his right mind will argue that God does not exist because people find success, prosperity, and health. Job’s wife never imagined to tell Job to let go of his integrity, curse God, and die while their children and possessions remained! No– when people obtain prosperity, success, and health, they may very well praise and thank God for it.

It is easy for people to have such “immature” views and ideas about God. We know for certain that God does not tempt anyone with evil (James 1:13), and provides a way of escape from any sinful situation (1 Corinthians 10:13). But there is no guarantee that the life of the believer– or the life of anyone– will be free from pain, suffering, and misery. As we live our lives, we will receive both good and evil. If we are willing to honor and praise God when we receive that which is good, why should that change if we receive evil?

No one is saying that evil is desirable or pleasant, but it has its place in our fallen, broken world. Evil reminds us regarding the fundamental “dis-ease” that we should have while living on earth– this is not what God intends for the creation (cf. Romans 8:19-23). We must feel the “heat” of the law of sin and death at work in the world (Romans 5:12-18). If we did not experience discomfort, we would get rather comfortable on this planet and forget about Jesus and His sacrifice, just as the Israelites forgot about the LORD their God when they received the land of Canaan and enjoyed it!

Furthermore, human character is not developed through success and prosperity. Maturity and growth do not come from success and pleasure but from failure and suffering. Success and prosperity easily lead to belief in self-sufficiency and arrogance; trial leads to patience and growth in faith (James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-9). Job could only truly learn to appreciate all of God’s blessings when he suffered great misery in life, and it is the same with us. We only appreciate health when we suffer illness and pain. Success is sweeter after experiencing failure. Those best suited to handle prosperity are those who know how to live contented lives in poverty (cf. Philippians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 6:8).

It can be guaranteed that we will receive both good and evil in life. Let us remember that through times of health or illness, prosperity or poverty, happiness or misery, God is there, He loves us, and desires for us to seek after Him (Hebrews 11:6). Let us hold fast to God whether we receive good or evil!

Ethan R. Longhenry