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More Parables from the Back Side
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Value of the House
MATTHEW 7:24-27: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!
A generation ago a television personality used to close his show by saying, "I'll see you again tomorrow, the Lord willing, and if the creek don't rise." I thought it was just a cute, colloquial saying until I lived for two years in the Kentucky mountains. There I discovered that the saying might be colloquial, but it comes from common sense based on experience. Kentucky has more miles of creek and river beds than any state except Alaska. In a matter of minutes, a hard rain can turn a lazy creek into a thundering wall of destruction. Roughly once a year the news media report a tragic story of someone who, driving home during a rainstorm, ventures across a familiar bridge, certain the water is manageable, only to be swept down the creek to death. A few days later, riding over the same creek, you can't imagine there could ever be danger in such a pretty little stream.
I suspect just such a creek bed could have been in view when Jesus told his story to a gathered crowd. In that part of the world such places are known as wadis—watercourses that are dry except in periods of substantial rainfall. I can imagine a boy looking at his father as Jesus tells the story, then shifting his feet uneasily as he looks at the wadi on which they're standing.
Like so many of Jesus' parables, the one in Matthew 7:24-27 is a very simple story. This is part of the wonder of the parables: The stories are so deceptively simple that one might rush through them without thinking, or one might say impatiently, "Of course! Everyone knows that." But there's the rub. If we don't "know" the message well enough to conduct our lives accordingly, then we don't really "know" it.
Jesus had just finished an extended period of teaching as he led into this parable. The response to his teaching was probably as it often is when someone challenges us with ideas that call us to change. No doubt the people were cautious about buying in with the teacher from Nazareth. His insights were intriguing, but it was clear that he was outside the establishment. Still more unsettling, his teaching was more demanding than that of the conventional rabbis. So at this moment when his listeners were weighing the message, Jesus threw down the gauntlet. Some people, Jesus said, would hear what he had said and would act upon it, while others would hear and do nothing. Jesus described these contrasting responses with strong language. The people who would act on his teachings were wise, while the others were foolish.
There's no genteel tentativeness here, no talk of "now we all have a right to our own point of view." Jesus may acknowledge that you have a right to your point of view, but he makes clear that your point of view may be wise or it may be foolish. Contrary to a currently popular sentiment, all points of view don't have the same value. Nor does Jesus commend the foolish ones for being "sincere" about what they believe, because sincerity doesn't help much when one is terribly wrong. Nor does Jesus suggest that there are multiple ways of looking at these matters; quite simply, there is a wise way and a foolish way, and that's it.
Some matters are like that, you know. The biggest issues of life are not like choosing between the several brands of cereal at the supermarket, nor even like choosing between several different colleges. The biggest issues of life are so vast in their reach and their consequences that those who choose rightly are wise, and those who are wrong are fools. This is hard language; but since we have only one life with which to cast our vote, someone had better spell out the matter clearly.
So Jesus resorts to a story that is just as clear as the identifying language he has chosen to use. Two men are building their homes. From what Jesus tells us, the homes are comparable in every way except one. Both, apparently, are well built. Both men care about the kind of house they build, because they're going to live there. The only difference is this: one house is built on rock and the other on sand. A city boy like me might not notice this difference. I know more about literature than I do about gravel and concrete, so if I were buying the house, I could be fooled.
But not the people to whom Jesus is talking. These are people who know land and property. They know where to build and where to avoid. If they choose a bad location, it isn't for lack of knowledge, but for some lapse of judgment. Rightly, then, Jesus describes these people as foolish. They have not erred for a shortage of information, but because of a deliberate choice. When Jesus says they are people who have "heard," we see them as informed and therefore equipped to "build"; but for some peculiar reason, the choice of the man who decides to build his house on sand contradicts reason and the very data of their lives. Please keep this clearly in mind: The difference between these two men is not a difference of ability, of knowledge, or of opportunity; it is a difference of choice. The one chooses wisely, the other foolishly.
At first there's no evidence of wisdom or foolishness. As I indicated a moment ago, both men are building good houses. As you walk through the area, you might admire them equally. But one day there's a storm. This is the surest thing I can tell you about this parable. In life, you can count on it that one day, somehow, some way, somewhere, there will be a storm. In a world where sickness exists, where accidents happen, where marriages are broken, where friendships are betrayed, and where the changing economy means jobs or businesses lost, everyone is compelled at some time to deal with a storm. Some people, Lord have mercy, live with storms most of their lives; my heart aches when I think of some such that I have known. Some seem to escape the storms for a long time; in such instances they often are particularly devastated when at last the storm comes their way. When I was a pastor, I was astonished by those persons who responded to the storm by complaining, "Why should this happen to me?" I found it hard not to reply, "Why should you be exempt? Didn't you know that to live on this planet is to meet a storm now and then?"
But let me confess that at times the storms can catch any of us unawares. The sun shines so pleasantly on life that you think nothing of it when there's a nagging pain. But when the doctor says the pain is an advanced malignancy, suddenly we find ourselves swept by a storm. I knew a man who returned from work one day to find a note from his wife that she had left and would not return. He told me he had no idea such a rupture was coming. Perhaps the sunshine of his career had made him insensitive to the storm that was shaping up in his marriage. All of us are sometimes caught unawares by one kind of storm or another.
Well, it's when the storm comes that you find out some thing about your house. As Jesus tells the story, the whole issue is in the foundation. One man had built on rock, the other on sand. You wonder how this could be. Anyone should know better than to build on sand. That's the point Jesus tries to make. This is a parable for those who have some knowledge. They know what house-building is all about. Why would such a person deliberately choose to build on sand?
In some instances, I think it's because the person has the "it couldn't happen to me" outlook. I remember a military officer from World War II who said, "If you tell a group of ten soldiers, 'Nine of you won't come back from this assignment,' most of the group will say to themselves, 'I sure feel bad about those other fellows.'" We know, statistically, that a certain percentage of persons who start out as social drinkers will become alcoholics. "Somebody else," the woman says. Some of life's conducts are like Russian roulette; you ought to know when you begin them that there's a chance you're playing with a loaded pistol. But most of us are optimists enough that we think we're among those who will beat the odds.
Other people build on sand because, frankly, the land is cheap. They're the folks who always look for a marginal deal. They cut their ethical decisions at such a close line that sometimes they end up on the unethical side. They justify with the oldest of excuses: "Everybody does it." Obviously, everybody doesn't do it; perhaps too many do, but not everybody. Besides, morality isn't established by a plebiscite; morality cuts more deeply into life than a majority vote. Those who look for a shortcut to happiness are easily persuaded to buy sandy property. They know they want to get that dream house as fast as they can, and they can get it so much faster if they don't have to invest so much in the land.
Then there are those who are taken with life's externals. They're more interested in the things that impress their neighbors and friends than in foundations. "It's much easier to sell cute bathroom fixtures," a realtor tells me, "than to sell the pipes that deliver the water to the bathroom." I regret to say that when some people put their lives together, they spend more of their time, their money, and their character seeking to impress other people than in choosing a good foundation. I suspect that if there were some kind of plastic surgery for the soul that could be done in a simple, even if fairly costly, operation, the church would get a lot of takers. Being born again may happen in moments, but there are no sudden saints. The sequel to being born again is that we're supposed to grow up (isn't that the purpose of being born?), and that's a long process.
I think, too, of a line from Sir James Barrie's play The Twelve-Pound Look. "One's religion," a character says, "is whatever he is most interested in, and yours is Success." Some people are, indeed, so taken with success, with money, with public recognition, or with the accumulation of tangible and intangible benefits that they don't pay a great deal of attention to life's foundations.
So, one way or another, for one reason or another, some people choose to build their house on sand. That's what bothered Jesus. He had finished another session of teaching, and implicit in each of his lessons was a call to follow. Jesus could see that not everyone was going to follow. As a matter of fact, a great many would not, and only a few would. And Jesus said that those who heard the truth and didn't act on it were fools.
Why such a hard word? What is the measure of the decision that cuts the line so sharply that those on one side are called wise, while those on the other are called foolish?
Just this: the value of the house. The reason the foundation—or the land on which the men in the parable were building—was such an issue was because of the value of the structure that was going to be built on that land. If the man had been building a chicken coop, we could forgive him for choosing a questionable foundation; a small coop doesn't cost much, and it doesn't take too long to build. But a house? That's quite another matter.
Especially when you get only one house. Most of us charge into life as if we were going to be able to develop a whole subdivision of lives, so that if this one didn't work out, we'd move into another just down the street. But life isn't like that. We're given just one, so we'd better build it on a foundation worthy of the house.
Take, for instance, that part of our house that we call the body. It is a magnificently engineered entity, this body of yours and mine; and it is remarkably resilient. We can feed it so many wrong things, offer it sleep at careless intervals, and ignore so many of its warnings, yet it recovers in quite miraculous fashion. That is, we can make all sorts of bad choices regarding our bodies and still survive. This is especially true in these days of modern medicine and skilled physicians. But eventually the stuff we put into the foundation of living—the choices we make—will put the whole house in danger.
So, too, with the still more wonderful part of the house that we call the mind. I'm a novice with the computer, but I know enough to marvel at its intricate capacities. Then I pause and think of the human brain and remind myself that I carry on my shoulders a computer that can never be duplicated. But I can mess it up. I can invest my mind in idleness, on the one hand, or in frenetic ambition, on the other; I can feed my mind on pornography, on resentment and hate, on pettiness and meanness until this wonderful gift of the Creator is washed away.
And then there's the soul. Clearly enough, this was the ultimate issue of Jesus' story. The decisions we make regarding our bodies and our minds combine to shape decisions for the soul. Eternal decisions.
If this house of ours weren't worth much—if our bodies and brains and will and personalities were trivial things, to be thrown together one day and torn down the next—if that were so, it wouldn't much matter what foundation we might choose. But the stuff that constitutes you and me is utterly invaluable. There is no other soul like yours or mine, no other life that can replace it. We'd better build this house on a foundation that will survive the inevitable storms because it's the only one we can get.
That's why Jesus said some people are fools. They just don't realize the value of the house that God has put in their charge.CHAPTER 2
The Man Who Talked with His Soul
LUKE 12:13-21: Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."
I want to tell you about a remarkable man. He was remarkable in many ways—in his business instincts, in his financial success, and in the conversations he held. Especially, in his conversations; and then, ironically—quite in contrast to his conversations—in the way his story ended.
I don't know his name because the Bible doesn't mention it. He was a character in one of Jesus' parables, and Jesus very rarely mentioned names in his parables. Jesus called him "a rich man," and near the end of the brief story, Jesus said that God called this man a fool. Since the man comes to us in a parable, he is a fictitious character; but without a doubt Jesus knew somebody like him. So did many of the people who were listening to Jesus. This is one of the reasons Jesus' parables so faithfully caught the attention of the casual crowds, because the people said to themselves, "I know a fellow just like that." If Jesus' parables had been put into movies, it would have been necessary to run a line across the screen, "Any resemblance between the characters depicted herein and anyone living or dead is purely coincidental." Except, of course, that it wasn't so coincidental. So we read the stories nearly twenty centuries later and know that Jesus was talking about real people, people we know. Indeed, at times we confess, in uneasy honesty, that he was talking about us, ourselves.
Jesus got into this story because one day a man in the crowd asked him to intervene in a siblings' quarrel regarding the family inheritance. I'm fascinated by this request. It probably indicates the variety of matters that people brought to Jesus, seeking his insight, help, or influence. After all, the crowds saw him as a teacher in a society that honored knowledge; and they saw him as a wise man in a world that looked upon wisdom as the highest good. Jesus refused to intervene in the family argument, then added a warning: Be on your guard against greed, because "one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15).
Excerpted from More Parables from the Back Side by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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