In the very title of his Sunday Angelus reflection, Pope Benedict XVI gives us the key to understanding Jesus' parable of the houses built on rock and sand. (See "Angelus, St. Peter's Square, Sunday, March 6, 2011.")
This Sunday's Gospel reading presents the conclusion to the 'Sermon on the Mount' in which the Lord Jesus, using the parable of the two houses, one built on rock and the other on sand, invites the disciples to listen to His words and put them into practice…
Jesus is the living Word of God.… In every epoch and in every place those who have the grace of knowing God, … are fascinated by him. ... They recognize that in his preaching, in his actions and in his Person, he reveals the true face of God to us and at the same time reveals us to ourselves. This gives us the joy of being children of the Father who is in Heaven, and points out to us the solid foundation on which to build our life.
Yet human beings often do not build their action and life on this identity; they prefer the sands of ideology, power, success and money, believing they will find in these things stability and the answer to the irrepressible demand for happiness and fullness that they carry in their soul.
And as for us, on what do we wish to build our life? Who can truly respond to the restlessness of the human heart? Christ is the rock of our life! He is the eternal and definitive Word who overcomes every kind of adversity, difficulty or hardship (cf. Verbum Domini, n. 10).
May the word of God permeate the whole of our life, thought and action, … [because it is a] refuge from a superficial activism that may satisfy pride momentarily but ultimately leaves you empty and dissatisfied.
Jesus, the Word of God, is the key to understanding everything. His path is the path to follow. His life is the source of our own spiritual vitality. He summarized this by saying, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." [John 14:6]
As I said at the opening of this post, the title of the Pope's Sunday Angelus message gives us the key to understanding this Sunday's Gospel parable:
Everyone who listens to 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 buffeted the house.
But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.
And everyone who listens to these words of mine
but does not act on them
will be like a fool who built his house on sand.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
And it collapsed and was completely ruined.
Jesus, himself, the Word of God, is the rock. The sand is all false prophets, all false philosophies, all false theologies, all false motivations. What, then, is the violent weather that shakes the house? That's the next most obvious point. The weather stands for the challenges of life. If we imagine the damage this particular weather could do to a house built on sand, we may get a clear picture of a house lifted up from its roots in the sand, dragged away in the floods, crashing on rocks, cracking, collapsing and splintering into pieces that are scattered by the winds, so that nothing recognizable remains of the original house.
We can interpret the house to be either one's faith or one's life. Both are ultimately shattered by the same experiences if we are not grounded in the Word of God.
There is one last thing in the metaphor to consider, namely, the building.
When Jesus speaks of acting on his word, this is the building. We will either build on his word or build on something else. Either way we will build a life, and we will build a philosophy of life, or to put it more simply, we will build the faith we believe. When we cooperate with God's grace, that faith we build will be rooted in God's Word, and it will be a comprehensive faith, a faith that can guide our lives in the most challenging circumstances, even circumstances that would normally wreck a person's life. How else can we explain the moral thriving of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, and Victor Frankl and Karol Wojtyla in the face of Nazi tyranny? Even the acknowledged secularist among them, Victor Frankl, found that life's meaning did not consist in material things, but rather in spiritual life, and in the highest form of virtue, agape love. God is love. The Word of God is the ultimate expression of love. Indeed, this is what Jesus meant by "the way." When we follow "the way," our life becomes an expression of agape love.
In this metaphor of the two houses, Jesus tells us that we have a choice to make, a choice we cannot avoid making. We will either build our lives on him, the Word of God, or we will build it on something else.
When we understand things in this way, we can also understand the apparent paradox of St. Paul's teaching in his Letter to the Romans, the passage from chapter 3, verses 21-25 and 28 that was read this Sunday. Let us take the key verse, "For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law."
I say this is a paradox, because we also have Jesus' words in today's Gospel, "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." This is paralleled by the words of St. James in his letter, "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." [James 2:17] Even Jesus' words at the beginning of the parable show that acting on our faith in him is crucial. Isn't this what St. Paul means by "works?"
When St. Paul talks about works of the law, he's speaking about the Law of Moses, and specifically about such laws as circumcision and the dietary and purification laws. None of these laws can be found in the Decalogue. Indeed, the law of circumcision has a ritual, symbolic, cultural purpose1, not a specifically moral one. The laws regarding diet and cleanliness do not specifically involve morality, they involve only freedom from disease. In other words, in certain cultural and technological contexts, they are necessary to the body, but they are not, under any circumstances, necessary to the soul. By contrast, the Decalogue has a specifically moral purpose. It is essential to obey the Ten Commandments. This, as Jesus made clear to the rich young man, is the bare minimum to doing the will of God. [Matt 19:17] St. Paul is not saying it's o.k. to break the Ten Commandments as long as we believe in Christ. What he is saying is that faith in works will not save us. Only faith in Christ can save us. In other words, St. Paul's paradox vanishes if we recognize that he is not contrasting faith and works, so much as he is contrasting faith in Christ with faith in our own works. Only the former can save us. Indeed, in St. Paul's formulation of the dichotomy, it is clear that we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts. Unless our works are rooted in faith in Christ, our works are valueless. St. James gives us the flip side of this coin. Unless our works match our faith in Christ, our faith in Christ is valueless. Jesus' parable of the two houses, when we understand it, makes all of this clear.
We have no hope of understanding Jesus' parable if we do not begin with Pope Benedict's insight, that the rock is Christ, the Word of God.
- 1. Namely, identification with the Abrahamic/Mosaic Covenant.