Soundings

A tale of two builders

Apr 2002    

CONCLUDING THE SERIES OF REFLECTIONS ON THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT

Building on sand and building on rock: These metaphors may also refer to calamities experienced in life that would test authenticity of one’s faith

Matthew 7:24-29

WE COME to the final passage in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus describes two builders who went about the business of building houses for themselves.

It goes without saying that Jesus is using parabolic language to describe two significantly different types of people, although their difference is at first difficult to detect. The similarities between them may be seen in the fact that they both had drive and purpose. Even after they had completed their building projects, they appeared, initially at least, to have both succeeded.

On the surface, it was very difficult to detect any difference in their handiwork. Both houses appeared to be well built and sturdy. The external features did not reveal the real condition of the houses. This links this parable to a central theme in the Sermon on the Mount: there is more to spirituality than meets the eye. If external appearances truly reflect the spiritual well-being and authenticity of a person, then the Pharisees would be spiritual giants!

This parable impresses upon us the great truth that foundations are everything. The foolish person, according to this parable, is the one who would build directly on sand, which provides no protection against the devastation of the elements. The wise person living in the Palestinian desert, however, would choose to build upon the rock, a solid and secure foundation that he knows will protect the house from floods and sudden storms. Jesus then spoke of the testing that would come, because any building must face the vicissitudes of its useful life. And it was then when the truth about the buildings was out that their fundamental difference was revealed.

The rain, flood and wind are, according to some scholars, symbols of the final Day of Judgment during which all will be revealed. The eschatological nature of the Sermon on the Mount makes this interpretation attractive, although these metaphors may also refer to calamities that are experienced in life that would test the authenticity of one’s faith. As the storm broke, and the houses were subjected to severe battering, the truth about the buildings, their fundamental and fatal difference, was finally revealed. The house built upon solid rock withstood the rain, flood and gale. But the one built on sand collapsed in irreparable ruin. The truth will be out when difficulties and challenges confront the person who calls himself or herself a Christian.

The parable makes it very clear that hearing the Word of God alone is not enough. A thorough knowledge of Scripture is important, but without obedience, such knowledge alone will not save us from ruin when the storms of life come. Scripture repeatedly emphasises the importance of being an obedient doer of God’s Word. In Matthew 12:50, Jesus points out that obedience is very important to our relationship with him: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

 

obedience

And classically in James 1:22-25, the apostle emphasises that true discipleship takes place only when there is a correlation between hearing and doing God’s Word. It is this central theme – obedience – that properly conjoins 7:15-23 and 7:24-27. Just as mere profession of the lordship of Christ (v 21) and ministerial competence (vv 22-23) are insufficient to ascertain the authenticity of one’s commitment, so too is the knowledge of God’s Word an insufficient gauge of discipleship.

This passage makes it quite clear that faith and obedience are profoundly and inextricably related. The builder who builds his house upon sand is not someone with a weak faith. The passage suggests that such a person has no faith at all! The person who simply hears the Word of Christ but does not obey does not have faith in Christ because obedience is not an added extra; obedience is the evidence of faith.

Thus we may say that only the believers obey, and only the obedient believe. The one statement cannot be understood without the other. The first statement is easy enough to understand. Only believers obey. This means that faith is the pre-requisite of obedience, and obedience is the manifestation – the making evident – of faith. The second statement makes it clear that obedience is that which prevents faith from becoming a form of self-deception. Only those who “put to practice” the word of Christ has truly made faith real by obedience.

As Bonhoeffer has so eloquently put it, “A concrete commandment has to be obeyed, in order to come to believe.” The fact remains that the disobedient cannot have faith. The disobedient cannot believe: only the obedient believe.

Matthew brings this long discourse to a close by emphasising the authority of the speaker. “The crowds were amazed” at the teachings of Jesus. Why were they amazed? Was it because Jesus had given them insights that were totally new and unique?

This cannot be the case because at least some aspects of the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount can be found in other religious and cultural contexts. Verse 29 makes it clear that Jesus’ audience was amazed at His teaching because “He taught as one who had authority”. This assessment must be understood theologically. By this statement Matthew is not content to say that Jesus was just a brilliant moral teacher, even the moral teacher par excellence. This indeed is the verdict of numerous contemporary readers of the Sermon of the Mount. They will go so far as to say that Jesus of Nazareth was perhaps the greatest moral teacher who ever lived.

But for Matthew, this assertion has not gone far enough. For him, Jesus’ authority was different from the teachers of the law because He is the incarnate Word of God.

Sermon on the Mount a divine call made on all of us

We return at the end to the statements that prefaced this series of expositions: that the Sermon on the Mount cannot be interpreted without a Christology. The Sermon on the Mount can only be understood in the light of the person of the Preacher. Understood in this way, the Sermon can never be merely a piece of fine ethics. It is a divine call; a divine call that is made on all of us. For the Sermon is not merely the words of a man, not even those of a very great man. It is the Word of God.

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.

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