He said, “A person is like a wise fisher who cast a net into the sea, and drew it up from the sea full of little fish. Among them the wise fisher discovered a fine big fish. So the fisher threw all the little fish back into the sea, and with no hesitation kept the big fish. Whoever has ears to hear ought to listen.”–The Gospel of Thomas (trans. Marvin W. Meyer)
I’ve been working my way through the Gospel of Thomas for a few weeks now. Every couple days I do a three-page journaling exercise based on the next saying (there are 113 altogether). About a week ago I came across this one. In the appendix to this translation, Marvin Meyer points to the similarities between this passage and Matthew 13:47-50, another parable about a net cast into the sea. Yet the two stories ultimately have very different meanings. In Matthew, the fishermen draw their nets from the ocean, throw away the bad fish, and keep the good ones; thus will the angels divide the righteous from the unrighteous and cast the unrighteous into the fire. In Thomas we see something different: here there are not good fish and bad fish, but one large one and several small ones. No judgment is cast upon the small fish. Yet the wise fisherman tosses them back into the sea, keeping only the large one. Why?
Worldly wisdom would argue that, while the big fish will bring in a higher price at the market, all of the fish are worth something. The fisherman wise in the way of the world, then, would bring home all the fish he had caught, regardless of size. All would bring him profit in the market place. Remember, too, that fixed prices were not the norm in those days. People went to the market to haggle. Suppose the fisherman could not get the price he hoped for the big fish; the smaller fish would then act as a cushion, making up for the loss–his insurance policy, if you like.
Jesus’ teachings were not those of worldly wisdom, however. One of the few things that Paul seems to have gotten right (an argument for another day) is his eloquent contrast between what he calls “the foolishness of God” and worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 1:25). We are called not to follow the example of the world, but to be patterns in it. The wise fisher embraces the foolishness of God.
Let’s unpack this metaphor a bit. What does it mean to keep the big fish and throw back all the small ones? First, it guarantees that there will be more fish tomorrow. Instead of focusing on the greatest gain in the shortest time, the wise fisher sets reasonable limits. There is always the chance that some of those small fish that he throws back will one day grow into big fish. Even if they do not, they will still be there on the days when there are no big fish in the net. The wise fisher recognizes the limits of moderation; the big fish is enough for today. If that is so, then what need has he of the small fish? The wise fisher places his trust in God, who clothes the grasses and feeds the birds (Matthew 6:26; 6:30). Where the wisdom of men insists on the insurance policy, the foolishness of God throws it back into the sea.
What does it mean to place our trust in the Divine, to eschew worldly wisdom and embrace the foolishness of God? Contemporary worldly wisdom dictates rugged individualism, keeping up appearances, and an updated version of retribution theology–those in unfortunate circumstances got where they are because they deserved it. Worldly wisdom insists on the insurance policies of wealth and material comforts. Worldly wisdom says we have to make concessions in our values to get along, that “Thou shalt not kill” doesn’t apply to war (and anyway there are tremendous political and economic benefits in bombing the crap out of this or that country). Worldly wisdom links social and economic success to the pursuit and exploitation of the latest fad.
The wise fisher rejects all of this. If we truly trust in the Divine, we must recognize our interconnectedness. We must reject the pursuit of wealth and material comforts as an aim in itself. We must strive to be integral, authentically ourselves, and to love others for their authentic selves. Absolute trust in God renders all fads meaningless. If our emphasis shifts toward love of self and others, toward recognition of our intertwined humanity and divinity, then what care we for outward appearances? What then does it matter if we own the latest and flashiest toys?
The prospect of placing our full trust in God terrifies us. Worldly wisdom insists that we need that basket of small fish. How can we be expected to throw away our insurance policy? What if tomorrow our nets yield no fish at all? What if rejecting worldly wisdom ostracizes us socially or jeopardizes our jobs? What if the car breaks down and I have no money to fix it? Perhaps what frightens us most about putting our fate in the hands of Divinity is that in so doing, we give up control of our lives. Trusting in God, we learn to let go of the need to control the world and those around us. We learn to give up preconceived notions about the path we’re traveling. Later in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus calls upon his disciples to “Be wanderers.” Wanderers travel where they are led; they do not set out with an itinerary drawn from their own minds. If we trust in the Divine to provide for us, we will come to understand what our needs truly are. WE learn what is really enough.
All of us fall short of God’s foolishness and cling to some measure of worldly wisdom. What insurance policies are we holding? What small fish do we resist tossing back into the sea?