Sermon on the Mount Series #11 for May 18, 2014, Fifth Sunday of Easter 2014
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
We have had more than our share of rain and flooding recently. The power of rushing water is amazing. It can wash out a paved road that seemed as permanent as the ground we walk on in almost no time. Flood waters sweep away bridges, people’s homes, even whole suburbs and towns, leaving utter destruction behind.
Our hearts go out to the people who have suffered loss and damage. We are a part of bringing help and relief to many through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
So, it is a bit jarring that the text we read from Matthew is about a flood and the damage it can do. The images of all this destruction are fresh in our minds, so I guess, if we were ever in a good position to hear the warning in these words of Jesus, it is now.
The Grand Finale to the Sermon
He speaks of two houses; one remains standing. The other experiences total destruction. It is more than a little ominous. This is the grand finale to the Sermon on the Mount, the culmination of the great inaugural moment in Jesus’ ministry as presented to us in Matthew’s gospel.
The story of the wise and foolish builders is about looking at our lives from the perspective of the end. All of us will die one day; we are mortal. No one knows when the end will come for us.
This was brought home to us powerfully Thursday night. We were at the awards assembly at the high school. A family in the community created a scholarship to go to a promising music student, by which to honor the memory of their musically gifted son, who died before finishing his Sophomore year of college. Just over two years before his death, he was there at high school awards night, looking sharp, with a promising future ahead, or so everyone believed.
A few years ago I heard a song about a person who so wasted his life that the writer wondered if he would also waste his death as well – what a horrible thought! He sang, “You wasted life, why wouldn’t you wast the afterlife?” Talk about a house built upon the sand! (Modest Mouse: “Ocean Breathes Salty”)
No matter how many days we are given, it is going to seem like a short life at the end. This is what everyone tells me; even people in their 90’s. “The time just flew by,” people say. “It seemed like only yesterday….”
The Wisdom Tradition Approach
Jesus answers the question with a proverb; a wisdom story. Using a well known Jewish approach, just as we find in books like Proverbs, Jesus tells a wisdom story. There are two builders, one wise and the other foolish. As in the wisdom tradition, there are only two paths, and you get to chose one or the other. One is the path of wisdom, the other, folly.
In the wisdom tradition, the path of wisdom may not be the easy one, nor the one taken by the majority, it may go through the narrow gate, instead of the broad one, but it is the only one that leads to life and fruitfulness in the end. The wise path is the one that withstands the floods and avoids destruction.
The Jewish wisdom tradition grew out of a strong conviction that the world was not merely random and left to chance and accident. There is a God who is good behind this world, and so there are observable patters that reveal themselves to those who pay attention. We can learn from common sense observations.
So, even the lowly ants can teach us wisdom like about the necessity of preparing food in summer, and gathering the harvest ahead of the coming winter. The wise person is not the lazybones who avoids labor, but, even without a boss commanding, she prepares for the future. (Prov. 6:8)
So, Jesus asks us to look with wisdom at two builders and their different architectural strategies. Both are building houses. The difference is the foundation. One builds on solid rock, the other on sand. When the inevitable storms and floods come, as they did every rainy season in Jesus’ Palestine, as the do in every life today, the outcome was dramatically different, and entirely predictable. The house built on the rock stood firm, while the house on the sand collapsed in ruin.
A Covenant Renewal Moment with a Twist
It is important to pause here to notice something significant and powerful that is going on at this moment in the Sermon on the Mount. As we have seen in previous weeks, Matthew is making a lot of parallels between Jesus and Moses. Jesus is, like Moses was, standing on a mountain, delivering God’s instructions for the newly formed community. So it is a covenant renewal occasion.
Covenants in those times, typically included a list of blessings you would receive for keeping faithful to the covenant, and curses you would face for unfaithfulness. That is how Moses’ covenant renewal ceremony ends in the book of Deuteronomy: blessings and curses.
Jesus began his sermon with blessings: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are those who mourn, the meek, the peacemakers, and so on. So will Jesus, like Moses, end the covenant renewal ceremony with threatening curses?
No. Jesus taught us a new way to conceive of God. The God Jesus showed us is not like an easily offended, brutal king, but rather like a loving Heavenly Father who desires our very best, our human flourishing.
Inevitable Consequences of Foolishness
But behavior still has consequences, even if God is not just a curse-happy king. The consequences are clearly observable to the wise. It is possible to live life in such a way as to end up having built a house of substance that stands, or one that falls.
But is the difference as common sense as it sounds? As simple as rock vs sand? Maybe not. According to Jesus, the difference between a wasted life and one that finally meant something meaningful is weather or not his his teachings were both heard and followed.
This is why it’s not as simple and clear cut as sand vs stone. Jesus’ teachings are often at odds with common sense wisdom. They are even sometimes the opposite of what observable common sense teaches.
For example, Jesus taught “blessed are the meek.” But the meek do not normally “inherit the earth.” In fact, as they say, “nice guys finish last.”
Jesus taught “blessed are the poor.” But, The poor, even poor “in spirit” alone, do not seem at all blessed.
What We Have Come To
True enough, Jesus’ teachings often ran counter to common sense wisdom. But the consensus view of common sense wisdom has given us — what? Common sense “wisdom” has given us the world as it is. How is this working out for us?
The way of the world is that the strong usually oppress the weak, the majority discriminate against minorities. The 1% rich dominate the 99% non-rich, and the gap between the two widens every day.
Money influences politics at absurd levels now, and is set to get exponentially worse, especially after the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates.
And even sixty years after Brown vs. Board of Education we have not solved the problem of the racial divide in our country – in fact it may even be getting worse in some respects.
It gets personal too. Common sense wisdom has given us what one person described as the conditions in the retirement community. One person there, reportedly, always arrives, thinking he needs to fill up the whole room with his own voice. Another only keeps playing card games as long as she is winning. Yet another almost continually purposefully irritates someone else while playing table games.
This is amazingly sad. Here are people filling their final days in discord. What a fallen house they have built.
The Jesus Alternative Way
Jesus taught the opposite way, the alternative path. The Jesus path is the life of trust in a good, loving Heavenly Father that cares for us so that we can live without anxiety or stinginess, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.
He taught us the value of prayer, and of the absolute necessity of practicing forgiveness as we have been forgiven.
He taught us that money must not become a god, for it would surely displace God as God, with disastrous consequences.
He taught us that enemies were exactly the people we are supposed to love, and that true piety was never a matter of public display.
And to sum it up he said,
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
This is the solid rock to build on. This is the life that is truly meaningful; the life not wasted in self-absorbed narcissism, selfishness, apathy, nor the life squandered in domination and control. This house, based on hearing and putting into disciplined daily practice, his teaching is the truly wise choice.
I have said before here a few lines from a poem I heard long ago that made such an impression on me that I will never forget.
“Some folks die in battle,
some go down in flames.
Others die by inches,playing silly games.”
Some build houses on the rock, others on sand. Some put into daily practice the teachings of Jesus; most, do not. The outcomes are dramatically, different.
One thing is certain: more storms are coming. There will be floods.
The question is, on what are we building our houses, today? Which outcome awaits us?