The parable of the two houses and the apocalyptic storm

Tue, 17/01/2012 - 13:05
Matthew 7:24-27

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be likened to a wise man, who built his house on the rock; and the rain came down and the rivers came and the winds blew and fell upon that house, and it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. And everyone hearing these words of mine and not doing them will be likened to a foolish man, who built his house on the sand; and the rain came down and the rivers came and the winds blew and struck against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.

In a brief exchange with Daniel Kirk about the apocalyptic character of the story that is being told in the New Testament I touched on Jesus’ parable of the two houses, which is found at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:24-27). We usually understand this passage as a description of the choice that individuals make in responding to Jesus, but I think this misses the narrative and apocalyptic thrust of Jesus’ teaching.

I pointed out in Re: Mission: Biblical mission for a post-biblical church (44), which unlike The Coming of the Son of Man is still available online, that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:15-27 closely parallels the argument of Ezekiel 13:8-16.

Jesus warns his followers to look out for false prophets, who “come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves”, who say, “Lord, Lord”, but do not do the will of God. Then he tells the story of a great storm that will destroy the house that has not been built on the rock of obedience to the word of Jesus as the true prophet to Israel.

Similarly, Ezekiel denounces the “false prophets” who mislead Israel into believing that there is peace when there is no peace, that Jerusalem was safe from the threat of war. When the people build a wall, the false prophets smear it with whitewash, but a great storm will come and destroy the wall, and people will ask, “Where is the coating with which you smeared it?”

Therefore thus says the Lord God: I will make a stormy wind break out in my wrath, and there shall be a deluge of rain in my anger, and great hailstones in wrath to make a full end. And I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare. When it falls, you shall perish in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 13:13-14; cf. Is. 28:17)

The storm that destroys the wall and exposes the folly and disobedience of the false prophets is the judgment of God against Israel. Daniel speaks in similar terms of the destruction of the city and the temple by an invading army:

And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. (Dan. 9:26)

Jesus develops the argument in a slightly different direction, but I would suggest that his teaching has essentially the same frame of reference and same intent. A devastating storm and flood of judgment is coming against Jerusalem, against Israel’s “house”—not a final judgment, but the historical judgment of war and material destruction. Anything that is not built on the rock of Jesus’ teaching will be swept away. Only the new community of his obedient followers will survive.

The same point is made in the saying that immediately precedes this section about a wide gate leading to destruction and a narrow gate leading to life (Matt. 7:13-14), behind which, I would argue, is Jeremiah 21:8-10:

And to this people you shall say: ‘Thus says the Lord: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war. For I have set my face against this city for harm and not for good, declares the Lord: it shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.’

Comments

I'm following this interaction with Daniel Kirk and his book with interest. On the point under consideration here, it's certainly helpful to read Matthew 7:24-27 in its historical context, and that must include the forthcoming judgment on Jerusalem and its temple. Oikia is the word used here for house, but it's also not far removed from oikos, which is used to refer more specifically to the temple in Matthew, which suffered a spectacular destruction in the 1st and 2nd century.

However, in the way the 'sermon on the mount' is structured, in which it can be seen as a compendium of Jesus's teaching not necessarily given on one occasion only, the parable of the wise and foolish builders can be seen as speaking for and summing up the whole 'sermon' teaching. From a literary point of view, it seems to be moving beyond exclusive relevance to a 1st century historical narrative.

A historically limited reading of the text here runs up against the issue of the relevance of Jesus's teaching, as in the sermon on the mount, for people and times beyond the 1st century. A historically limited reading would much rather avoid addressing this issue, as it raises disturbing questions of whether any of Jesus's teaching, let alone the sermon on the mount, is relevant for anyone beyond his own times.

The structure of the sermon on the mount suggests to me that 7:24-27 is written as a summary of the entire 'sermon' teaching, for which it is positioned to enforce its maximum relevance for all times. Do these things, says Jesus in the teaching, and you will have a strong foundation for the house of your life. Don't do these things, and the foundation will be swept away along with the house you have built, if not now, then certainly in the final judgment. It is a teaching for all times and all peoples.

The literary structure of the sermon on the mount, concluding with the parable of the wise and foolish builders, seems to suggest a more universal application of Jesus's teaching than a historically limited reading would allow.

You’ve been quiet recently, Peter! Nice to have you back.

A historically limited reading of the text here runs up against the issue of the relevance of Jesus’s teaching, as in the sermon on the mount, for people and times beyond the 1st century.

But the story that is being told in the Gospels, even if historically limited, is enormously important for people of subsequent generations. The sermon on the mount is a critical part of that story. It tells us something about the nature of the transformation that the people of God went through in order to become what it is today.

The structure of the sermon on the mount suggests to me that 7:24-27 is written as a summary of the entire ‘sermon’ teaching, for which it is positioned to enforce its maximum relevance for all times.

You’ll have to explain that. What exactly in Matthew 5-7 points to the fact that this is teaching for all times? The beatitudes are all drawn from passages about judgment on and the restoration of Israel; large parts of the sermon have to do with the immediate crisis of the Jewish Law; Jesus instructs his disciples to pray for the coming establishment of God’s rule over his people; and he teaches them how to live under circumstances of extreme deprivation and persecution.

So I would argue that in the sermon on the mount Jesus is giving shape to an eschatological community of faithful Israel that will make the difficult journey down the narrow path leading to the life of the age to come. That is not to say that nothing in it transcends the historical context (“whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them”) , but the primary context of meaning is historical and limited.

The literary structure of the sermon on the mount, concluding with the parable of the wise and foolish builders, seems to suggest a more universal application of Jesus’s teaching than a historically limited reading would allow.

How so?

Is Jesus's teaching then only of historic interest? Likewise the teaching of the letters? Only applicable to 1st/2nd century readers? This is a huge problem in a radical apocalyptic/historical/narrative interpretation. Why should we be interested in this teaching if it is only of antiquarian value? Why not just tell us the story, if that's what the overriding concern of the New Testament is?

Note: I don't reject at all that the wise/foolish builders parable had 1st century apocalyptic significance, and I think, though some commentators do not accept this viewpoint, that there is a particular focus on the temple and its destruction in the parable. I'm also a big advocate of a narrative/historical reading, with apocalyptic drama thrown in, but where apocalyptic is not only the conclusion of the Old Covenant dispensation, but the fulfilment of God's purposes for creation in Jesus himself.

I suggest that that the sermon on the mount, and the builders parable, is not presented purely as 'historical' teaching, in the sense that Jesus gave it at one time in one place for the exclusive needs of those at that particular moment in history. It is compiled, with the builders parable as a bookend and summary, as a 'magna carta' for the new covenant people of God, with the minimum anchorage in a particular historical setting. It's a very serious issue. If the teaching is to be 'done', as the builders parable urges, we need to know if the teaching is for us or not.

The comparison with the Sinai teaching and covenant and this mountain where Jesus 'sat down' also suggests the wider context: one covenant and its teaching is being compared with another. One applied to one people of God in their formation in one period of history, the other applied to the new covenant people of God as they were being formed in their time and subsequently - since they continue to be the same covenant people.

The structure and presentation of the sermon on the mount, and Matthew more generally, reinforces the sense of a wider context. The pressing issue is of historical relevance. Is this teaching, and the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament for that time only, or does it have universal significance? If Jesus's teaching here and elsewhere, and the teaching of the letters, is of historical interest only, why is so much of the NT given over to it? (In a modified sense, the same question can be asked of the OT, and requires the same work of recontextualisation for our present needs and cirumstances. It too is of more than historic interest).

Once this issue is faced squarely, the cat of universal significance is let out of the bag of historic/apocalyptic/narrative limitation. There follows a double benefit. There is a narrative of the people of God, in which we have to find and play our part, which was at a particular historic phase in the gospels (and letters). We have to ask what our identity and role is now, if that was the identity and role of the actors then. The narrative governs one side of our spiritual formation and identity. The other side is ontological, in which our identity as the people of God is formed no less by the teaching of Jesus and and the NT letters now as it was then. I think the narraive emphasis of interpretation draws attention to role and action, while the didactic emphasis draws attention to character and identity. The two go hand in hand. What God has joined together let no man part asunder, as it were.

Peter,

Confucious say, "They who know the truth are not equal to those who love it, and those who love it are not equal to those who delight in it"

Confucious say, "When a country is well governed, poverty and a mean condition are to be ashamed of. When a country is ill governed, riches and honour are to be ashamed of.

Confucious say, " The superior man is satisfied and composed; the mean man is always full of distress"

Confucious say, "The superior man, when resting in safety, does not forget that danger may come. When in a state of security he does not forget the possibility of ruin"

Daniel say,"Unless we understand what Jesus says in historical context to HIS people and limit it to that, we may as well use the wonderful sayings of Confucious"

I think Confucious is also relevant to 21st century, so why not?

I believe that it is precisely your comments that the 'world' believes Jesus teaching is good for. Just good teaching.

Daniel

 

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