Having lived five years in British Columbia for seminary, I can tell you that if you ever think politics here is messed up, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The worst came when the provincial premier got himself indicted for corruption, which kicked off a leadership race within the party. The winner got to be premier, for a while, so a lot of people decided to run—including several longshot candidates who mostly provided comic relief.
One of those was the Agricultural Minister, Corky Evans; he came from the other side of the mountains and had a country-bumpkin image which he liked to play up for comic effect. In announcing his candidacy for party leadership, he told the story of the time he had decided to build a house for his family; being impatient, he didn’t want to take the time to put in a foundation, so he just built the house right on the ground. It seems to have come as a surprise to him when the house began to sink. As he told the crowd, this left him two choices; he could either tear down the house, or lift it up and put a foundation under it. Either way, it was going to be a very messy business.
Now, Jesus would have called him a fool, and Evans wouldn’t have argued; but you can understand his impatience, even if it was foolish to give in to it. And that’s with modern power tools and construction equipment. Imagine how it was in the ancient world, where you had to do it all by hand. The eleventh-century Arabic Christian scholar Ibn al-Tayyib opened his comments on this parable by saying, “Every Christian knows that building a house is not an easy endeavor. Rather, it involves exhausting and frightening efforts, strenuous hardships, along with continuous and life-threatening struggles.”
That was probably even truer in Israel than most places. In Matthew’s account of this parable, he shifts the focus a bit more to the storm, simplifying the depiction of the two builders and exaggerating the imagery a little; Luke gives us more detail on the building process, and in doing that he touches on the particular challenges of building a house in that country. The winter was unsuitable for building because it was the rainy season, with occasional snow in the hills. Summer offered a long dry period for building, but as the soil was mostly clay, those long dry weeks of hot sun would bake it hard as bronze. The true bedrock was down there somewhere, but how far down, you could only tell by digging; it could be many long days of backbreaking work in the sun and the heat, wielding pick and shovel against ground as unyielding as rock before you finally made it down to the real thing. As hard as that ground is—why not just build on it?
And yet, every wise builder in that land knew that if you’re building a house, you have to dig all the way down to the rock. It might be just under the surface, it might be ten feet down—or more—but it doesn’t matter: however deep you go and however long it takes, you keep going until you hit bedrock. However hard that ground might be under the summer sun, in the winter, the rains are going to come, and that ground will turn from brown concrete to chocolate pudding. If you haven’t built on the rock, the walls will shift and buckle, and when the winds blow and the floods come, the house will fall.
Jesus is drawing on the lives of his audience here, but also on the language of Isaiah 28. You might call that a parable, too; it’s certainly a word picture. This is the prophet’s response to the alliance made by the king of Israel with Egypt against the advancing Assyrian Empire. Israel believed it would save them, but Isaiah knew better: in allying themselves with a nation whose worship centered on death, they had made a covenant with death, and their doom was sure. It was like the three little pigs versus the big bad wolf. The king and his court saw the oncoming storm, but rather than turning to God for their protection and defense, they had tried, in the prophet’s words, to build a shelter for themselves out of lies and deceit. It was a building with no foundation, made of materials not even the first little pig would have used; when the big bad wolf came, it fell.
In the midst of this word of judgment, however, comes a word of promise: God is building his own refuge for his people, one of such strength and security that whoever believes won’t need to worry about anything. It will be built to the standards of justice and righteousness, and it will stand firm on a foundation laid by God himself—a foundation of no mere rock, but diamond.
That promise was claimed by later generations in Israel in various ways. In particular, Jewish sources from a century or two after Jesus tell us that “after the ark [of the covenant] was taken away a stone remained there from the time of the early prophets, and it was called ‘the foundation.’ It was higher than the ground by three fingerbreadths. On this [the high priest] used to place the fire-pan.” Kenneth Bailey comments, “For the Jews of the second temple the center of the holy of holies, with its raised stone, was the most sacred spot in the world, and that stone was ‘in Zion’ at the center of the temple complex. Later Jewish reflection decided that the whole world was created from that sacred stone. It appears that [stone] was understood to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise that one day God would place a precious stone, a sure foundation in Zion.”
To Jesus’ contemporaries, then, the foundation Isaiah had promised was the heart of the temple, and the whole temple and system of Jewish faith were built upon it. That was what they were taught. Then Jesus comes up and says, “No—I am the foundation, the precious stone promised through Isaiah. Build your life on me by listening to my teaching and doing what I say, and you will not be shaken when the storms come. If you don’t, the ground on which you build may look like solid rock now, but when the floods come and the winds blow, it will betray you and turn to mud; everything on which you’ve built your life will be washed away.”
Now, it’s worth noting that Jesus understands how hard this can be. To hear his words and obey is like going out in the blazing sun to hammer away with a pickaxe, stroke after stroke after stroke, at clay soil baked hard as an anvil. It’s like digging this way in the furnace heat with no idea how long you’ll have to keep going, with nothing but faith that the rock is down there somewhere. And when you finally hit the rock, then you have to clear out all the rest of the space for the foundation; and then you have to haul great stones from the field, one after another, just to build your way back up to ground level. Only then can you actually start building the house—which means hauling yet more stones, and yet more, and yet more. This is what it’s like to take Jesus seriously enough to listen closely to him and do what he says.
If you’re living for the short run, that hardly seems worth it. For the short run, the sun is shining and the ground is hard, and your house will hold together. But the storms will come—they always do; it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done, no one escapes them. The life of a disciple of Christ isn’t worth it because it’s fun, or fulfilling, or because it makes sense to us. Often it isn’t, and it doesn’t. Look back at the Beatitudes—we saw in January that Jesus has to tell us these things are blessings because we’d never figure that out on our own. Committing ourselves to go where he leads us and do what he tells us is worth it even when it’s painfully hard because that’s what it means to build our lives on him; and that’s the only way to build lives that will stand through whatever this world may throw at us. Jesus doesn’t save us from the storm; he saves us through it, by making us people who can endure it.
I said in the first message of this series that the Beatitudes are the foundation for the whole Sermon on the Mount: we can only understand anything Jesus says in the Sermon if we recognize that he’s building on what he says there. Here as he concludes, he shows us the whole foundation for everything, including the Beatitudes: he is the foundation, and him alone. Nothing else, no one else; only what’s built on him will stand.