The Foolish and the Wise
The Foolish and the Wise
Jesus teaches a parable at the close of the most famous expositional sermon ever givenour Lord's exposition of the Torah, the Lawwhich is recorded in Matthew 5, 6, and 7. We know it as the Sermon on the Mount. At the close of the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus teaches a parable. If you want to open to Matthew, the seventh chapter, verse, you'll find these famous words:
"Everyone then that hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man" (or woman) "who builds his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it."
That closes the Sermon on the Mount. But Matthew, the writer of this gospel, makes a final comment. "And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes."
Let me just say a word about the interpretation of parables, first of all. I think it's very important in interpreting parables that you be sure to study first of all the story line, the story itself, and in studying the story to notice what are the turning points. We have a parable here where our Lord tells two stories really, side by side. This is one of his famous parables. (The most famous, of course, is the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother.) Where you have that kind of parable, you have two story lines you must follow, and usually the clue to interpretation is to notice the elements that are similar in each story and the elements that are different. On those similarities and on those differences usually rests the turning point, the interpretive clue to the parable.
Okay, notice this parable. There are two stories that are told, side by side. In each story, two parts of the stories are the same, and in each of the two stories one part is different. Let's, then, observe these similaritiesthe parts that stay constant, that stay the sameand then let's observe the variable.
In each story, each person builds a house. In other words, in the parable that's not up for grabs. Now let me interpret that right away. In Jesus' story we are all house builders. We cannot escape that fact. I suppose we can observe that our Lord is talking about major decisions that people make, and every person is deciding upon careers or relationships, value systems, philosophies of lifemaybe that's the houses we build. Jesus does not make that task a turning point in the parable. It's not a variable; it's the same. Notice it's identical in each story: Each person builds a house. The point is that we are all house builders.
As a matter of fact, that's true even with what we may think of as in our lives, or where we defer making a decision. Suppose they announce spring turnout for fall football and a person says, "I'm gonna wait and see what to decide. I don't want to make a decision on that. It's too big an item to make a decision about. After all, think of all that's at stake: You could get an injury. I don't know if I want to make such a big decision, so I'm going to wait it out for a while to decide." So that becomes, in effect, a , or a deferred decision. But according to this parable, there is no such thing as a deferred decision, because each person builds a house. So even the will be the house I'm going to live in. The actually becomes a decision, according to this parable. It's not up for grabs. Everyone builds a house.
Let's look at the second constant in the parable. This is not so comfortable for us, perhaps, but in each story, each house faces a storm. In fact, our Lord is a good storyteller; he makes that very dramatic. He says, "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house." That's in story one. And notice in story two he uses the identical language again, which accentuates the similarity. "The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house." Identical. And that our Lord does deliberately.
In each story, each house faces a storm. We all have storms, according to this parable. This is not, in other words, a parable about weather. It is not a parable about finding a safe climate for growing your faith or your family. It's not a parable about avoiding storms but a parable about building houses for storms. It's a big difference.
Now we're not sure we like this, and Jesus knows we're edgy on this question. I think he proves that in Matthew 13, in his famous parable about the weeds and the wheat. Remember in that parable, the owner has crops, and the wheat is planted, and then the workers rush in one day and say in our Lord's story, "Did you know there are weeds out there?"
And the owner says, "Well, an enemy must have done this."
Then the workers say, "Shall we pull the weeds up?"
And then the surprise of the parable: The owner says, "No, let the weeds and the wheat grow together, and then at the harvest we'll take care of them both." What a shock! We don't like that. We don't want to raise our children where there are weeds around. We don't want to raise our families where there are storms around. But nevertheless, that's clear in the story: Each house we build faces a storm.
Well then, what is the variable? The variable in this parable is the foundation upon which the houses are built. That is where the story turns. He says one house is built on a rock, another house is built on sand. By that variable in the two stories we have the clue to what Jesus is teaching in this parable.
Jesus is a sure foundation to build your life upon.
Now what is he teaching? I'd like to make two theological observations about this parable. First of all, this parable is a parable about Jesus Christ himself. There's no question about it. This is a profoundly messianic passage in the New Testament. The people who heard our Lord's sermonand these closing words in the closing parablewere aware of what was at stake in what Jesus said.
I prove that to you by Matthew's comment that we read at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, "And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished" (the word Matthew uses) "at his teaching. He taught not like the scribes but like one who had authority." In other words, the people caught the significance of both the Sermon on the Mount itself and this closing parable.
This parable is a parable about our Lord himself. In this parable, our Lord affirms that he and his words are faithful, and that we can rightly build our lives upon that foundation. That's made clear in the parable. He says, "The wise man is the one who hears my words and does them." Jesus Christ makes himself and what he says and what he teaches the foundation that is what he calls "the rock."
In fact, in the parable our Lord raises a huge question. It's an existential question as well as a historical question. And the question our Lord raises is this: If you do not choose to trust in Christ's faithfulness as the starting point of your life, then what do you propose to build your life upon? What do you propose to put in the place of Jesus Christ as the rock for your life? Your work? Your family? Your church? If it isn't going to be Jesus Christ, what is it going to be? And notice how the parable poses that huge question. All right, the parable is, therefore, a parable about Jesus Christ himself.
Faith is the ongoing decision to build your life on that foundation.
But the parable is also a parable about faith and the freedom of faith. And that's the second theological observation I'd like to make. It's a parable about faith and the freedom of faith. Faith is portrayed here as the ongoing, living decision that we make about starting points and foundations throughout the whole , journey of our lives. That's faith. According to this parable, faith is the decision we make. It's the event in our lives in which we decide where to build our lives, what to put our lives upon.
Notice two things about our Lord's portrayal of faith in this parable. First of all, the parable shows us that faithas that event of planting and trusting your life upon the foundation, hearing what Jesus says, hearing and doingis itself tested. And now we come to that constant that's in both storiesthe storm that comes to the house and its foundation. In other words, faith is tested by the storm. And personal failure, insofar as it is the experience of sin in our experience, one way or another, is an experience of that stormy assault upon sandy foundations. Failure as sin is the experience we have of the assault of the storm upon a sandy foundation.
I was given the assignment to speak on overcoming personal failure. And I thought to myself, What is the best New Testament text for this grave theme? And then I thought to myself, Of course! The only textreally the best textfor this great theme has to be the Sermon on the Mount, because that single sermon creates more awareness of personal failure than any other passage in the Bible. If you're going to have an exposition that grapples with personal failure and the restoration of a person in the midst of personal failure, you've got to take the text that makes us aware, very sharply, of what personal failure is. There is simply no escaping it in the Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord creates a profound crisis for every listener. When our Lord finishes his completion of the fulfillment of the law, if you had any loopholes before that you were operating with, he has closed them all. You feel more guilty. The Sermon on the Mount in a sense is bad news before it's good news.
And so you have to ask the question, "Where in the world is the gospel in the Sermon on the Mount?" Where is there hope or a solution for the crisis that the Sermon on the Mount poses? I'll tell you where I think it is. First of all, it's in the Preacher who says it. It's the Messianic element in the Sermon on the Mount that in the profoundest sense is its gospel. It's who handles the law, who fulfills the law, who speaks to it. Jesus Christ himself, the Preacher himself, is the good news in the Sermon on the Mount.
And I have a curious second element of good news that's in the Sermon, and I think I can prove it textually. The second good news element in the Sermon on the Mount is the fact that Jesus himself is aware of the crisis that his words have caused. When our Lord speaks of murder, we all felt, most of us at least, that we were not murderers. That was one law where we could say, "Lord, at least I didn't murder anybody." But when Jesus finishes the redefinition and says, "When you say, 'Thou fool,' to your brother,"oh, my goodness, what happens then to that loophole? Even that one is closed. Our Lord takes every one of the great Commandments, and they become in their fulfillments so profound that we are each one caught up and made aware of our own undoing. But the second part of the good news is that our Lord himself is aware of the crisis that his words have caused. The proof of that is just a few sentences earlier than this final parable. Our Lord, in teaching on prayer, says to his disciples, "Ask and it shall be given to you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; and he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks it will be opened." And then he tells another little parable here: "What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?" In other words, he encourages us with these very earthy words, encourages us to come and ask, seek, and knock, to come to the Father. He gives us wonderful help. He tells us about awful stormsthat they'll happen to every single person. And the good news is that it's never too late to be a wise man or woman and build the house that you're building back on the rock. That's the good news. It's not too late to hear.
This parable shows (and this is the second observation I'd like to make with regard to his faith teaching) that faith is an ongoing relationship of our lives with Jesus Christ himself.
Now, folks, I want to tell you that we live in earthquake country here. Not so much here in Anaheim, but if you go a little further north, to L.A., the San Andreas Fault (this incredible fault system that California's famous for) starts and runs all the way up through California. If you actually take a flight up California you can see the San Andreas Fault. It goes right under San Francisco, out to the ocean, up toward Alaska.
What if you added this one word to the terror of the storm? "This person built a house on the rock, and the rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew, and there was horizontal earth movement; and the house did not fall. And then a person built his house on the sand, and the rains fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and there was horizontal earth movement." What if you added that to the parable? It would make it all the more terrifying.
Let me tell you something about earthquakes. When the Coalinga quake occurred a couple of years ago, a lot of things were discovered. Houses that were built and were bolted to their foundation withstood that 8.2RScale quake. The structure would go like this, but if it was bolted to the foundation, it withstood. Now on the other hand, the houses that were built in a period when they did not bolt them to the foundationagain, a perfectly good housewhen the horizontal earth movement occurred, the house moved maybe six or seven inches off its foundation. And that's what caused the house to collapse. And so that was a great discovery made at Coalinga: Houses should be bolted to their foundation. It's not only on the foundation, but if you're going to add horizontal earth movement to this terrifying portrayal that we all face, then you need to have the house bolted into its foundation. Sort of a living relationship with the foundationinto it as well as on it.
The San Andreas Fault is well known to Southern Californians, but it's even better known to northern Californians because of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Our San Andreas Fault literally goes under the south pier of the Golden Gate Bridge. Let me tell you about that bridge. Two great piers: the north pier, the south pier. The south pier is on the San Andreas Fault. It has the two piers, it has this mile span, and in the middle, it'll sway feet. And they've closed the Golden Gate Bridge only three times in its history because of windstorms. Not because the bridge was in dangerit wasn't swaying that farbut they closed the bridge because campers and were tipping over on the bridge.
I want to tell you something that may surprise you. If you're making a trip to San Francisco and you want the safest place to go, you go to the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. That will withstand probably 9.0 on the Richter Scale. It's a magnificent structure. It will not fall, for two reasons. One, it's flexiblethat sway. But I'll tell you another reason it stands: That bridge is a marvel of cantilever and suspension in construction. Every bit of concrete, and all the macadam and that pavement, and every bit of steel in that entire bridgeall of it relates one piece to another. Every piece of metal in that bridge finally relates to two giant cables, that finally come up to two great piers that go down into bedrock, and two anchors out on each side. That's the genius of a suspension bridgeevery single piece of metal, every single piece of concrete, is preoccupied with its foundation. And it's satisfied with the foundation. You don't see big, huge cables going from the top of the bridge over the TransAmerica Tower, or over to redwood trees over Marin County; you don't have that. They decide to trust the pure living rock that those great piers go into.
And that's what this parable is all about. This parable is about finding a foundation to build your life on.
Build your life on Jesus Christ and his Word. That's the way our Lord ends the Sermon on the Mount. We still need that word today.
Earl Palmer is pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington. He has written a number of books and commentaries, including Signposts: Christian Values in an Age of Uncertainty, and Mastering Teaching.
Preaching Today Tape # 54
A resource of Christianity Today International
Earl Palmer is a writer and speaker for Earl Palmer Ministries, and author of Mastering the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation (W Publishing Group).