I was an elementary school teacher before entering the monastery. One of the things a teacher learns is that it’s important from time to time – particularly after the summer break – to go back to the basics. You can’t build or make progress without a good foundation, so it’s important to make sure your students have a solid grasp of the basics before moving on to new or more challenging subjects.
Going back to the basics appears to be what Jesus the teacher is doing here. Our gospel text today comes at the end of several tests that the Pharisees and scribes have put before Jesus. It is clear that their intention is to trap him[i] into saying something that would either offend the authorities or turn the crowds against him. To this point, he has successfully eluded these traps.
Here is another trap. “Teacher,” someone asks, “which commandment is the greatest?” If they can trick Jesus into picking a favorite command, he’ll be guilty of downplaying the other commandments. Since every commandment represents the very word of God, picking and choosing among them would be heretical. They are trying to force him into an impossible situation where any answer he gives can be challenged. I suppose it’s a little like asking a parent which of their children is their favorite. Choosing one of their children will make the others feel less important or less loved. The wise parent will say, “I love them all the same.
In the Holy Land, there is much solid rock, whether exposed, under a couple inches or under ten or more feet of soil. To build, one digs down however far it takes to use the foundation of solid rock. People build in the summer when it is dry not raining, yet it is hot. It is very hard work to break through the clay and dig down to solid rock. One may be tempted to skip the harder part, yet a sure foundation is essential to survive the winter floods.[i]
Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.” Hearing and doing Jesus’ words take great effort, like digging down through hard clay under hot sun. This parable ends Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke and another version ends the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.[ii] Jesus ends with a call for necessary, risky, costly action.
Isaiah 26:1-6; Psalm 118:19-24; Matthew 7:31-27
In Hebrew scripture, the authors of the Jewish Wisdom books frequently contrast two Ways – the way of good and the way of evil, or the way of meaning and the way of vanity. A consistent theme ascribed to the way of holiness, integrity, and truth is its weight. This way has substance – it is heavy, solid, and stable. Those who follow this way have roots, as in Psalm 1: “They are like trees, planted by streams of water, with leaves that do not wither.” By contrast, the way of evil or vanity is light, ephemeral and insubstantial. Those who follow it become like chaff which the wind blows away, like dew or clouds that evaporate, like grass which withers in the sun, or like the web of a spider brushed casually aside.
Jesus’ parable of the two house-builders, which concludes the sermon on the mount in Matthew, participates in this tradition of the Two Ways with its stark opposites: the wise man and the foolish man, the immovable house built on rock and the flimsy house built on shifting sand. This is is a sobering reminder that authentic discipleship demands the concentrated weight of commitment expressed in actions. Accepting wise and prudent commitments is a practice that gives our life with God substance.