Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount with a story of two builders – a good builder and a bad builder, a smart builder and a dumb one.
Some of you will be aware of the fact that I’m about to embark upon some building myself. Most of you know that Ange and I are in the process of buying a campsite out near Taralga. And when we complete the purchase of that campsite it is our intention to do some building there. We want to build a gym with its own boxing ring. I want to build a wrestling pit. And I want to build a chapel of some sort that can double as a meeting room and general get-together room.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this chapel/meeting room in particular, and I’ve just about picked out the colour of the curtains for it. Actually, I couldn’t really give a damn about the curtains, but I have got to the stage of thinking about where the audio-visual equipment is going to go. I am conscious though that before decisions about audio-visual equipment are made (or decisions about curtains for that matter) certain more fundamental decisions need to be made. We have to decide exactly WHAT we are going to build this chapel out of – out of wood, bricks, mud or asbestos perhaps (asbestos not being a very popular choice nowadays)? And before we do that we have to decide HOW MUCH we can afford to spend on it, as this will determine some of the other options (such as how much asbestos we can afford to buy). And perhaps even before that we need to make up our minds about WHERE we are going to build it.
This is the foundational issue upon which everything else depends. Do we build it in the centre of things or do we put it more towards the edges? Do we put it in a prominent position for the sake of its symbolic value or do we try to put it in a quiet place? Do we build it on the hard rock of the mountainside, or should we perhaps build it down by the river, on the beach perhaps?
Jesus had some very straightforward advice on this last point didn’t He? You build on the rock, Jesus says. Only a fool builds upon the sand. That’s not because you can’t build a very attractive house upon the sand. Indeed, you may be able to build a sand-castle that looks a lot more attractive than the place you currently live in, but when the tide comes in, and the rain comes down, and the floods come up, you’ll soon come to appreciate your little one-room flat in Dulwich Hill. Hey, it might not look like much, but it was built on a solid foundation. Even after the storm has done its worst it is still standing!
If only those guys who built the ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’ had read their Bibles. That was the problem there – soft, sandy soil at the basis of the tower. Apparently they’re still pouring concrete into ground around the tower’s base, trying to stop the thing from finally toppling over!
If only our friend Brian had read his Bible before buying that house in San Fransisco, right on top of the St Andreas fault line! In Brian’s defense, Jesus didn’t actually say anything about ‘fault lines’, just about ‘sand’. And thankfully Brian was many miles away when he felt the rumble that demolished his house. And great was the crash! Of course Jesus’ words aren’t aimed fundamentally at master builders or at new home buyers, helpful though they might be to all such persons. The story of the builders is fundamentally a parable about life, and about ways in which people respond to Jesus’ own words.
This story is, as I’ve said, the conclusion to the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and Jesus introduces it by saying that the two builders represent two different ways in which you can respond to the teaching He has given in the Sermon on the Mount. One way is to make his teachings foundational to everything you do in your life. Take those teachings in, reflect on them, apply them, and allow those teaching to shape and direct everything you do. That, Jesus says, is how you build your life on a solid foundation, like a builder who builds his house on solid rock.
And yet there is another way to respond to the words of Jesus. Indeed, there are a number of other ways to respond to the teachings of Jesus. You can disregard his words. You can admire His words for their poetry and beauty and then bind them up in a book that you keep on the shelf alongside your copies of the works of Shakespeare and Banjo Patterson. Or you can get very excited by the teachings of Jesus, turn up to church every week so that you can tell the world how much you love those teachings, and then go home and get on with your life as if you’d never heard a single word that Jesus said! To take any of these approaches, Jesus says, is to be like the foolish builder who builds his house on the sand, and when the storm comes ‘great is the fall’.
Jesus is here playing the role of a wisdom teacher – passing on practical instructions for life to all that care to listen to him.
The world has been full of wisdom teachers. Socrates was a wisdom teacher before the time of Jesus, as was Aesop before him. The Dalai Lama is a modern wisdom teacher, as are the array of financial advisors who keep cropping up on radio and television telling us how to most wisely invest our money. These people are wisdom teachers. Yes they are! They are men and women who give themselves to the task of teaching others how to build a secure future for themselves.
I am amazed how many of these modern wisdom teachers there are. Some really prominent ones write wise books that quickly become best-sellers, like ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’. Others become resident ‘money men’ for a particular radio station or TV channel. Indeed, I’ve been amazed to notice that not only does every TV channel and radio station seem to have its own resident money man, but even a good number of web sites seem to have their own resident financial guru.
These people are modern wisdom teachers. OK, they don’t wear the saffron robes and they don’t always speak with interesting accents, but they fulfill the role of the traditional wisdom teacher in our society – passing on the secrets of prosperity to their disciples – telling us what decisions we need to make if we are to live well, live long, and live securely.
My point is that there is nothing particularly radical about the role Jesus is playing in the Sermon on the Mount and there is nothing particularly mysterious about the parable. It is a parable that encourages us to live wisely in accordance with Jesus’ wise teachings. What is radical of course is the nature of Jesus’ wisdom. Indeed, what we need to appreciate in this parable is that, especially when compared with the wisdom teaching of the modern financial gurus, Jesus’ wisdom teaching almost always runs in the diametrically opposite direction! We don’t like to face it of course, but so many of the values of our culture are simply directly opposed to the teachings of Jesus.
I don’t watch a great deal of TV but when I do, it’s those ads for life insurance and superannuation and investment strategies that annoy me the most. I hate the soft sell of the materialistic vision that lies behind each of them. I can’t stand the smug smiles on the faces of these people who are relaxing in the thought of their secure financial futures. “You fools” I feel like saying (quoting Jesus). “Tonight you die, and what will become of the riches you have heaped up for yourselves”It’s a false security. There is no real security in a big bank account. “Store up your riches in heaven” Jesus urges us in the Sermon on the Mount, “where moth and rust do not consume and where thieves cannot break in and steal.” It just makes more sense!
And the thing I cannot understand, and maybe someone can help me here after the service, is where the advertisers got the idea of the ‘nest egg’ from. It’s interesting isn’t it, because Jesus also used the example of the birds as a model for how we should develop our investment strategy.
“Consider the birds” Jesus said, and I do wonder whether the idea of the nest egg was somehow extracted from this very teaching of Jesus. But the point Jesus was making about the birds is that they don’t have anything stored up in the nest for when they grow old. ‘They don’t have barns and they don’t have bank accounts’, Jesus says, ‘and yet God feeds them’. Where did we ever get the concept of the egg that’s up there waiting for them in the nest. What was it that ever led us to think that the carefree look on the face of the birds was evidence of the fact that they had something back in their nest waiting for them for when they grew old, so that when they found that they just couldn’t wing it any more, Mr and Mrs bird could just hobble back to the nest, and there waiting for them in the nest would be the product of their many years of patient hard work – an egg. An egg full of what?
Come on! We do know a little about the life of birds. Birds lay eggs, the eggs hatch and become other birds, and they fly away. And when the bird reaches the end of its life it has no more eggs in the nest than it did when it started out. And it doesn’t have any food stored up there either, as it doesn’t have any earthly security, and yet God feeds them! And Jesus says that not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Heavenly Father knowing about it, and how much more are you worth to God than those birds. Don’t stress. God will take care of you if you’ll just let go and get on with the things He wants you to be doing instead of worrying about this egg!
It’s not only on financial matters of course that Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are so directly opposed to the values of our own culture. Consider the whole issue of assertiveness. Here we are trying to encourage our kids to develop strong ego boundaries so that they can have a strong concept of their place in the world, and we want to teach them to stand up for themselves and not let anybody walk over them. Jesus seems to teach the exact opposite. “If someone slaps you on the cheek, you give him the other cheek. If someone forces you to walk a mile, go two. Give to the person who asks you for something. Don’t hold back your time or your money form people who ask you for it, even if they do seem to be there to rip you off.”
I’m not saying you have to like these teachings. I didn’t make them up. They’re not my teachings. But they are the teachings of Jesus, and they are the teachings that He said we have to make foundational to our own lives if we want to be like the wise builder. By all means reject these teachings, stand up for your own rights and never let anybody abuse you, invest in your own future first and last, and model your financial strategies on beavers or ants or squirrels rather than on birds, but just be clear that such approaches are NOT compatible with the teachings of Jesus, however much we might wish that we were.
I think we need to be honest. Most of us, most of the time, don’t pay much attention to the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m not suggesting that any of us don’t love those teachings, find them inspirational, heart-warming even, but I think if we’re going to be honest we have to admit that most of us, most of the time, don’t pay too much attention to them.
If we did, this church wouldn’t always be on the borderline financially. Now I’m not trying to subtlely increase offertories by saying this and I know we’re all struggling in our own ways, but I have a feeling that the Jehovah’s Witnesses down the road are struggling in the same sort of ways, and yet they manage to generate about three times the income per capita. And I’m conscious of the fact that our forefathers and foremothers who built this church building built much of it during the great depression! However much we struggle, we don’t struggle as much as they did.
And it’s not just in the financial area that we fall down. That’s just an easy one to detect. I suspect that it’s really much the same when we come to the way we deal with each other – especially with those who’ve abused us. When it comes to turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies, remaining faithful to our partners, I don’t think many of us have a great record.
And it’s not because we don’t like the teachings of Jesus or because we don’t admire the lifestyle of Jesus or even because we don’t want to follow the teachings of Jesus. We are simply children of our age, creatures of our culture, shaped almost irresistibly by the forces of popular values and fashionable lifestyles. So we give less, risk less, and love less than we know we should. Indeed, even when we compare ourselves with the generation of our grandparents, I suspect that we giveless, risk less, and love less than they did. It’s tough being part of the me-generation.
In all seriousness, my analysis of the problem is that, if I might extend the building analogy, most church people do sincerely want to have Jesus involved in the building of their lives, but most of us sort of prefer to let Jesus in when we start working on the upper stories of the building.
It’s as if invite Jesus in to do the window-dressing, or to work on some of the less central rooms of the house. As to the foundational issues of our lives – what sort of career will I aim at, will I marry, where will I live, what will I do with my money and my time – we tend to allow our culture to decide those questions for us. I’ll aim at a prestigious and well-paying career. I’ll marry someone who is really beautiful and who likes me a lot. I’ll live in the best place I can afford to, and I’ll spend most of my time and money building up a positive future for myself and for those I love. We allow the values of our culture to decide these questions and then we bring in Jesus to help us make the leftover decisions. What will I do with the spare hours I have after I finish my career job? What will I do with my excess money? How can I make my marriage work now that I’m in it? How can I use my house for ministry?
These are good and useful questions, but they are not the foundational ones. Jesus’ idea was to get involved in the building of the foundations, because He taught that when the foundations were correctly laid that the rest would follow as a matter of course.
The problem we strike of course is the same problem that we struck when we started building our Trinitys Fellowship Centre over the other side of the road, about ten years ago now.
Not many of you will remember first the problem we had when we went to build that thing. We got the plans drawn up and had them approved by the Council and ultimately too by the Diocese. We had the old Scout Hall pulled down (which was good because it was about to fall down anyway and probably on top of somebody). Then we contracted a builder who came in and pegged out the area with little wooden pegs and then stuck his shovel in the earth and turned over one clod of soil. Then he went home. I remember watching this from my study window, wondering why the workmen were going home!
It turned out that they disagreed with the architect’s plan, which called for solid concrete to be poured for the foundation. They were arguing that the new hall didn’t need solid concrete. They said that a much less extensive foundation would do the job. I said ‘well, why don’t we just sack those guys and hire some people who will do the job according to the architect’s plans’. They told me that since they had technically ‘started work’ by putting their pegs in the ground and by shoveling dirt, they now had a legal right to the job and that they would get the Unions on to us if we tried to hire anybody else. In the end we had to pay them out to get rid of them.
The real problem of course, as it turned out, was that the solid concrete foundation simply cost too much. They didn’t want to pay the price. We got our concrete foundation in the end. It might not have been cheap, but that hall will still be standing long after we’re all dead and buried. And it’s had it’s share of storms, but, as with the person who builds their life on the teachings of Jesus – the tide comes in, the rain falls, the floods rise, the wind blows, but the house remains!
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 1st May, 2002.