Some parables need explaining. They might be difficult to understand because of some strange cultural practice of Jesus’ day that’s completely foreign to us. Other passages are impossible to misunderstand. Their point is clear and you have to work hard to miss it or turn it into something it isn’t.
The parable of the wise and foolish builders (Luke 6.46-49) is the impossible-to-misunderstand kind. It’s not at all complicated. There are no strange foreign customs to get lost in. No difficult grammar to hide behind. No hard to understand theological terms to confuse or disorient. Here we just have Jesus in simple language making himself the absolute center of our destiny and confronting us with the challenge of what to do with him. Jesus asks:
Why do you call me, “Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.
With parables like this, the best thing a preacher/teacher can do is get out of the way as quickly as possible. That’s what I’d like to do, just as soon as I point a few things out.
First, this parable is Jesus’ conclusion to his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (either the abbreviate form of it in Luke or the longer version in Matthew). Christ has addressed a swath of concerns (more in Matthew than in Luke)—spiritual poverty, humility, peace-making, judging others, divorce and remarriage, lust, anger, what the Sabbath is for, praying, fasting, giving in the offering, doing religious duties, being anxious about tomorrow, trusting God, loving our enemies—all things that Jesus regularly taught about in public. All of these are what? They are what life in the Kingdom in a fallen world looks like. The conclusion makes Jesus’ single point: To be in the kingdom is to live its life, to do these things, to be spiritually broken, to mourn one’s sin, to make peace in the world, to not objectify women through lust, to be faithful in marriage, to not judge others, to love your neighbor, to build your life on Christ—this is what it looks like to be the Kingdom in the present world.
I confess. I’m prone to forget it. It’s easier to make something else, something other than Jesus, what it’s all about—holding to correct doctrine, going through the routine of religious devotion void of spiritual brokenness and hunger for righteousness, busying one’s self with the care and service of others (add whatever you do if you’re in vocational ministry). There are always good things we can lose ourselves in and miss the point. So I have to come back to this point, back to Jesus’ conclusion, and ask myself, “Am I giving my whole heart to living this life?”
Second, parables invite us to use our imagination. We are meant to imagine ourselves into the story, to play each part, and perhaps find the part that is most like us, or most unlike us, and in the difference hear God speak to us. What’s the parable mean? In the end comes down to where you find yourself in the story? That’s what it means.
But sometimes we don’t like the options and want to change the story. With this particular story we have the opportunity to pick one of two options: I’m either a wise or a foolish builder. Now I’ll be honest. I don’t like such stark either/or options. I think Jesus is being too polarizing. Sometimes things aren’t so black and white. Sometimes people aren’t just ‘this’ or ‘that’. Sometimes we’re a mixture. I think Jesus isn’t being very accommodating to struggling people (comme moi). And so I say to Christ in prayer, “Jesus, let’s recognize a third option over here: those who build unwisely but on the rock. That work for you, Jesus?” Jesus is silent. I know the answer.
We’re meant to find ourselves, something about ourselves, in these parable as they’re given, not as edited by us to accommodate ourselves. The healing truth about us begins in identifying of ourselves within the constrains of the parables. And that’s hard to do.
Third, forget the wise builders for a moment. Consider the foolish builders. They’re more interesting. What do they do?
- They name Jesus as their “Lord” (v. 46) Lord = Master.
- They “come to Jesus” and “hear” or attend to what he says. That is, they know the teachings of Jesus. They are where Jesus is, listening and agreeing.
- They are not ignorant of who he is (Lord) or of what he commands and they agree to the rightness of what he teaches. That is, they build their lives on hearing, knowing and agreeing to Jesus’ teachings and they call him ‘Lord’.
And these are the foolish builders.
What don’t they do? They don’t actually put Jesus’ words/teachings into practice. They hear, they know and understand, and they agree (because they’re calling Jesus “Lord”). But they do not do what Jesus says.
A 2014 story in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Yoga Poseurs: Athletic Gear Soars, Outpacing Sport Itself” laments the disparity between those who spend good money to purchase and don athletic wear but who don’t actually work out and those who actually work out. The byline reads “Customers Snap Up Stretchy Tees and Leggings, Boosting Growth for ‘Athleisure’ Apparel.” We’ve created a new term: “Atheleisure.” People wear the garb and talk the talk enough to be associated with a group, but they never live the life that those clothes or that language or those associations represent. They wear hiking boots but never hike. They don yoga leggings but do no exercises. They spend money on specialty running shorts, but never jog. They invest in the gear and want to be seen in it. They just don’t do with their bodies what the gear is designed to support their doing.
If only Dallas Willard were still around.
Early last fall I was on campus at a local university for a class I teach. Walking across campus, I noticed two men with tanks on the backs. The tanks had short hoses attached to them with spray nozzles at the end. The men were painting the lawns green. The previous month or so had been especially dry, so our campus lawns were admittedly brown and ugly. ‘So what?’ I thought. But it was a day or two before “Campus Days” when high schoolers are invited to visit for a few days, attend classes and check out the programs. It’s all part of convincing prospective students to attend after they graduate. You want the campus and grounds to look smart and clean, but the grass was an ugly brown. I get it. I was just surprised. Paint it green? It just struck me as an example of so much of our religious life in general. OK, my religious life. Fine.
What kind of builder am I? Wise or foolish? Can I be a third option, something in between? No. I can’t.
Do I give myself to doing what Jesus did? Or do I just give myself (attentively!) to hearing and agreeing with what he said while never doing it? Do I buy hiking boots and wear them but never hike? Do I fertilize and water and tend to the health of my soil? Or do I spray paint my dead grass green so that it looks healthy?