Houses Built on Rock or Sand

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Person standing on dock with red umbrella watching on coming storm“Everyone hearing my words and acting on them is like a person who built one’s house on bedrock; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew and pounded that house, and it did not collapse, for it was founded on bedrock. And everyone‚ who hears my words‚ and does not act on them‚ is like a person who built one’s house on the sand; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew‚ and battered that house, and promptly it collapsed, and its fall‚ was devastating.” (Q 6:47-49)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 7:24-27: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Luke 6:47-49: “As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.”

The gospels of Matthew and Luke each incorporate this saying into the climax of their accounts of Jesus’s wisdom teachings. Matthew lists it as the last teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and Luke includes it at the end of the Sermon on the Plain. This saying is not part of the Gospel of Thomas, however. And there’s a good reason why not.

A Little Background

Stephen J. Patterson makes a pretty compelling case that the Gospel of Thomas belonged to the region of Edessa (see The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins.) The imagery in this saying referenced the geography of Jerusalem and the literal foundation on which Herod’s Temple was built. That imagery would have had no relevance for people who valued the teachings of Jesus but lived in Edessa rather than Jerusalem.

Bedrock

The temple mount (rock or “foundation stone”) was highly regarded during the time of Jesus. In the Tanchuma (a Roman-Era Midrash), we read this poem:

“As the navel is set in the centre of the human body,
so is the land of Israel the navel of the world…
situated in the centre of the world,
and Jerusalem in the centre of the land of Israel,
and the sanctuary in the centre of Jerusalem,
and the holy place in the centre of the sanctuary,
and the ark in the centre of the holy place,
and the Foundation Stone before the holy place,
because from it the world was founded.”
Tanchuma (Emphasis added.)

So this saying borrows from the safety and security that the culture had invested in the temple even before their exile in Babylon. If we go back to Jeremiah, we find the community using the temple for a sense of security or safety:

Jeremiah 7:3-11: “This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: ‘Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things?” Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching!’ declares the LORD.”

In Jeremiah’s time, people were deeply violating social justice and yet believed themselves to be safe from God’s judgment simply because they possessed his temple. A “den of robbers” is not a place where robbery is committed but where robbers retreat afterwards to safely count their loot. This was how Jeremiah saw the temple: it had become a place that provided the powerful with safety and security while they continued to rob the poor.

The details were different by the time of Jesus, but the principles were very similar. Once again, the temple had become the center of a political, economic, and religious system that was exploiting the poor, and, once again, this temple was the foundation on which many built their trust and sense of security.

Josephus’s writings show just how much people valued Herod’s temple. A perpetual sacrifice kept the fire on the temple altar always burning. Even during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-69 C.E., and the siege and razing of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., priests kept the temple fire burning by maintaining a sacrifice on the altar, thus assuring Jerusalem, obstinate in the face of the city burning down around them, that they would emerge victorious in the face of the Roman siege. They kept the fire burning to honor their interpretation of Leviticus 6:13: “The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out” (see also 2 Maccabees 1:19-22). The temple’s ever-burning flame in worship to YHWH symbolized continually maintained Divine favor, even during that last war.

“The darts that were thrown by the engines came with that force, that they went over all the buildings and the Temple itself, and fell upon the priests and those that were about the sacred offices; insomuch that many persons who came thither with great zeal from the ends of the earth to offer sacrifices at this celebrated place, which was esteemed holy by all mankind, fell down before their own sacrifices themselves, and sprinkled that altar which was venerable among all men, both Greeks and barbarians, with their own blood. The dead bodies of strangers were mingled together with those of their own country, and those of profane persons with those of the priests, and the blood of all sorts of dead carcasses stood in lakes in the holy courts themselves.” (The Lamentation of Josephus; War 5.1.4 19-20, emphasis added.)

This cultural history sheds light on why Jesus’s attempts to halt the daily sacrifices when he cleared the temple of merchants were so offensive, and it also explains why Emperor Titus didn’t just aim to subjugate Jerusalem when he ordered the city razed, but also sought to destroy the temple itself. The morale, the optimism, the assurance of Divinely affirmed victory among the Jewish people, in their revolt, had to be extinguished.

In the saying we’re considering this week, Jesus is standing in the critical tradition of the prophet Jeremiah. He is being very Jewish! As well as encouraging fidelity to YHWH, Jesus is calling his audience to prioritize practicing social justice [his ethical teachings] over mere possessing religious objects.

Today, some Christians need the same reminder. We may not have a temple, but we might have a pet doctrine that we think sets us apart from other members of the human family, a belief that makes God regard us as exceptional. Yet both Jeremiah and Jesus state that we should rather emphasize justice for the foreigners among us, those who are vulnerable in our socio-economic, political and religious order, and the innocent being exploited by privileged people. In the patriarchy of Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ culture, this focus would have meant serving the “fatherless” and the “widow.”  We must rightly discern who are the vulnerable in our order, today, and, like Jesus, stand with and work along side of them.

Jesus uses this saying to center his teachings rather than the trusted sacred temple. Perhaps Jesus also wanted us to regard his teachings as sacred as the temple and the rock beneath it that his audience revered.

Weathering A Coming Storm

Jesus grew up in the wake of political insurrections by various Jewish factions after Herod’s death, and I believe he knew all too well the result of armed revolt against Rome. Josephus describes how Rome squelched liberation movements in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. The most immediate example when Jesus was a child would have been the destruction of Sepphoris, a town a few miles north of Nazareth, in 4 BCE. Josephus writes:

“In Sepphoris also, a city of Galilee, there was one Judas (the son of that arch-robber Hezekias, who formerly overran the country, and had been subdued by king Herod); this man got no small multitude together, and brake open the place where the royal armor was laid up, and armed those about him, and attacked those that were so earnest to gain the dominion. (Jewish War; 2.4.1)

Rome’s action was swift. A portion of the army went to Sepphoris where they “took the city Sepphoris, and burnt it, and made slaves of its inhabitants.” (Ibid., 2.5.1)  The rest of the army moved through Samaria and on to Jerusalem, burning and plundering any town or village that posed a threat. Once at Jerusalem, they attacked those who had “been the authors of this commotion . . . they caught great numbers of them, those that appeared to have been the least concerned in these tumults [Syrian governor Varus] put into custody, but such as were the most guilty he crucified; these were in number about two thousand.” (2.5.2)

Two thousand were crucified. Stop and ponder the magnitude of that number for a moment. Two thousand. Rome’s practice in responding to revolts and insurgencies is reflected in the speech Tacitus attributed to Calgacus decades later:

“…The yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a desert and call it peace.” (Agricola 29-38)

“They make a desert and call it peace.” This description adds a haunting nuance to Jesus’s saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Josephus tells that after Governor Varus put down the uprisings at Sepphoris and Jerusalem, “he returned to Antioch” (2.5.3).

So this was the political environment Jesus grew up in. Jesus wouldn’t have needed supernatural talent to listen to the spirit of Jewish, violent, anti-Roman sentiment and see where it all would lead.

I believe that Jesus was endeavoring to prevent this end by offering those around him a different course, a different “way” (see Matthew 7:12-14). Even if the end he foresaw could not be avoided, even if Jerusalem was too far gone, Jesus contrasted his teachings and alternate way with the “rock” the temple was built upon. The message to his own community was that only his teachings could intrinsically assure them of weathering the political storm ahead.

This leads me to one of the central questions of my own journey. Through everything I have experienced and learned over the years, I cannot shake the question of whether the teachings of Jesus, distilled from their first century Jewish/Roman context and applied to the social storms of our day, could liberate us as they liberated his 1st Century followers. Of course the details and contexts are different. But when I consider his teachings on nonviolence as opposed to violent revolution, his teachings on mutual aid and resource-sharing, his teachings about getting “loose” from an opponent while you are “on the way” (Q 12:58-59), all of these teachings show me a narrow path of survival on the way to the ultimate hope of a new human society, what King called A Beloved Community. In the Beloved Community, the human family has learned to relate to one another in a very different fashion than was practiced in the first century or is practiced today.

First, we must understand what Jesus said in his 1st Century, Jewish, socio-political, economic, and religious context. Then comes the hard work of distilling the principles behind his statements. And lastly we must rightly apply and practice those principles today. Rightly applying the principles and teachings of Jesus may be the hardest part in this process.

So again, for all of you who believe the sayings of Jesus have intrinsic value in informing the nonviolent confrontation, liberation, and transformation of our world into a safe,

more just, more compassionate home for us all, and for all of you who are working hard in your own way toward this end, I hope our Saying this week encourages you. We have a societal storm on the horizon as Jesus’s first followers did. In our practice, let’s build on bedrock and not sand.

“Everyone hearing my words and acting on them is like a person who built one’s house on bedrock; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew and pounded that house, and it did not collapse, for it was founded on bedrock. And everyone‚ who hears my words‚ and does not act on them‚ is like a person who built one’s house on the sand; and the rain poured down and the flash-floods came, and the winds blew‚ and battered that house, and promptly it collapsed, and its fall‚ was devastating.” (Q 6:47-49)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like you to:

  1. Pick out one of the Sayings of Jesus that you have experimented with over the past few months. (If you don’t have one, stop here, pick one, and begin experimenting.)
  2. Reflect: How has your life changed from this practice? How have others’ lives changed from your practice?
  3. Identify the impact. What have been the positive results of your practice? What have been the negative fall outs? Discuss these outcomes with your HeartGroup in the upcoming week.

To each of you out there who are endeavoring to “put into practice” the teachings of the historical Jesus, keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly. Thanks for walking along side of us on this journey.

I’ll see you next week.

The Subversive Narratives of Advent  (Part 1 of 3)

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” (Luke 2.10) 

Advent season has begun!

Over the next two weeks I want to look at the birth narratives of Jesus from first century Christian, Jewish, and Roman perspectives. Much has been lost, co-opted, and eclipsed by the Imperial Christianity that began in the fourth century when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. So in the next two weekly e-Sights, we’ll be looking first at Matthew’s birth narrative and then at Luke’s. Both Matthew and Luke have story elements in common. They also differ greatly on other narrative details. We will be reading each story in the contexts they were each written in. Seen that original context, these narratives are intensely subversive of the military, political, and economic ways of empire as well as imperial theologies, not just in Rome but across time, including our own era.

A useful tool that I want to recommend this holiday season is Marcus Borg’s and Dominic Crossan’s timely volume, The First Christmas. They’ve done invaluable work in compiling information about the historical/cultural setting in which these birth-narratives were originally told. That information helps us rediscover the stories’ meaning not simply to the first century followers of Jesus but also to us today as well. If I were teaching a class on the Christmas narratives this holiday season, not only would each student have a copy of Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives, they’d also have this 244-page volume as an accompanying text book. It is a fantastic overview.

A Preliminary Word about Both Narratives

Something to note before we begin: These narratives are primarily concerned with this world, not with heaven. They are focused on this life. Too often, the birth-narratives of Jesus are read through the lens of salvation defined as entrance into a post-mortem heaven. But that is not how the original Jewish Jesus community would have heard these stories. They were concerned with the whole of life, not merely with an afterlife. A spiritual or afterlife application of these narratives became the dominant interpretation through the cultural influence of the expanding Roman Empire and European colonialism. We’ve talked about the way that reading the gospel narratives with an otherworldly focus has had intensely destructive fruit. Before imperial Christianity, these narratives were understood to be about the transformation of this world. They were not solely theological; they were theological and political! They announced the Divine dream for this world and announced that the fulfillment of that dream had begun in Jesus. They were not about the destruction of this world but about the restoration of it. This restoration, seen in the narratives as they were originally understood, was symbolized by visions of the end of war, violence, injustice, and oppression.

The Importance of Context

A point that I have been harping on for months now (and was happy to see addressed by Borg and Crossan) is the importance of acknowledging the historical context in which the Jesus narratives were created. Two examples that I use regularly to help people see the historical context of the Jesus story are Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was overwhelmingly pleased to see Marcus and Dom use these examples as well:

“What would you think of a book that started with the opener, “I am going to discuss Mahatma Gandhi as a Hindu saint, but I’ll skip all that distracting stuff about British imperial India”? Or another with, “I am going to describe Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a Christian saint, but I’ll get right to his biography and skip all that stuff about racism in America as background baggage”? You would know immediately that something is seriously wrong with those authors’ presentations.”—The First Christmas (p. 55)

I couldn’t agree more!

If we’re going to be able to wrest these two narratives from the militaristic, political, economic, and theological eclipse of empire and restore them to their original, deeply imperially subversive character, we must discover their Jewish, Christian, and Roman context.

Once we see the historical context of these stories, we cannot unsee it. Once we know it, we cannot unknow it. And once we experience this context, it will forever change how we read the birth-narratives of Jesus.

Next week, we’ll look again at Matthew’s narrative. The following week, just before Christmas, we will be turning our attention to Luke’s. My hope is that through this short series that you will read the birth-narratives in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels anew, that your heart will be renewed, and that you will be inspired, as a Jesus follower, to more deeply embody the this-world-transforming values taught within these narratives.

Though the early Jesus birth-narratives were originally intended to subvert the Roman Empire, I believe they also hold significance for us today who live in or in the shadow of the American Empire. In our era, these narratives are being eclipsed by the consumerism of our Empire’s economic machine. The early followers’ voices are lost even to Christians who are most familiar with these Christmas stories. Systemic racism continues to thrive, xenophobia toward Syrian refugees and Muslim Americans flourishes, and U.S. militaristic methods of achieving peace are continually touted by those who carry the name of this babe from Bethlehem.

If we are to rediscover the original subversive power of the birth-narratives of Jesus and rightly apply the stories to our lives today, we must begin with reading these narratives in the matrix of Imperial Rome and its grinding clash with the hopes of first-century Judaism.

“Who is the ‘King of the Jews’? That was Herod the Great’s title, but Matthew’s story tells us Herod was more like Pharaoh, the lord of Egypt, the lord of bondage and oppression, violence and brutality. And his son was no better. Rather, Jesus is the true King of the Jews. And the rulers of his world sought to destroy him.

Who is the Son of God, Lord, savior of the world, and the one who brings peace on earth? Within Roman imperial theology, the emperor, Caesar, was all of these. No, Luke’s story says, that status and those titles belong to Jesus. He—not the emperor—is the embodiment of God’s will for the earth.

Who is the light of the world? The emperor, son of Apollo, the god of light and reason and imperial order? Or is Jesus, who was executed by empire, the light in the darkness, the true light to whom the wise of this world are drawn?

Where do we find the fulfillment of God’s dream for Israel and humanity? In the way things are now? Or only beyond death? Or in a very different world this side of death?”

The First Christmas, p. 37.

The Gospel of Rome promised peace through victory achieved by violence. The conquered interpret this kind of peace in a vastly different way than the conquerors do. The Gospel of the Early Jesus Community envisioned a peace through restored justice for all, through a distinctly nonviolent transformation.

Over the next two weeks, I’m looking forward to sharing these two birth-narratives with you and focusing on how the first century Jesus community heard and read them in the context of their era.

What we are about to discover may mean you’ll never read these stories in quite the same way again.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Take time this week to read Matthew 1-2 as well as Luke 1-2. Familiarize yourself with each story. Try to keep them separate, for now, in your reading.
  2. List what each story has in common. Then where each narrative differs from the other.
  3. In preparation for next week, create an outline of Matthew’s birth-narrative as this is the one we will be looking at first. You can do this on your own or as a group in your HeartGroup.

I’m looking forward to next week already! Until then, keep living in the way of love, till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

I love each of you dearly.

I’m overjoyed that you’re joining us for this small series this year.

Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you next week.