(Originally posted on the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas Blog March 16, 2018)
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The 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. And 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. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
When a parable appears in more than one gospel text, it can be intended as a significant and important message for the followers of Christ. Jesus used parables as teaching tools for his Jewish followers who were trying to understand a new and somewhat confusing way of understanding who Jesus was and what it would mean to be a follower and disciple of Christ. That we have these two parables recorded by the evangelists in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke helps to clarify the parable’s meaning as conveyed through their distinct styles. The evangelists in both gospels write to give authority to Jesus early in his ministry, after he spent time in the desert and gathered his earliest disciples. Christ’s divine authority would be necessary for the followers to understand as they joined in ministry with Jesus and by doing so, entered unfamiliar territory peppered with unfettered criticism and even looming danger.
Matthew’s version of this parable appears in the text immediately following the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus is teaching about the way of life necessary to be a follower of Christ. In that famous selection, the door is cracked and a peek at Jesus’s authority of God is visible with close study. The parable shapes a brief yet powerful image of God’s will for God’s people, embedding into that imagery the authoritative nature of God and therefore of Jesus Christ. And once you can know Christ, then you are compelled to follow Christ. This would have been an unveiling of a newer view of who Jesus was as holding the authority of God, and happened when he was still quite early in his ministry. That authority is strong like a rock, not a shifting or uneven or fleeting authority and it will be on that rock that the church itself will be built. And Jesus makes clear that hearing and following any other authority than that of Christ’s is foolish indeed.
Luke’s rendition of this parable is absent any indicator of who is wise and who is foolish, and adds to Matthew’s reference to building on rock by hearing and following Christ. This evangelist chooses to include the meaning of rock as the foundation for building one’s house, a concept that would have been foreign to those living in ancient Palestine where building any building on solid footing would have been a challenge. This is significant to note, because what Jesus was teaching was quite different than what these believers were accustomed to hearing, and imagery like this would have been more impactful to them then it might be to modern day home dwellers who understand that building a strong house on a strong foundation is a given. The Greek understanding of this usage of foundation is that it is something that is physically laid down. Luke’s addition of this description is helpful in understanding that there is a physical response to hearing Christ’s words and then acting upon them, and in doing so, making your faith stronger and shoring oneself up against the storms of a raging river that each of us is bound to encounter in our life’s journey.
“If I wanted to have a happy garden, I must ally myself with my soil; study and help it to the utmost, untiringly. Always, the soil must come first.”
– Marion Cran, If I Were Beginning Again
The wise words above from Marion Cran come out of years of tending her garden and the wisdom she gained and shared in her role as the first gardening radio broadcaster in Great Britain. Cran spent her life doing important work for the British government in the early 20th century, and it would not be a stretch to think that this quote from her love of gardening influenced her work beyond just biological soil. For us who read this parables, Cran’s quote is helpful to understand the fundamental teaching of these two parables. Allying oneself to the soil is another way to imagine hearing the teaching of Jesus Christ and then inhabiting that teaching ourselves, putting those teachings first and foremost in our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. It’s impossible to go wrong when we adhere to Christ’s teachings. No river or rains, no floods or winds, cannot be overcome by the power of Christ Jesus.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
18 Then Jesustold them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Big themes in our Gospel for this week! Here are the ones I teased out during my reflection:
- Jesus needs us to pray.
- Persistence works.
- Justice from humans = flawed/imperfect. Justice from God? Perfect.
- Keep working on faith.
The use of parables in Luke’s Gospel is a successful way to get me to think. I love to tell stories myself as well as hear others’ stories too – and parables make it easier for me to relate to God’s teachings. And this parable starts off strongly with, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” It’s not written in the form of a question either – not we “should” pray, or “ought to” pray…but rather that we NEED to pray. And then the implication of patience is stated when Jesus tells them not to “lose heart.” That reminds me of the story of how long and how hard St. Augustine’s mother prayed for him to find a relationship with God. I bet she was frustrated with the seemingly lack of answer to that prayer, but she kept praying without ceasing. A great life lesson as she must have wrestled with faithfulness as she begged God to be able to reach in her son’s heart and see him turn to the Lord.
Persistence is easy to have when we want it. I have been known to shop for hours looking for the perfect shoes. THAT is persistence! When I want someone to change their minds about something, I can be pretty persistent in making the case for change. Toddlers have persistence down pat at quite an early age, don’t they? So why do we give up so easily when it comes to prayer and building our relationship with Christ? Why do we walk away from the chance to have the intimacy of a relationship with God through our conversation and quiet listening time? Why don’t we make the time for this important part of our walk with Christ?
The judge in this story is a self-proclaimed jerk and non-believer who basically rules in favor of the widow to get her off his back. Whether that justice was deserved or not seemed to be a non-issue in the story (although widows in this day had very little influence at all). We do that too – make decisions like this judge to mollify others whether they are right decisions or not. Maybe if the judge had been faithful to God the story could have been a different one because he would have relied upon discernment that comes from faith in God to help him with this and his many other cases. But he held out as long as he could while she kept coming back for her justice. Our God is much more generous and merciful than that. He sent his Son to die for our sins; that is the kind of justice we can never deserve. And though it may feel as if the world is unfair and God isn’t listening to us, when we think about his gracious gifts to us it explains how we can find the strength in our times of greatest challenge. In fact, without his grace, we wouldn’t be nearly as successful as we are now! And PS…his timing is perfect and way better than what we think it should be in the long run, right?
But the last line of this week’s passage is the real question, “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Gosh, I sure hope so. And that starts with me. Will he find faith in me if he comes tomorrow? Will he see evidence of our love in the world we live in, building communities of faithfulness that are pleasing to him? Are we doing enough to spread God’s love in all we do and say? Are we leaving the judging up to him and him alone? Is our praying persistent enough to keep our hearts and minds on his true love?
Lord, you are the great Judge. You are merciful and full of grace and compassion. Look generously on us as we strive for faith and justice and give us a heart that yearns for you. For you are the one who knows what we need before we know for ourselves and your timing and answers to prayers is perfect. Help us to be relentless in turning back to you each and every day. Your saving grace is ours. AMEN.