We begin this morning a summer series on the parables of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew.
Parables have been called “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.”
Parables are memorable, easy to recall.
Once a person hears the parable of the prodigal son,
they will likely be able to recall the most important details even years later.
Once you have heard the story of the good shepherd leaving the 99 in the wilderness
to search for the one lost sheep, any picture of a shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders
will quickly bring that parable to mind.

As William Barclay wrote, parables are “sudden vivid flashes
meant to make us see things which we were well able to see,
but which either through deliberate blindness or through dullness of spirit we had never seen. ”
(And Jesus Said: A Handbook on the Parables of Jesus, page 14)
Another commentator called a parable “a sword in the Masters hands
to poke awake the mind that is sleeping,”
A parable is a truth that is known, but that has been ignored
which suddenly comes to light and consciousness.
George Buttrick wrote: “the parables have but to be read for us to realize how swiftly
they arouse the imagination, smite the conscience, and quicken the will.”
Jesus’ parables are based upon a common form of Jewish teaching,
but, in the Master’s hands, old stories and old forms became filled with new meaning and beauty.
In short, the parables of Jesus are memorable, earthly stories
which call for meaningful response, for a decision from those who hear them.

To understand fully the parables, we pay close attention to the circumstances in which they were spoken.
This parable of the wise and foolish builders was utilized by Matthew at the close
of Jesus’ great Sermon on the Mount, his grounded teachings that are meant to be taken to heart.
Read Matthew 7:21-29

I was jogging down Columbia Drive yesterday, curious about the wonderful property
the city will soon purchase from the United Methodist Children’s Home.
Have you noticed the foundations of the old buildings on the property?
The buildings themselves are mostly built from brick, which are made from clay,
but the foundations are built from stone.
Those old buildings have withstood rain and storm for many years because they have a solid foundation.

The parable of the two builders is often interpreted as talking primarily
about the quality of the foundation of the house,
whether one’s house is built on rock of Jesus’ teaching or on the shifting sands of popular thought.
Jewish rabbi Elisha ben Abujah was known to teach in this way:
“A man who does good works and who learns much Law, with whom is he to be compared to?
To a man who builds a house with stones for its foundation and bricks of clay above.
Though the floods come and beat upon the side thereof, they cannot wash it away from its place.
And a man who does not do good works and yet learns the Law, with whom is he to be compared?
To a man who builds with bricks of clay first, and thereafter with stones.
Even if but a little water flows it falls at once. ”

Certainly the quality of the foundation is critical, and we will return to that meaning.
Yet consider for a moment that the location of the foundation is important as well.
In the Gospel of Matthew, written by a Jew from Palestine,
we can imagine a bit of a twist on the traditional interpretation.
Throughout Palestine, there are countless dry riverbeds in the summer months.
For 9 or 10 months of the year even, these are pleasant, sandy, smooth surfaces.
They may look like a nice place for a squatter to build a home, a nice place for children to play,
and for flowers to grow. But suddenly, when the rainy season comes,
these nice, smooth, pleasant places will be overcome by raging torrents.
What was once a pleasant place to build a home quickly becomes destroyed by the raging flood.
George Buttrick – “that dry watercourse becomes a raging torrent when a storm breaks in the mountains,
and on it’s golden summer sand a foolish man once built his house. ”

In middle school, we would go camping nearly once a month with the Boy Scouts.
We would often leave after school, late on a Friday afternoon, and drive into north Georgia
or to Pisgah National Forest in the North Carolina mountains, where we would set up camp in the dark.
It only takes a young Boy Scout one time of setting up their tent in the wrong location
before he learns that what seems a pleasant and smooth surface for his tent
may not be the best choice once a late night storm rages through the mountains.
One quickly learns to avoid the low lying areas, the deposits of soft sand near the pleasant stream,
for when the rains come, the creek will rise and flow right through the tent!
And yes, I am speaking from experience!

The man in the parable who builds his house on sand is not called wicked, but foolish.
His act is not premeditated, but un-meditated.
His building location reveals a lack of forethought, a lack of paying attention to conditions.
The one who built his house on the smooth deposit of shining sand
has taken no account of the rains that have come before and will surely come after.
Jesus reminds us that we must take the long-term view in life.
What may seem a pleasant and smooth and enjoyable location in the short term
may well turn out to be a place of destruction in the long term.

We build our lives not based solely upon current wants or needs or enjoyments.
We build carefully, looking into the distant future,
and seeking to understand how what we do now relates to what may happen then.
One good example might be dating – I believe there is wisdom in the notion that,
once a person is of a mature age and they are in the process of seriously dating others,
it is likely best that a relationship with no hope or promise of a long-term future be let go.
Once determined that a long-term future together is probably not going to happen,
for whatever reason, then it is usually best to move along before spending one’s life and one’s years
with the “wrong” person, however wonderful they may be.
The “right” person may be just around the corner.
The same could be said of a job or career path or course of study.
What we do in the short term, how we build our lives,
has a great impact on how we weather the future, on what the future holds for us.

How many college freshmen soon discover that taking the long view is necessary?
It is quite tempting, on those beautiful fall days,
when the semester has just begun, to enjoy the beautiful weather,
to extend the weekend for as long as possible, instead of buckling down to study.
“The semester is long,” they say.
“The major test is weeks away. The big game is this weekend – let’s enjoy ourselves while we can.” Then, some weeks later, when the major test is taken, they begin to realize the error of their ways.
At the end of the semester, when finals come, those enjoyable days of the fall
may leave a sour taste in their mouths, and a less-than-acceptable grade on their report.

The storm and rain in the parable can be interpreted as the day of the last judgment,
but, more likely, the rain and storm can be seen as any severe time of testing in a person’s life.
The secret of securing one’s life is to build a life of faithfulness and obedience,
a life of love and loyalty, a life of compassion and selflessness.
Obey me, says Jesus, and yes, the storms will still come, but you will be able to weather them.
Neglect my teachings to your peril, Jesus says, for the trials and temptations will then overwhelm you.
(Archibald Hunter, page 74, Interpreting the Parables)
This is a tremendous claim! Whether in the first century or twenty-first century,
Jesus makes a rather outrageous assertion.
He says follow my words, and you will be strong.
Neglect my words and it will be to your eternal peril.
My design for life is the one that will last. Ignore my teachings and great will be your fall.
Matthew reports that when Jesus finished teaching the crowds, they were astounded and amazed.
They recognized that he spoke with authority, that what he told them was true.

These parables of Jesus, these ancient stories with contemporary, eternal meanings,
call for a meaningful response, for a decision.
They are a touchstone by which human lives will rise and fall,
a signal upon which even nations will rise and fall.
The words of Jesus as reported by Matthew still say to us – this is the way to live.
Walk in this path and you will be strong, resilient.
Choose not to walk in this path and your feet will be made of clay.
When the storms inevitably come, when the tides begin to rise,
you will have trouble standing in the path that you have chosen.

Strong foundations are not essential in calm weather.
During times of relative ease, or times of relative prosperity,
people tend to live however seems easy and convenient at the moment.
They build their lives on smooth sand, not preparing themselves for the inevitable troubles to come. Whether economic, or environmental, or social, or political, the rain and storm will eventually come.
We had better build our houses on solid rock.

I had a good friend in college whose father owned an asphalt company.
The company paved roads for the city and county, and driveways for individual homeowners.
When the economy was good, they worked nearly six days a week, making more than enough money.
When the economy turned, there would be no work for months at a time and no income.
It does not take long for a small business owner, or anyone who works for them,
to discover that during the pleasant times, they had better put away plenty of money
if they want to eat and pay their bills during the difficult times to come.

We often speak these days about the grace and love of Jesus, and so we should.
But we should not neglect the warnings Jesus offered.
The parable for today ends: “And great was the fall of the house!”
This is a warning to those who would live un-meditative lives,
to any who would live without any thought for the future,
to those who would live their days based on what is easy and convenient and smooth,
rather than taking a long term view, rather than doing what is more difficult and challenging,
rather than choosing wisely the location where one builds one’s life.

Foolishness may be fun in the short term, but wisdom lasts forever.
Both of the men in the parable build houses.
The question is not inaction versus action, but upon whose words, upon whose teachings do we build?
Do we build upon convenient, shifty sands or upon the solid rock of Jesus’ word?
Do we hear the words of Jesus and act on them,
or do we just hear and then go our own way, falling in line with the ways of the world?

Looking back at the context of this parable, we notice the key teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.
Will we hold onto anger or will we seeking reconciliation with neighbor or loved one?
Will we covet that which our neighbors and lust after others or will we be content with what we have?
Will we hate enemies and seek their harm or will we love them, pray for them,
and seek their long term good?
Will we serve the demands of money and constantly worry about tomorrow
or will we serve God and being concerned first with God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness?
Will we judge others, criticize others, or will we be more concerned about God’s judgment of us?
Jesus said that the road to hell, to separation from God, is wide and easy.
The road that leads to life can be narrow and difficult.

Deliberate blindness? Dullness of spirit?
Or faithful response to the teachings of the One who came that all may have life,
and have it abundantly?


Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
June 11, 2017