The image of the wise man and the foolish man who build their houses on the rock or the sand is a familiar one. But does it mean what we think it means, or is there a deeper purpose behind the parable?
In this article, I don’t necessarily want to lay out an entire exegesis of Luke 6:46-49, with comparisons to the the parallel in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Rather, I want to open up the possibility of another layer of interpretation of Jesus’ sermon. In doing so, I want to invite further contemplation, because any historical layer of meaning, if true, only contributes to our growth in Christ.
So, without further ado: I think Jesus is drawing the comparison about building houses on the rocks and sand to compare our source of religion. Do we build our house on the Rock, Christ, or on the temple, built on sand? I want to show that the language of the Bible, the testimony of the New Testament authors, and history itself would attest to this meaning.
The foundations are an interesting concept. The second man builds his house upon the ground with no foundation. Obviously, this sort of house could not stand. The Hebrew Bible talks about the foundations of the temple in I Kings 6:37. As we’ve seen before, intra-Jewish debates broke out about the basis of Yahwist faith. The Essenes broke from the Sadduccees who broke from the Pharisees, etc. It was hard to say what was the basis of Israelite faith: the temple system, Talmud, or other oral traditions, like those of the Teacher of Righteousness? Instead, Jesus understood himself as the cornerstone upon which the church would be laid (Matthew 21:42//Mk 12:10//Luke 20:17). The apostles also understood Jesus as the Cornerstone (Eph 2:20; I Peter 2:6-7).
Based on this evidence, the rock could easily symbolize Christ. The Deuteronomistic Historian refers to Yahweh as the Rock throughout his books (cf. Deuteronomy 32:4; 15; 31; I Sam 2:2; 22:2; 32; 23:3). The Psalms do the same thing (Pss 18:2; 31, 46; all verses which show firm reliance upon Deuteronomistic traditions; 28:1; 42:9; 62:2; etc.) In the New Testament, Paul compares Jesus to the rock which followed Jesus in the wilderness (I Corinthians 9-10; cf. Exodus 17). I don’t have any references off hand, but the Church then compares Christ to the Rock which Moses struck at Merebah. So here, Jesus is saying that the one who builds his house upon the Rock is the one who builds his house upon the Cornerstone.
But now we must establish a connection between houses and temples. This one is actually easy, if you know your Old Testament. The Hebrew word beyit is used in the earlier portions of the Hebrew Bible to describe houses, and sometimes, heads of households. David says that it unfair that he has a house while Yahweh does not (referring to a temple, cf. II Samuel 7:1-16). In the post-exilic period, the returned Jews started to refer to the temple as the beyit YHWH. This connection between house and temple informs Levitical theology: your house must remain pure because it is, in an extent, a temple. You are an eikon of God, and idols imaged the gods in their appropriate temples. Anyway. There is more to be said here, but I’m not sure it is entirely necessary to establish a plausible connection.
So, to recap so far, and take a breather: the Rock upon which we build our house is God the Father and Christ the Cornerstone. The house can mean a temple. So, now we need to figure out if the church is referred to as the temple.
Again, easy enough, this time if you know your New Testament. Paul refers to the Corinthians, gathered together in the Spirit, as the temple of God. In doing so, he lists the condemnation available to those who tear down the temple/church (I Corinthians 3-6). Later, in another letter to the Corinthians, Paul reestablishes them as the new temple, the place where the Spirit dwells (2 Cor 3-6). (I know, broad ranges, but you have to see the passages in context to grasp this.) We continue. Paul, in Ephesians, makes the same note: the church is built by the temple. The walls were torn down, and all men become one in Christ. The new temple/church is built upon Christ, and the pillars of this church are the apostles. We make up the rest of the temple/body. (The temple/body connection is there, too: this is why Jesus is the Metal Man in Revelation 1, because he is the temple incarnate. For later.)
Floods appear in a lot of wartime reflections. The Song of the Sea talks about Egypt’s military loss due to a Flood (Exodus 15). David compares God’s military might against David’s enemy as a flood (2 Samuel 5:20//I Chronicles 14:11). Song of Solomon 8 contains warrior imagery, comparing the love of the Warrior God who is Jealous for his bride to a flood. (Psalm 29 easily makes the connection between the nations and the flood waters, if you have ears to hear it.) Daniel is shown a vision where a flood takes down the holy city (Daniel 9:26). This one is the knock down argument, honestly. God’s anointed people under the prince come and destroy the city, ending in war. The Minor Prophets draw this comparison a lot, too (Nahum 1:8, for example). So, it is easy to make a comparison: the Roman army, in 7 AD, could be biblically seen as a flood that comes against the city.
Let us plug this in:
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a temple, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the Rock/Cornerstone. And when the Roman army arose, the warfare broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built (cf. the Passion, wherein Rome crucifies Christ, who comes back to life).But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the warfare broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that temple was great.”
Nothing seems historically wrong. The Second Temple fell in 70 AD. The Jewish people, circumcised in heart, came around their Messiah, foretold in the Scriptures because the Gentiles came in as God intended. From here, we may extrapolate back to our favorite interpretations. But I think this is solid ground, at first.
And, hey, a bonus: Matthew includes wise and foolish as characteristics of these men. Why? Because Matthew, then James, draw so heavily upon the wisdom traditions, especially Proverbs 1-9. But even earlier than that, the man who built the temple, Bezalel (Exodus 31) was given wisdom by the Spirit in order to build the temple/house. Only wise men can build; wisdom is the power to build (compare Lady Wisdom’s work in Proverbs 8, for example.)
(I believe NT Wright makes a similar argument, a different way. I do not remember where. He is too prolific and I am writing this in 24 minutes before I pass out from exhaustion. Good night.)