Well, with this week’s sermon on Matthew 7.24-29, we have arrived at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but one of the dominant themes in Matthew 5-7 is that there are two alternatives people face. Jesus clearly makes the point that there is the old way and there is his new way. We saw this in chapter five where almost every sub-unit began with something like “You have heard it said to those of ancient times, but I say to you….” Or in chapter six, we saw Jesus saying something like “Your peers practice their religion this way, but I am telling you that you should do this….” And in chapter seven, Jesus very clearly lays out the two alternative ways by referring to broad and narrow roads, good and bad trees, good and bad fruit, talkers and doers and in today’s passage wise and foolish builders.
And the choice before us isn’t casual, like what should I wear to church or even what should I wear to the big job interview. Today’s passage leaves us with the impression that the wrong choice would be disastrous. The wrong choice is like a house collapsing around you. The problem is the choice involves change, and change is extremely challenging. To be honest change involves the unknown, and that is unnerving. And to move into the unknown you need energy, wisdom, and courage. And to be even more honest often change situations need lots of energy, wisdom, and courage. And sadly, we don’t always have the “right quantity” of those three elements. However, as we saw two weeks ago, Jesus reassured us in Matthew 7.7-12, the “Ask, Seek, and Knock” passage, God does and God wants to bless us with what we need to be faithful.
In Matthew 7.24-29 we read:
“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!” 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.
Let’s begin by looking at the last two verses, where Matthew sums up the crowd’s response to Jesus’ teaching: 28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. These two verses refer to his teaching style or methodology and not the content of his teaching. He taught on his own authority and not like the scribes. What does that mean? The Jewish teachers of the Law in the first century ALWAYS taught by referring to the previous teachers of the Law and the way they viewed it and applied it. They referenced the previous generations’ ways of understanding a particular aspect of Judaism. They looked to the past and “tweaked” it for their time. And that approach meant there were NO significant departures from the previous generations’ understanding of how to be Jewish.
But Jesus was different. He didn’t reference and build on the teachings of previous generations. In fact, as we saw in chapter five, he felt quite free to “set aside” what they said. That is the nice way to put it. Another way is to say he ignored them. Not surprisingly, Matthew tells us this “astounded” the people listening to Jesus. The Greek word there could be translated “panicked,” “overwhelmed,” or “shocked.” In other words, they weren’t ready for Jesus’ teaching method which simply swept aside hundreds of years of “how” the Jews were supposed to go about knowing what to do. While the scribes looked to the past on how to live, Jesus looked to the future and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. Big difference. Unnerving difference. Everyone should have been shocked, because they didn’t have the old ways to lean upon. The future was open to something new and very different.
To be honest it wasn’t only Jesus’ teaching style that scared people. The content of his teaching was rather unnerving as well. We have seen this for the past number of weeks. Jesus raises the bar so high at times, we sit there and wonder, “How? How can this ever happen? And if I try this, it probably won’t end well.”
Never mind avoiding murder…don’t even get angry at people.
Never mind not committing adultery…don’t even lust over another person.
Don’t limit your love to your friends and neighbors…love your enemies.
When you are trying to be religious and pious, do it for God and not the people around you.
Don’t rely on yourself. Ask, seek, knock. God wants to bless you.
To be fair, while Jesus does set the bar high, but remember in 7.7-12 he also says God is more than willing to help us live out what he calls us to be and do. And still we often lack confidence. We are normal. We find ourselves wondering if we can do what Jesus asks for. Moreover, we honestly don’t know what it looks like because Jesus’ vision for the Kingdom of Heaven is so very different and better than our limited human vision. In my family’s current life, we are dealing with a physical parallel to this “spiritual” challenge.
Having grown up in Africa and experiencing the harsh sun conditions there, my wife’s eyes have developed cataracts. She needs surgery, but for that to happen she must stop wearing her contacts so as to allow her eyes to “regain” their original shape. She has worn contacts for almost fifty years because her vision is so weak. So, for the immediate future, she will have to deal with eye sight which is far from ideal while she wears only her glasses. She won’t be able to see as clearly as she’d like. We are told that once the surgery happens her eye sight will be vastly improved. In fact, she should only need reading glasses. But for now, her vision is impaired. Similarly, when it comes to envisioning the Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus introduced us to, we have trouble seeing it as clearly as he did. It is as if we have cataracts. Additionally, we tend to look backwards to how we have “done our religious life” in the past, while he looks forward to the future and the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. We don’t always see what he sees. And that makes it difficult to follow him.
I suspect Jesus knew that what he was asking of us is difficult and challenging. He also knew that our decision to follow him and his teachings will make a huge, and positive, difference in our lives, our church life and the world around us. And that is why he tells the short parable in verses 24-27. There are two builders. I assume they are both skilled builders. Perhaps they are not equally experienced or equally committed to proper and hard work, but we are not told one was a good builder and the other was shoddy. What sets them apart is where they decided to build. The one man took the more challenging route, and built on rock. I can’t imagine that would be easy in ancient Palestine. Maybe there was digging involved and lots of it until bedrock was located. Or maybe exposed stone had to be leveled and chiseled to have a relatively level foundation. Living the expectations of the Sermon on the Mount is like that man’s building project. It is difficult, but since it is God’s plan it will last because the Kingdom of Heaven will last.
The other builder took the easy route and build on sand…seemingly without site preparation. He found a place with a view and easy access to supplies, and he built. Like the scribes who relied on their centuries of inherited tradition, he went with what was at hand. He did what was acceptable and easy. And Jesus warns his listeners that the former, the life in the Kingdom of Heaven, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, will last while the latter, the accepted traditions of people will eventually come crashing to an end. The one is hopeful and a source of joy. The other is simply a disastrous mess.
To be honest there is too much at stake for a “business as usual” mindset to be your, mine or our congregation’s way of living. As Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you’ve always got.” My friend Stephen Gallaher alters that line a little when he says, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be who you’ve always been.” To be honest, we can’t afford to “do business as usual.” And we can’t afford to do that because looking to the ways of the past aren’t helping us to live better lives. Look at the world around us and people’s lives all around us. Look at your own life. Things don’t change for the better when we simply repeat the same way of living that we have always lived. Repeating the old ways isn’t helping our neighbors to know there is an alternative to “business as usual.” Looking to the accepted ways of the past doesn’t give anyone hope that there is a better future known as the Kingdom of Heaven. Living the old ways will never help us live a life on earth that reflects the life to be found in heaven. And Jesus specifically called us to pray that that would happen.
Here’s the take away:
Look at your life and ask yourself: What would my life look like if I was more intentional about even one of Jesus’ teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount?
How might you creatively live that one teaching?
If you don’t know how, pray that God will show you how.
And when you realize how hard it will be, be resolved to build on Jesus the rock which we are called to build upon.
And pray that you have the strength to live the life here that will be lived in heaven.