Second Sunday after Pentecost

by Crossings

HABITATIONS
Matthew 7:21-29
Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 4)
Analysis by Jerome Burce

21 “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. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’
24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 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. 26 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. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell–and great was its fall!”
28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.


A Note for Lectors:
Kudos to the NRSV translators for sticking rigorously to the Greek of v. 24–andri, not anthropo, i.e. “man” (strictly speaking), not “human being.” By doing this they left the “narrow gate” of the passage in fairly clear view, at least for the “few” (v. 14) who have the Spirit-given sense, honed by John 10:7, to know what they’re looking for. Those who read the text from lecterns or pulpits will want to do as the translators did. That will mean resisting the impulse to substitute “person” for “man” as they read. Sure, women build too. But using this moment to affirm that point, true and laudable though it be, will obscure the only crack in the entire text that gets us through to rock-solid good news. See below.

DIAGNOSIS: Shantytown

Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem) – MyChurch–Home of the Astounded
Umpteen years baptized and you’d think they’d know better, react better, do better. Fact is, they don’t. So expect the crowds–both crowds, the God-Is-Love crowd and the Grace-and-Faith-Alone crowd–still to be “astounded” (v. 28) this Sunday if and as they lend a real ear to this crashing finale to the Sermon on the Mount. Neither crowd is in the habit of anticipating such things of Jesus. The God-Is-Love crowd (GILs), besotted with the fantasy that divine love is God-Being-Nice, will bridle at the notes of extreme judgment (“Evildoers, beat it!” v. 23; “Great was its fall!” v. 27). For its part the Grace-and-Faith-Alone crowd (GAFAs) assumes as a matter of course that our Lord has got to sound like Paul in the day’s second lesson (Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22b-31). Instead it will hear him coming across much more like Moses in the first (Deut. 11:18-21, 26-28)–“Your choice: blessing or curse. Do my words and you win. Don’t do them and you lose. Big time.” For that’s what this parable of builders boils down to, isn’t it? Ask around in both crowds. To a man–a woman–they’ll tell you that it does. So, one fears, will the herd of prophets who preach to them.

Step 2: Advanced Diagnosis (Internal Problem) – Poorly Founded, Shiftily Grounded
Both crowds, of course, will be filtering these words of Jesus through the sinner’s heart which thinks of God too poorly and of itself too well. Among those listening this Sunday, who will fully credit the premise of the whole sermon, that to be poor, bereft, and feckless is the essential qualification for God’s blessing and promise (5:3-5)? Or even if we do try to credit this, who of us will catch ourselves honestly numbering ourselves with the losers? The GILs among us continue to assume that God is nice because God ought to be nice because we ourselves are nice enough to require God’s niceness (we’re in church, aren’t we?). The GAFAs, more serious about sin, will disagree with this. Yet deep down they’re still calculating that God’s grace and their faith somehow obviate the need for complete beggardom, thus allowing them to keep admiring a righteousness of their own, be it only the fact that they believe, or try to. What gives them away as end-of-the-day self-trusters is their reflexive instinct to hear the parable as a call to choose: “Do or don’t do. Build wisely on rock, foolishly on sand. You pick.” Honest beggars wouldn’t hear the parable this way because they couldn’t hear it this way. They’d know from the get-go that they had nothing to build with and no choices to make. Comes the peril: to sit there weighing options–we’ll all do it this Sunday, GIL and GAFA alike–is to build on a sandy mix of pretensions about oneself and scorn for the standards of righteousness and ability that God really does operate with.

Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem) – Down in Ruins
Hence the hurricane, i.e. these very words of Jesus that underscore how he and his Father mean business when he talks about not judging (7:1) and turning cheeks (5:39) and going extra miles (5:41) and not lusting (5:28) or getting angry (5:22). Ditto for forgiving (6:15) and eschewing mammon (6:24) and loving enemies (5:44) and, dare we forget, being perfect (5:48). Where crowds of sinners are concerned-GIL or GAFA, it matters not–this is fierce and terrible stuff. Who, hearing it, will not react as Kierkegaard somewhere predicts: “My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined.” And who, reacting that way, will not grope instantly for lesser though flashier deeds to flaunt on one’s own behalf? (“I tithe.” “I sit on five committees.” “I volunteer at three soup kitchens.” “I read the Bible daily. The Book of Concord too.”) And who, so groping and flaunting, has not put herself directly in the path of the ultimate gale, those dreadful, disowning words by which the doers of self-selected “un-law” (Gk: anomia) are all too literally blown away? Already this Sunday the winds will strike. The Lord speaks. Shingles fly, floorboards twist, and all of a sudden flimsy fabrications about self and God are tumbling down around our ears. There we’ll sit amid the ruins, openly beggared, bereft of options, utterly helpless.

PROGNOSIS: Rockville

Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution) – Up From the Ruins
What now? Well now we listen to the text all over again, though this time honestly, with the ears of real beggars. Gone is the temptation to hear it, the parable in particular, as a call to action, a summons to the able-hearted to choose and do wisely (been there, tried that, and here I sit, the fool). So let me hear it instead as a description, an account of that which has happened already, at least to me (behold the scraps of the house I built). Question: is there anywhere on earth a person who can rightly be called “a wise man” (v. 24), someone who really did the words Jesus spoke and built a house that can’t be tumbled by the buffeting demand for a righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees” (5:20)? Answer: there is. We’re listening to him. As the first crowds noted, he speaks “as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (v. 29); for unlike the scribes, who “do not practice what they teach” (23:3), he did, and still does. The cheek was turned, the extra mile walked, the mammon eschewed, the sins and injuries forgiven. It still is. Again Kierkegaard: Did all this ruin the speaker’s life? You bet. And so perfect was he amid the ruin–so perfectly for us–that on the third day God raised him from the dead with “all authority in heaven and on earth” (28:18) to keep doing the very things he keeps teaching. That means loving his enemies, succoring fools, and giving “to anyone who begs” from him, not refusing “anyone who wants to borrow” from him (5:42). All this, by the way, he chooses to do, freely and deliberately. See the episode with the leper, first thing post-sermon (8:1-3).

Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution) – Firmly Anchored
Hearing this, who in the GAFA crowd will not beg to be a beggar? Or who among the GILs will not quickly quit painting Almighty God with the brush of gooey niceness and start praising him instead for a goodness eternally anchored on the ferocious and rock-hard heights of Golgotha? A “good tree bears good fruit,” as Jesus in his sermon has earlier observed (7:17). Of trees the world has seen the best by far is the tree of the cross, and the fruit it bears is the trust in “your Father in heaven” that Jesus has been touting the whole sermon long (5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 3, 6,:8-9, 14, 26; 7:11). Notice how nowhere does he predicate that fatherly identity and character of God on choices we have made or on deeds we have done–or failed to do. To the contrary. “Your Father” makes his sun rise and his rain fall on evil and good, righteous and unrighteous alike (6:45) and stands ready to “give good things to those who ask him” (7:11), again, no questions asked. By far the best things and the ones we need most badly as we shuffle through the post-storm ruination of our own deeds and choices are the cloak of Christ’s righteousness and a place in the wise man’s house. So “ask, and it will be given to you; knock and the door will be opened for you” (7:7). For a splendid example of how to ask and what to ask for, see the day’s Psalm, 31:1-5, 19-24. Among the crowds this Sunday will be many who are praying it well, like honest beggars with a deep down thirst for genuine goodness.

Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution) – MyChurch–Home of the Astounding
Now for the miracle, a present-time version of the leper’s cleansing noted above. By the great mercy of God in Christ Jesus the astounded become astounding. Think again of those first crowds. Among them were many who eventually trotted off to “make disciples of all nations,” not only baptizing but also “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (28:19-20). So also with the crowds this Sunday. Battered they’ll have been by Jesus’ words. Away they’ll go anyway, anchored in him, held up and encouraged by his righteousness, not theirs; determined as the week unfolds to put his words into practice not because they have to (“or else!”) but simply–wonderfully– because they want to. Is this a writer’s wishful thinking? Not at all. Rummage around in any crowd of Jesus’ hearers and you’ll find examples everywhere of folks who do just this. Not that they do it perfectly. Not that they’re altogether beyond the pangs and follies that afflicted them to begin with (see 28:17b). But do it they will; and as they do it they will in point of descriptive fact “be like [the] wise man” (v. 24), their Lord who built on the rock; and many, seeing their good works, will give glory to their Father in heaven (5:16).

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  • Crossings

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