Trinity 1 year A, 2005

The house built on rock and the house built on sand

(Matthew 7. 21-29)     

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The parable of the houses built on rock and on sand must surely fall in the top ten of Jesus’ parables as far as children are concerned.   If they know little else about the Christian faith, there must be countless children who know that ‘the wise man built his house upon the rock … and when the rain came down and the floods came up, the house on the rock stood firm’.   By contrast, ‘the foolish man built his house upon the sand … but when the rain came down and the floods came up came the house on the sand fell flat’.   (Of course the children love the actions, with the crashing and the falling).


It’s tempting to think that we know all about this parable, because it’s so familiar.   There’s an obvious connection between foundations, rock, strength, firmness – and founding our lives on God.   By contrast with the rock, sand is soft, insecure, maybe shifting – and so represents the dangers of building our lives on those values which are not of God.   And I’ve certainly taught that many times to children.  So often, then, we think this is the end of the story.


But there’s another angle to this parable, which becomes clear only when you look at it more closely, and see it in the light of what comes before it in the gospel of St. Matthew.   The parable of the two houses falls at the very end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – indeed it can be seen as its climax.   Listen to the words with which Jesus introduces the final sequence of teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: “Enter through the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.   But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it’ (Mt. 7. 13-14).   This is a theme that Jesus has developed through much of the Sermon:   that you can’t coast spiritually; that doing God’s will is not something that can be done casually, and that it’s often more difficult than we realise.   Now, as Jesus reaches the climax of the Sermon, he sets out a final message, which is this:   that the way of holiness must bear fruit, must produce good results, if it is to be acceptable in the eyes of God.   (repeat)


To show how this applies us in practice, Jesus sets out three different ways in which people fail to find the narrow gate, the gate which leads to true life.   All three are related to one another; they are variations on the same theme.   And they are these:   appearing to be holy, or godly, but not actually being so; saying pious words, but not doing the will of God; and hearing the words of God, but not acting upon them.   Appearing; saying, hearing – three forms of pretence; of trying to deceive other people, God – and ourselves.   Let’s look at each of these in turn.


(i) Appearing to be holy, but not actually being so .   The picture Jesus uses here is the familiar one of wolves in sheep’s clothing.   From the way this image is commonly used today, it is tempting to think that its main point is to describe dangerous people who look gentle.   We can easily forget that Jesus is really referring to people whose lives do not bear fruit in the way that their appearance of holiness suggests they should.   He goes on to explain this by saying that “a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit”.  


(ii)   Saying pious words, but not actually doing the will of God.   This is where Jesus says those famous words, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”   People will protest that they did all kinds of things in Jesus’ name, but he will tell them that he never knew them.


(iii)    Hearing the words of Jesus, but not acting upon them.   This, at last, is where we started – we’re back to the parable of the houses built on rock and sand.   Jesus is quite clear that person who built his house on the sand is like those people who hear his words but don’t put them into practice.


Do you see, then, how Jesus constructed the climax to his Sermon on the Mount?   He obviously saw, in the lives of certain religious people of his day, that their appearance of holiness, their pious words, and their failure to listen to God’s teachings more than superficially, put a great barrier between them and God.    In other words – Jesus was criticising the hypocrisy, the pretence, the deceit which are always a risk to those of us who claim to believe in God and to follow his ways.  


Elsewhere, Jesus develops the theme of hypocrisy further. In a sustained attack on the religious leaders of his time in Matthew 23, he especially condemns those whose lives do not match their outward piety.   He compares them to ‘whitened sepulchres, or tombs’ – which look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean’ (Mt. 23. 27).   Those religious leaders who love the place of honour; who like to be looked up to by others; who give an outward show of piety but inside are full of greed self-indulgence (Mt. 23.25).   By contrast, religious leaders are to be servants: as Jesus says in Mt. 23. 11-12, The greatest among you will be your servant; for whoever makes himself important (exalts himself) will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be raised to importance.


This should be unsettling.   Jesus is being uncompromising.   And of course his words talk to us as well as to the people of his time.    How, then, are our lives to bear the fruit to which Jesus refers, so that the words we say to God, the appearance of faith which we convey, by coming to church   - may produce the results that God wants of us?


The answer is to be found in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole.   This is Jesus’ description of how we should live out in our lives the ancient law that we are to love God with all our heart and mind, soul and strength – and love our neighbours as ourselves.   But also loving enemies; doing acts of charity and piety for their own sake, not so that they might be seen by others; not being anxious about money or possessions; forgiving others – and so on.


We’ve ranged quite widely from a simple beginning.   But all of this lies behind the parable about the houses built on rock and on sand.   A parable which should be uncomfortable, because it reminds us how tempting it is to build our house on sand, without taking the trouble to find the rock.   And remember, if you were building a real house, you wouldn’t build it on sand just because lots of other people had done so.

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