Proper 4: Deuteronomy 11.18-21, 26-28;
Romans 1.16,17, 3.22b-28 (29-31);
THE HOUSES on Beach Road, Happisburgh, Norfolk, stand close to the clifftop and command a fine view of the sea. But that same sea is eroding the sandy soil on which they are built, and, one by one, they are tumbling down the cliff into the waters below. With hindsight, it can be seen that a crumbling clifftop was not a sensible place to have built a row of houses.
It is wise to build on rock; foolish to build on sand. This talk of "wisdom" and "folly" would have rung clear bells for those who first heard or read "the parable of the two builders". Jesus's first audience was, of course, predominantly Jewish, but so, too - so the scholars tell us - was the community in which Matthew's Gospel originally circulated. The parable spoke to those who knew their scriptures.
It would have reminded them of a wonderful woman named "Wisdom" who built a fine house - famously it had seven pillars - which was distinguished for its hospitality. To this house, those who had lost their way in life were welcomed. There they were made to sit down to eat and drink and, thus refreshed, enabled to resume more responsible lives (Proverbs 9.1-6).
The parable is very brief. It is told with the utmost economy and restraint. Only in the description of the storm overtaking the two houses do the images multiply. "The rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew. . ." The language reels, as to the successive blows of the buffeting storm.
We know nothing beyond what we can infer from his text about the circumstances of "Matthew's Church". But one thing we can be sure about. His was a suffering church, a community increasingly under attack as - so those of "the Way" believed - the end drew near. We do not know whether Matthew's Church was being persecuted, but there is much in his Gospel to suggest that it was a minority Church, small in numbers and existing precariously on the margins.
How does such a Church survive adversity? How does it maintain its witness unswervingly? No doubt the Church prevails by faith, by trusting in the grace of God to see it through. But that is not the emphasis here. The Church that cherished the Sermon on the Mount survived by its obedience, by doing what Jesus had said, by loving its enemies, by not retaliating, by doing what is unfairly demanded - and then by doing as much again. That is "the rock" on which this Church rests.
With this parable, Jesus concludes his sermon. The crowds, we read, "were astounded at his teaching". Where did these crowds come from, we wonder? They were not there, it seems, at the start; for apparently it was in order to get away from the crowds that Jesus had ascended "the mountain" where his disciples then joined him (Matthew 5.1). We can, if we like, picture lots of people clambering up the hillside to hear Jesus, much as on another occasion, when he wanted to be alone with his disciples, they had hurried round the lakeside to meet him (Mark 6.30-34).
But there is a more important question. Do the crowds overhear a discourse intended only for the disciples? Or is that discourse addressed to them as much as it is to those who have already given themselves to the cause of Christ's coming Kingdom? The question focuses the fundamental issue: is the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount intended as a universal law or is it applicable only to relationships within the Christian community? Who, in a word, is Jesus talking to?
What is most striking in the epilogue to the Sermon on the Mount is that it is "the crowds", not the disciples, who draw the right conclusion from what they have heard. The crowds recognise that he teaches "as one having authority".
Whether the sermon was meant for them or not, it is they who put two and two together, who recognise the all-important implication of the sermon, that by teaching with such distinctive and unparalleled authority Jesus is making a claim about his identity. Who else but one from God would claim that such eternal consequences hang on whether or not we obey his words?
On the night I am jotting down these thoughts, the Jews are celebrating Passover. Passover is both a celebration of the freedom of God's people and also a prayer for all who suffer oppression. The Sermon on the Mount is also a freedom text. We do not achieve freedom by building lives on sand, however compliant and accommodating a substance sand is.
Freedom is found by building on rock, that least tractable of materials. A text from John's Gospel, not usually associated with the Sermon on the Mount, provides a commentary on it. "You will know the truth and the truth will set you free" (John 8.32). The most exacting moral code known to humankind is also the most liberating.
Text of Readings
Deuteronomy 11.18-21, 26-28
18You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 19Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.
26See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today; 28and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.
Romans 1.16,17,3.22b-28 (29-31)
16I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ 22For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
21‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
24Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The 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. 26And 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. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell – and great was its fall!’ 28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.