The parable of the wise and foolish builders makes up the closing words of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first long public address that stretches from Matthew 5 through 7. Luke gives a condensed version of the same sermon in Luke chapter 6. Jesus was in the second year of his ministry when he gave this speech, and this was his year of popularity. It was most likely the spring season, and he was in familiar territory: the Capernaum and Galilee area where he had been preach- ing and teaching for almost a year, and where he would stay until the following autumn. He had just selected his twelve disciples, and his group of followers was growing. Matthew 4:24-25 tells us that,
“…his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatick, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them. And there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan.”
Probably the last time that a crowd from all of these locations had gathered was in the days of Solomon, almost 1,000 years before Christ! If we could put a finger on the peak of Jesus’ popularity, it would be around this moment.
As the crowd gathered on that gently sloping mountainside on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount began, with some of the most familiar words in the Bible: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt 5:3-5). Ten times over, Jesus gave this encouragement of a future reward in the Kingdom; but then, Jesus began to de- scribe what would be expected of those who wish to take part in those blessings.
The moral teachings given in the Sermon on the Mount are some of the most challenging of Jesus’ ministry. It is here we learn that a lustful look is on the same moral level as adultery, anger is akin to murder, we must love those who hate us, give to those who take from us, never seek revenge, preach without compromise, never divorce, give generously in secret without expecting to receive anything in return, forgive always, set aside worry and concern for material goods, and finally, to be perfect just as God is perfect.
Jesus anticipated that there would be a natural kickback reaction to his teaching. The bar of God’s expectations was high, and Jesus knew that most of his hearers would be uncomfortable with it. Plenty of people would like to hear Jesus’ teach- ing, and many would like to call him “Lord,” but few would be willing to really try to put Jesus’ words into practice. Men would love to be associated with the seemingly positive aspects of Jesus’ ministry, but human nature would balk at the
uncompromisingly high standards set forth in his teachings. Thus, in Luke 6:46, Jesus’ parable began with the question, “And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?”
The parable that followed was about being doers of the word, and not hearers only. The parable begins in Matthew 7:24: “Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock.”
If we look in Luke 6:47-48, we see an additional detail:
“Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like: He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.”
Let’s look more closely at what Jesus says in this familiar parable about what it means to be a doer of the Word. Matthew mentions only the building of the house on a rock, but Luke says more about the process the wise builder endured to accomplish this. In Luke, the man building the house “digged deep” to lay his foundation. Luke’s details bring out three points that we might not otherwise have known:
- 1) The rock wasn’t on the surface; presumably, it was covered by sand. Have you ever tried digging a hole in the sand before? For a somewhat extreme example, imagine digging a hole on the beach — it takes twice the work of digging a hole anywhere else, because as soon as you pull some sand out, the sides cave in and refill the hole you’re trying to empty!
- 2) The wise man had to dig deep to find the rock. Though it’s difficult to be cer- tain how deep one would have to dig in the first century, we know from the journals of British visitors to Palestine in the 1800s that it was not uncommon to have to dig 30 feet around sandy Galilee to hit rock.
- 3) Luke’s account of the parable implies hard, sweating, manual labor. There’s a reason we have large machines to dig our foundations for us today! Ad- ditionally, the parable describes this as a solo effort. Imagine the footprint of your house. Now imagine that you have to dig a hole of that size… and it has to be thirty feet deep… and you’re digging in the sand. On top of that, once your hole is finished, your work has just started — you then need to lay a foundation that will fill in that 30 foot hole! Think about how you would feel at the end of each day with your arms burning from exhaustion, your back aching from the heavy lifting, your shirt stained with sweat, and the back of your neck blistering with sunburn.
The gospel of Luke emphasizes that it is hard work to lay a foundation on a rock; just as it is hard work to put Jesus’ teaching into practice. The question for us is: do we imagine ourselves spiritually laboring for Jesus to the point of sweating? This idea of laboring for the Lord comes up elsewhere: in 1 Timothy 5:17, elders are mentioned as “laboring” in the Word and doctrine, and 2 Timothy 2:15 says that the good Bible student is a laborer that should not be ashamed of his work. Jesus was showing that real work is involved in putting his words into practice.
Now to the foolish builder; Matthew says that the foolish man built his house on the sand, while Luke’s gospel says that the house was built on the ground without a foundation. Imagine the scenario:
- 1) With no foundation to worry about, the frame of the foolish man’s house would have gone up quickly. The siding would have been nailed on and win- dows installed not long after. While the wise man was still dragging buckets of dirt out of his hole in the ground, the foolish man would be out shopping for light fixtures for his nearly-completed home. By the time the wise man had reached the rock, the foolish man would have been reclining on the front porch of his finished house, sipping lemonade and wondering what would possess a man to dig in the dirt like that.
- 2) If both the wise and foolish builders had the same amount of money to build their homes, the foolish man’s house would have looked considerably nicer. Depending where you live, a good excavation and foundation can account for twenty-five percent of your building costs; in more hazardous areas, the price is much higher. Since the foolish man didn’t bother with this expense, he could have used that extra money to make his house look bigger and better.
- 3) The foolish man’s house would have seemed perfectly adequate when it was built. It was the ideal good-weather house. In fact, all of the wise man’s dig- ging would seem a bit ridiculous — like Noah building an ark when there was no sign of rain.
- 4) When both houses were completed, it would be difficult to tell which house had a deep foundation. All the labor of the wise man would be hidden under his house. This is true with our lives, as well; much of our spiritual work will be done in secret — as will many of our sins. Think about the things Jesus warned against in the Sermon on the Mount: lustful thoughts, jealousy, anger, all of which can occur secretly in our minds. Two believers, standing side by side, might look like their spirituality is similar, but there’s no obvious way to look at them and see what their foundation is, because it is largely hidden inside of them. However, with our words and our actions, we can invite others inside of our spiritual lives and show whether we have a firm foundation — you can, after all, tell more about a house from the inside than from the outside.
We see the result of all this building in latter half of Luke 6:48: “And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.” This time, the gospel of Matthew is the account with more detail, in Matthew 7:25: “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.” Matthew indicates that this was more than just the common flood that would wash through the ravines of Palestine. Rain poured onto the house from above, streams swelled and spilled over their banks, and wind pushed at the windows and doors — it sounds like a hurricane!
While this could possibly symbolize trouble that overtakes us in life, the symbolism of the rain and flood seems Scripturally tied to the judgment. God used a flood to judge and destroy the wicked in the time of Noah. Jesus says in Matthew 24:37 that his coming (and subsequent judgment) would happen suddenly, like Noah’s
flood. 2 Peter 3:5-7 also uses a flood as a symbol of judgment, and Isaiah 28:17 speaks of the day of judgment being like hail which “shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place.”
In the Day of Judgment, the work of the wise man — the digging deep and lay- ing a foundation on Christ by putting his words into practice — will be shown to be worthwhile. The full benefit will not be apparent before then. In the Day of Judgment, a life full of hearing God’s words, but not really allowing them to break the surface of our minds, is not worth much. Jesus Christ is in the business of changing lives, and that means allowing his teachings to sink in and truly change us so that we are doers of the word, and not hearers only.
Allan Laben (Baltimore, MD)