A familiar parable that has loaned itself to an old chorus, been told many times in school assemblies and Sunday School groups, and been re-enacted in various ways. Familiarity breeds contempt they say, and because we are so familiar with this parable we know exactly what it means. It’s an evangelistic tool: on what have you built your life? What are your foundations made from? Are you going to stand firm in the day of judgement or be destroyed? Or, follow the moral teachings of Jesus and you will have a good foundation to your life. Of course, it is a parable and lends itself to different interpretations and uses. However, I would suggest that the central purpose of this parable is not about moral living or standing on the judgement day. It is about accepting Jesus as Lord of your life and living out the implications of doing so. It is directed at those who claim to be followers and firmly sets it in the context of some very challenging teaching. It begins with a question and that question is directed at disciples.
The backdrop is some very challenging teaching, both in Matthew and Luke. Basically Jesus is saying don’t pay lip service to being my follower. The truth of your commitment and mine will be revealed before the judgement day: it will be revealed when the challenges of life come and in the way in which we respond to them. Sermon done; but I guess you might feel a bit cheated.
Let’s get the humour of the parable. When Jesus talked about the wise and foolish builders, and he came to the foolish builder, he was using imagery that his hearers would have understood. The foolish builder hit by the flash flood was building in a stupid place: he was building in a wadi – a dried up river that could suddenly become a raging torrent when the rains came.
When I was at Horley I visited a missionary from the church working in Malaga. The road in which we were staying sloped downwards towards a dried river course and one day we saw a car bumping its way along, obviously taking a short cut. A few days later it rained and this river course became a flood. This was where the foolish man built his house. Those who were listening to Jesus would have understood the joke. Jesus gave a vivid illustration about following him and highlighting the problems of easy believism that has no foundations.
This parable comes at the end of teaching in Luke that begins with blessings and woes that look like the Beatitudes, but are also very different. Jesus is addressing his disciples, as in Matthew when he begins the Sermon on the Mount; he seems to turn the natural course of things on their head, as happens in the Beatitudes; but then he pronounces a series of woes, and they seem to uncannily fit me, if they don’t fit you. Even if we spiritualise the blessings and woes, the woes could still be applied to me. Now if these blessings and woes connect with the parable, which surely they must because that is how Luke has arranged the material – as has Matthew – then we need to ask whether we are building on solid foundations and building with substantial materials and in the right place. The woes are speaking to those who have become complacent, become settled and are jogging along quite happily: Jesus is mine and I am his and all is right with the world – until there is a challenge. The woes Jesus pronounced, should cause us to re-examine our foundations and perhaps carry out repair and reinforcement where necessary, so that the whole house can stand.
In the prayer course this week we considered the question of unanswered prayer. It is in the question of unanswered prayer and in the face of tragedy, that the depth of our foundations are revealed. In that I don’t mean we live out resigned fatalism, because it is not what the people of God did either in the Old or New Testament; and is not how Christians have behaved in history. Christian disciples have not necessarily understood why things have happened, but have had a strong sense of being held by God and within his will. They may have become angry with God, but knew that to abandon God was not the answer. They may have struggled to lift the next building block in place, but by the strength of the Spirit have done so.
Consider the first disciples in Acts. Once rejection and opposition came, they did not cave in and abandon Christ, even though they may have felt scared and relocated. When Paul and Barnabus returned to Antioch, where they had faced persecution and been expelled, this is what they did: they strengthened the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
They laid the foundations and presumably the Christians there also did their part. In Thessalonica when the crowd came looking for Paul and Silas and didn’t find them, they attacked Jason and his friends instead. However, they didn’t give up being followers as far as we are aware.
Let’s move on. ‘Why do you call me Lord and not do what I say?’ Jesus said love your enemies. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.’ I have used the example of the bombing of Coventry Cathedral before. When the cathedral and city were bombed and the Provost Dick Howard talked about forgiveness – following the example of Jesus on the cross – he was not the most popular person; but he was following the teaching of Jesus.
You may have experienced and may be experiencing situations in your life in which you find it extremely difficult to forgive. It is a daily decision that is only achieved through the Spirit, but here is where the challenge of discipleship is worked out daily in people’s lives, in ordinary as well as extraordinary situations.
Moving on: ‘Do not judge others and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ Sometimes there is the complaint that the church does not preach enough about judgement and hell. I would make two points about this. First of all, many Christians’ understanding of hell seems to come from Michaelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel and medieval Catholicism, rather than Jesus’ teaching. Secondly, look at the passages where Jesus speaks of judgement and consider to whom they are addressed. It is on the question of judgement and condemnation that we are in most danger of being complacent, as well as ignoring the teaching of Jesus. It would seem to me that mercy triumphs over judgement, ultimately demonstrated by Jesus on the cross.
‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit.’ Here is a challenge to self- examination and to look deep into our own hearts. Here is a reminder that we need to come regularly in honest confession before our God, baring our hearts so that we can know the Spirit’s cleansing and renewal. There is no space for complacency.
Pinning discipleship down is not an easy business. First of all as a follower you are a life-long learner. You never cease to be on that journey of learning from Jesus, until you stand complete before him. Luke uses the imagery of ’The Way’; it is a journey, the end of which comes when we pass through death to eternal life with the Lord we have been following. It is not an easy business, because sometimes there are no clear rules except to walk the path of humility, service, love and obedience that Jesus walked. It is not an easy business because the one we are seeking to follow through this life is Jesus and the example he set of humility, service, love and obedience is extremely challenging. But Jesus says that if we are going to call him Lord then we will do what he says and presumably follow the example of his life. Jesus says that if we build on this foundation we are building on rock. It will be hard work, but worth it. The people who hear what he says and act upon it are those who dig firm foundations. John Stott described the Christian life as a counter culture and we cannot live life in a counter-cultural way if we have not fully taken on board what Jesus said about following him. Learning to live counter-culturally is a life-long journey.
So in what ways does calling Jesus Lord mean we need to be counter-cultural? A woman was dragged in front of Jesus and thrown to the ground. ‘She has been caught in adultery and the law says she should be stoned. What do you say Jesus?’ ‘The person who has no sin should cast the first stone.’ The crowd melts away and only the woman is left with Jesus. ‘Has no-one condemned you?’ asks Jesus. ‘Then neither do I.’ It is easy to be a part of the crowd condemning – and sometimes it is a Christian crowd. It is easy to condemn someone who has so obviously fallen from grace and write them off, because of course we wouldn’t be so foolish. It is harder to show compassion and enable them to put their life back together.
Jesus met a man with leprosy on the road who cried out and Jesus had compassion on him and didn’t just heal him he touched him. This man was outcast and unwanted; he was expelled from towns and villages. As those fleeing violence and oppression cry out to us, it is easier to be hard hearted and say no room here, than to show compassion and understanding of the desperation that has led them to risk life itself.
It is easy to worry and get stressed about the future, about how we will make ends meet, about whether or not we will be able to live the lifestyle we want when retired. It is harder to trust God for the future and not join in the general panic. It is easier to conform to the expectations of society, the aspirations of society. It is harder to walk the path of humility and obedience and only care for the opinion of God our Father, our aspiration being to serve him. This all part of being Christ centred in our lives. Ultimately we need to ask, ‘Where is the control centre of our lives?’ Is the control centre me or the Christ we claim to follow? Will we make the priorities of Jesus our priorities? Will we do the words of Jesus?
Steve Chalke has recently been in a debate about whether or not we have understood the teaching of Paul correctly in 21st Century. Like him or not, he does challenge our boxes and borders and should make us go back to the teaching of Jesus and ultimately look at our own lives. I think we often fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus was all about dying and rising, and Paul about applying the meaning of what he did. However, as disciples of Jesus, our starting point has to be his teaching and his example, and interpreting Christian discipleship in the light of this. ‘Why do you call me Lord and not do what I say?’ Are we Christ centred: discipleship – it’s a challenge!