Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Wise and Foolish Builders


Matthew 7:24-29

Jesus had just presented the Sermon on the Mount in which he set forth the principles by which men should live. He had blessed the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted. He had spoken of the necessity of moving beyond the letter of the law to its spirit, beyond action to motive. He called for complete integrity, for non-retaliation, for loving one’s enemies. He denounced doing good for display and encouraged doing good without ulterior motives or thought of reward. He emphasized loyalty to God and laying up treasure in heaven. He denounced destructive criticism, set forth the golden rule, the necessity of taking the narrow gate and the hard road, the bearing of good fruit, and the importance of obedience rather than mere confession.

Having set forth his principles, he advised the people to act on them. Those that did would “be like a wise man who built his house on rock" and those who refused would “be like a foolish man who built his house on sand." Notice the astonishing claim made by Jesus. The person who acted on his principles would stand, would abide, would survive, while the person who did not would fall away, would be swept away, would perish.

"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." The crowds sensed the power and authority in Jesus' words. They were different from anything they had heard before, especially from the rabbinic teachers who quoted another venerable rabbi who quoted another earlier rabbi. Jesus simply said, "But I say unto you."

Jesus described those who acted or failed to act to his advice as wise or foolish. Jesus was not dealing with philosophy per se but with religious teachings. Yet he calls the men wise and foolish rather than good and bad or righteous and evil. He did the same thing when he described those who wait for his coming as wise and foolish virgins. He also called the man a fool who built bigger barns but gave no thought of a reckoning. What Jesus stresses here is not our wickedness but our foolishness.

Living a life contrary to God's principles is fundamentally foolish because such a life is in conflict with the way we were designed to function. We were made to walk on our feet, not on our hands. Automobile engines are designed to use oil as a lubricant will self-destruct if water is used as a substitute. E. Stanley Jones writes:

A wolf-child, captured near where I live in India, had lived with wolves from the age of two to the age of eleven. It ran on all fours. Its knee joints were stiff and enlarged from running in this fashion. It would eat only raw meat, and when it was put on a more civilized diet, it took dysentery and died. A human being had lived in a wolf environment on wolf principles, on a wolf diet for nine years. Human nature had so accommodated itself to it that it seemed the natural way to live and our more human ways seemed unnatural. We have lived so long on the wolf-principles of selfishness and competition and strife that the Christian way of unselfishness, of cooperation and love seems to us a foreign way. 1

Thus the words of the Sermon on the Mount may appear foreign and alien to us who live in a world where the blessed are not the meek and the mourners, where we pay back rather than turn the other cheek, where loving the enemy is unthinkable. When Paul and Silas were preaching in Thessalonica, the people shouted, "These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also.” (Acts 17:6) That is the way it appears to most of the world, but in reality, Jesus and Paul and Silas were attempting to turn the world right side up.

In this parable, Jesus talks about building a house. If you had the choice of building on a rock or building on the sand, where would you build? You say it’s a no-brainer, yet we read of floods occurring quite regularly in certain parts of our own country. People build along certain rivers and when the floods come their homes are washed away or badly damaged. As soon as the flood subsides, they build again on the same spot. Is it any wonder, that Jesus calls this foolishness? Jesus’ “house” is a metaphor for “character”. It is important then, that we build a character that will stand the test of time and experience. Jesus does not provide other options. Build on the rock or the sand. We have to make a choice; build well or foolishly.

Building a house on the rock of Jesus principles may appear to be too radical—to turn the other cheek, to love the enemy, to be completely transparent and honest, to be wholly committed to his kingdom. If we decide to build a house on land that is neither rock or sand in spite of the fact that Jesus words clearly indicate that there is not a third choice, we are choosing the way of foolishness.

A certain man was going on a world cruise. While he was away he wanted his builder to build a house

“according to my specifications, spare no necessary expense. I want this house to be a good house for a special reason." The builder listened carefully and he had always faithfully served his employer. He always followed all the specifications accurately. Never once did he deviate from the plans. But when the employer left for the cruise, the builder had some second thoughts. He thought of all the years he had served so faithfully but felt that he was not rewarded commensurately. Since he was gone, he thought this would be a good time to recoup some of his reward. The building would be built exactly like the specifications everywhere where it could be seen. But in those places where it could not be seen, he bought cheaper material. The employer would never know, and he would pocket the difference.

When the employer returned, he came to look at the house. At one glance he knew that the builder had done it again. He had built another masterpiece. Everything looked just as he specified. He checked everything and everything looked fine. After he was fully satisfied with the quality of the house and that everything was as it should be he said to the builder, "You have served me well these many years. In reward I planned this house for you. It is yours to own and live in."

When Lot separated from Abraham, he would never have considered building his home in Sodom, a city so wicked that God destroyed it. He would not pitch his tent in Sodom but near it. Initially, Lot believed he was making a sensible compromise, not where Abraham was but not in Sodom either—just toward it, just near it. In the end Lot and his family became city dwellers. This story teaches that it is foolish to make decisions based on the sandy ground of compromised principles.

Jesus appeals to our reason and calls upon us to build our lives upon the “rock”, the eternal principles that governed his life and teaching. It is not enough to read about them; it is not enough to assent to them intellectually. We must translate them into deeds. "The kingdom demands in its hearers not earnestness alone, but earnestness which will translate truth heard and truth pondered into truth lived!" 2

1 Jones, E. Stanley, The Christ of the Mount: A working Philosophy of Life (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Colesbury Press, 1931), p. 15.

2 Buttrick, p. 55.

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