If you show up at our church at 10:15 Sunday morning, you’ll find me in a small corner room, my knees wedged beneath a two-foot-tall table, surrounded by 4 and 5-year-olds. We’ll probably be in the middle of a Bible story by then; but if you come a little earlier, we might be using a hand play for a verse or singing a song to get the wiggles out. In our class, we know all the old standards: “Young David,” “This is the Day,” “I Will Enter His Gates,” and of course, “The Wise Man Built His House.”
Those of you who grew up in church probably know this last one (and might be already be singing along.) The lyrics are taken from Matthew 7: 24-27:
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”
“So build you life on the Lord Jesus Christ and the blessings will come down…”
There’s only one problem with this: it isn’t accurate. This isn’t the message of Matthew 7: 24-27.
Several weeks ago, I read this passage in its broader context and was hit with the unsettling realization that for 30+ years I’d been missing the whole point. I’d understood it as the tension between Jesus and “the world” and that a life of making the right choices would result in blessing. In reality, the parable of the wise and foolish man is about an entirely different tension.
Jesus used the story of the wise and foolish man to conclude His Sermon on the Mount. He had been addressing the crowds assembled on a Galilean hillside, giving them perhaps the most nuanced explanation of kingdom living of His earthly ministry. And like any good preacher, He finishes with an application and illustration. Those who hear His words and do them will be like a wise man who builds his house on the rock; those who reject them will do so at their own peril.
So what were these “words” that the people had to either accept or reject? What had Jesus just taught them?
Among other things, He’d given them the Beatitudes, teachings on divorce, advice about money, the Golden Rule, and warnings against false teachers. On the surface, these topics seem to be very different, and yet, they are united by one central thread. A thread that runs through the entire message, binding it together in a cohesive whole. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is calling people to a deeper understanding of their faith. He is internalizing the Law, pressing them past the superficiality of just “doing the right things.”
He warns them that their own righteousness will never be enough and will even deceive them. In fact, there are false prophets so deceitful that they trick even themselves, believing that they are doing their righteous acts in Jesus’ name. But far from calling the people to abandon the law, He is calling them to a better, more encompassing faith. A faith that actually changes them from the inside out. And he concludes all this with the warning to build your life on His words and on not “the sand.”
So what is “the sand?” The sand is our righteous works.
It is not the world’s system as we tend to envision it. It is not the danger of power or ambition or the love of money or lust or greed. Jesus is warning against the danger is self-reliance. We must not place our confidence in our ability to exceed the “righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.” Because if we do, when the storms come, when the thunder crashes, and the lightning strikes, everything we’ve been building—our families, our homes, our work, even our own sense of self—will collapse into one massive pile of twisted, broken wreckage.
Just look around you. Read the blogs. Hear the stories of men and women who tried for so long and so hard to be “righteous” people. They wore the right clothes, they had the right family structures, they used the right translations, they signed the right pledges, they listened to the right music, they had the right theology, and they went to the right churches.
But when the storms came, all of this “rightness” wasn’t enough.
Several weeks ago, I shared the story of Vyckie Garrison who walked away from a legalistic faith straight into the arms of atheism. Many Christians were confused by her story. They wondered how she made such a dramatic change. Why couldn’t she simply shift to a different, perhaps more moderate understanding of Christianity? Why couldn’t she simply become more “balanced”?
She couldn’t become more balanced because all the leveling in the world couldn’t change that her life had been built on the sand.
This is also why those who have grown up in other forms of legalism often walk away from “the faith.” This is why there are so many walking wounded among us. And this is why even those of us who think we’re building our lives on Jesus must be humble. Because the minute we look down on those who didn’t rely on Him, we reveal that our own hearts aren’t relying on Him either. We are putting our confidence in our own ability to be “wise” enough to embrace Him.
I understand why rules and roles and theological paradigms are so appealing. In an uncertain world, they give us safety. A checklist can tell me exactly who I’m supposed to be and where I fit in all this chaos and confusion. And for a time, it will make me feel stable and give me a sense of order. But when the storms come–and they will—the bottom will quite literally fall out because my “house” was really only ever resting on itself.
Instead, Jesus is calling us to something better. He’s calling us to be wise men and women, who know that we will never be enough in ourselves. He’s calling us to humility and the security that even if we aren’t, He is. And ultimately, He’s calling us to Himself.