A Tale of Two Houses: Matthew 7:24-27

“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!”

Matthew 7:24-27 (NRSV)

Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount with a story – a story that draws together the warnings of the past few passages.  The people who listen to Jesus and do what he says will survive the coming destruction; the people who do not listen (or only listen, but do not do) will be destroyed.

For various reasons, this illustration may take our minds back to the Flood story.  This is entirely appropriate.  Noah is told by God about the coming judgement, Noah believes God’s words and obeys his instructions and, as a result, he is saved.  Everyone else does not believe and just keeps living their lives as normal, and they are destroyed.  In fact, in Matthew 24, Jesus will explicitly compare the impending destruction of Jerusalem with the days of Noah.

“For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Matthew 24:37-39 (NRSV)

The potential problem here has more to do with the history of modern interpretation than the Bible.  The allusion to Noah often propels well-meaning interpreters to assume Jesus is talking about the physical destruction of the world, but this overlooks the point of the Noah story as well as how Jesus uses it.  The story of Noah was included in the Hebrew scriptures not to satisfy our cosmological curiosity about ancient world history, but to establish Israel’s identity.  Noah is a story about the salvation and deliverance of Israel-in-Noah specifically because of trust and obedience.  The important detail to Jesus is not the scope of the Flood, but rather that most people were just conducting life as usual and were destroyed, but the ones who believed and obeyed God were brought safely through the ordeal into a new world.

We have already looked at Ezekiel 13 as a point of reference for Jesus’ teaching on false prophets.  Not only is the warning about false prophets in common, but the imagery is as well.

My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations; they shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel; and you shall know that I am the Lord God. Because, in truth, because they have misled my people, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace; and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear whitewash on it. Say to those who smear whitewash on it that it shall fall. There will be a deluge of rain, great hailstones will fall, and a stormy wind will break out. When the wall falls, will it not be said to you, “Where is the whitewash you smeared on it?” Therefore thus says the Lord God: In my wrath I will make a stormy wind break out, and in my anger there shall be a deluge of rain, and hailstones in wrath to destroy it. I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the Lord. Thus I will spend my wrath upon the wall, and upon those who have smeared it with whitewash; and I will say to you, The wall is no more, nor those who smeared it— the prophets of Israel who prophesied concerning Jerusalem and saw visions of peace for it, when there was no peace, says the Lord God.

Ezekiel 13:9-16 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

This is a warning about Babylon’s imminent destruction of Jerusalem.  Jesus has taken up this prophetic torch, warning the faithful – those who would believe his words and follow them – of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the false prophets who would ultimately destroy the people if followed.

There is, of course, a long tradition of prophetic and apocalyptic imagery that describes the destruction of invading armies as a flood.

For instance, also from Ezekiel, a prophecy about the destruction of Tyre:

See, I am against you, O Tyre!
I will hurl many nations against you,
as the sea hurls its waves.
They shall destroy the walls of Tyre
and break down its towers.
will scrape its soil from it
and make it a bare rock.
It shall become, in the midst of the sea,
a place for spreading nets.

For thus says the Lord God: When I make you a city laid waste, like cities that are not inhabited, when I bring up the deep over you, and the great waters cover you, then I will thrust you down with those who descend into the Pit, to the people of long ago, and I will make you live in the world below, among primeval ruins, with those who go down to the Pit, so that you will not be inhabited or have a place in the land of the living.

Ezekiel 26:3-5, 19-20 (NRSV)

Ezekiel’s contemporary, Jeremiah, who has also been referenced in the Sermon, prophesying the destruction of the Philistines by Egypt:

See, waters are rising out of the north
and shall become an overflowing torrent;
they shall overflow the land and all that fills it,
the city and those who live in it.

Jeremiah 47:2 (NRSV)

Daniel in various chapters (and twice in chapter 11) during his overview of the various worldly powers rising against each other describes these battles as floods or storms.

This tradition is all very relevant to how Jesus’ hearers would hear him, and how we should hear him as well.  It is not merely a parable where foundations and storms made for a clever story, but it is rather a restatement of prophetic messaging for his own time.  The people listening to him are about to experience the very thing that faithful Israel had experienced in times before this, and Jesus issues the same clarion call – listen to the words of God as they come through His prophet, believe them, and obey them.  Whoever does this will survive the ordeal; whoever does not will be destroyed in it.

Obviously, the warning is clear, but we should not overlook the message of hope that sounded so clearly at the beginning of the Sermon.  For those who do listen and do believe and do obey, God has demonstrated that He is faithful to save and deliver, and just like previous iterations of Israel’s history, a new age waits for those brought safely through.

Consider This

  1. What are the warning signs present today of potential disasters waiting for the Church in the world?  What does faithfulness look like in the face of these potential disasters?
  2. The Bible provides us many stories that demonstrate God’s faithfulness.  Are there episodes from the history of the Church that are not in the Bible that still demonstrate this?
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