Dig Deep [The Parables of Jesus]
The Parables of Jesus: Dig Deep
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • August 07, 2016 • Anna Hillaker, Pastoral Associate for Care & Formation
Good morning! We’re so happy to have you here with us today. We pray that you find space here— space to experience God, encounter the love of Jesus, and the peace of the Holy Spirit. This morning we’re beginning a new sermon series focusing on the parables of Jesus. If you’ve been around the church for a while, most of these teaching stories of Jesus are familiar. Maybe you have heard them since you were a child. Many of them have even entered into the broader culture by way of phrases and metaphors. But as simple and familiar as these stories are, there is more to them than meets the eye. They regularly stumped his listeners and even his disciples, often leaving them completely mystified or struggling with misunderstanding. As we step into these parables, it can take a bit of imagination to see them with fresh eyes, to hear them as his disciples may have. So let’s take a moment, allow your imagination to come to life for a minute.
Our parable this morning is perhaps one of the most familiar. As I was thinking about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard teaching on this parable as an adult. Instead, it is usually relegated to children. It is in children’s Bibles and Sunday school songs, but we often fail to give it another look. I actually find the parallel between parables and children’s stories uniquely appropriate. Both are simple on the surface, but offer much more depth, richness, and complexity when we take the time to sit with them, to really hear what they have to say to us. We’re bad at this, aren’t we? Especially as adults. We suffer from a critical lack of imagination. We want the Cliff’s Notes version. We want things distilled down to their basic meaning. If you read a story to a child, they construct an entire imaginative world. If you read a story to an adult, so often they outline instead. These stories, like the stories of our childhood, sink down deep and shape us. They inform the way we see the world, the language we use, even our imaginative landscapes themselves. As many of you know, this week we lost a beloved member of our church community, Sarah Jordheim. Sarah was an artist, and she really embodied this imaginative openness to God’s work in the world. She was keenly aware of both the beauty and pain we all experience and as any of you who have spent time with her or seen her work will know, she found gorgeous ways of embodying this mentality through art. Her work as an art therapist drew those around her into this search for God’s loving and healing presence in our lives and in the world around us. So as we hear this simple parable, just four short verses, I invite you to enter into it with fresh eyes, with the posture of a child, with a posture like Sarah’s. This is Luke 6:46-49:
46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.[j] 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
I think our big temptation with this story is to assume that it is simple and straightforward. Our shorthand version usually goes something like this: faith in Jesus should be the foundation of your life. If he is, you will be safe and secure from any storm. If he is not, your life is vulnerable to total destruction. Done. Close the book. Faith equals a safe, well-built house, lack of faith equals a rickety shack. This is the shorthand we usually teach our kids as well. But is it true? Is that what this passage is really saying? [assumptions about security]
Let’s press in a little closer. Jesus says in verse 47 “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.” There is a basic progression that Jesus articulates: come, hear, act. We often forget that this parable is the end of a sermon. Jesus comes down from praying on the mountainside, and in verse 17 he begins to teach a crowd of disciples and a diverse range of people from all around the region. These people we are told have “come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.” So in Jesus’ progression the people he is addressing have already come and were eager to hear and be healed. The next step then, is to act on what they have heard. This is where Jesus brings in the parable of the builders. So why is it that we are so eager to assume that the action Jesus is talking about, that is illustrated in the work of foundation-digging, is simply faith? Jesus doesn’t say believe, he says act. We are supposed to act on his words. This makes sense with the illustration of digging a foundation and building a house. Both are highly active and take a lot of work.
But if it is not simple belief that Jesus is talking about, what is the work that he means? This is where we remember once again that Jesus is concluding a sermon that began in verse 17. So let’s take a look back at the rest of Jesus’ words to the people to see what this action might be:
- “Do not judge.” v. 37
- “Love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return.” v 35
- “Be merciful.” v. 36
- “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” v. 27
- “Blessed are you who are poor… hungry… weeping.” v. 20-21
- “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of man.” 22
- “Woe to you who are rich… full… laughing.” v. 24-25
Oh. I don’t know about you, but all of that sounds really difficult. I think we tend to shortchange the effort that is implied in this parable. We moderns tend to forget how difficult it is to build a house. We hire contractors and use heavy equipment. In Israel:
- build in the summer
- high clay content in the soil— ground is very hard during the summer. It may seem at first glance hard enough to build on.
- Digging through clay is really hard!
- Bailey— asked villagers how far they must dig down: “They tell me they must “dig down to the rock.” If that means one inch or ten feet the principle remains the same. Building must be done on the rock.”
- If you build with no foundation on rock: clay softens in rain, stones begin to settle, the walls of the house buckle and collapse.
Picture yourself with a shovel in your hand, knee deep in hard red clay. The summer sun is pounding down on you and sweat is pouring off your body. It’s also dry, and the dust raised by your shoveling sticks to your sweat and coats you with what feels like red plaster dust. Your thirsty, and all you want is a glass of water in the nearest patch of shade you can find. You desperately want to stop working, but you haven’t hit rock yet. And the trouble is, you aren’t exactly sure when you will. You glance at your neighbor, already half-way through expertly piling stones to create the walls of her house, and you start to feel the gnawing feelings of jealousy and regret. Her house looks just like yours will— eventually. So you have a choice. You can keep digging down, down, down, or you can start the much more gratifying process of building up walls. Which do you pick?
That’s a lot of effort. The work is extremely difficult and rather dangerous. To come, to hear Jesus’ words, and then to act is like this. It is like committing to digging a foundation— you dig down deep, through dangerous, arduous work, until you hit the rock suitable to be a solid foundation. I don’t know about you, but I suddenly have a lot more understanding for those who are tempted just to build on the clay. We tend to parody them as pretty ridiculous and dumb— of course you would build on the rock! But when you consider what that means, the commitment, the sacrifice, it becomes much more understandable. When you consider the work of loving your enemies, blessing those who curse you, extending mercy and compassion, and giving without any expectation of return, it becomes easier to see why not everyone who heard Jesus had the stomach to follow.
I don’t know what your vision of a well-built house looks like, but mine is cozy, well-decorated, with lots of character. It is a place of rest, of security, of peace. And while I think Jesus uses this image advisedly, we have to be careful with the expectations we import into this parable when we envision a well-built house. In our world, a home means stability. Financial security. Safety. The more time I spent in this parable, the more I began to notice a tension. The action that Jesus is calling us to seems to run counter to this image of a well-built house. In the earlier parts of his sermon Jesus call us not to financial security, but to generosity; he calls us not to erect walls of protection and exclusion, but to extend mercy, compassion, and love even to our enemies. I am starting to feel like what Jesus is offering may not be exactly what we expect. I think the picture we are offered here is more in line with these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The disciple is dragged out of his [or her] relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus.)”
But we cannot do this without faith. Faith is in fact the definition of putting all of your security into Jesus' hands. But Jesus is saying that faith is not an intellectual belief. It is a life of actually trusting him, of being willing not only to come with enthusiasm and listen eagerly, but also to begin to take action. But here’s the thing. This is really hard. Really really hard. If you’re hearing me right now and thinking that you like the idea of this, but aren’t sure if you succeed, there is hope. All metaphors have a limit, and here’s is this parable’s: none of us are asked to do this perfectly, and none of us are asked to do this alone. As Ephesians 3:20 reminds us, Jesus is he “who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” And Romans 8:11 insists that the same Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead resides in those who are digging deep for a foundation in Jesus. The Spirit that defeated death is our comforter and our guide. We are not alone. We are not left to accomplish this of our own power.
But Jesus’ ministry does call us again and again into a paradoxical life: we give away generously and trust in God’s provision; we leave behind the safety and security we try to create for ourselves and enter into a very different kind of safety; we counter hatred and fear with love instead of self-protection. Later on, in Luke 12, we are offered a vision of this very different kind of security:
22 He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?[d] 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;[e] yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his[f] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
Our work, our effort, our striving, are to be directed not toward our own ends— to our own safety and needs, but instead toward the work of the kingdom. And it doing so, in the challenging, sacrificial action Jesus calls us to, we find that we are provided for. We find that we are indeed secure.
After all, what looks like security, what looks like comfort and peace, this parable tells us, often is not. The second builder, the one who builds without a foundation, probably had a house that looked a lot like the first builder’s— comfortable and snug. It wasn’t until the rains came that the underlying insecurity was revealed. And Jesus’ language is not subtle here: “When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.” That’s a pretty dramatic catastrophe. Without the rock foundation, all the work of the builder was shown to be fruitless in providing a lasting structure for the house. The house lacked structural integrity, appearing to be solid, but lacking a foundation.
This contrast is made more profound by Jesus’ question in the first verse of the parable: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” Calling Jesus “Lord” is a strong statement. He does not use the phrase “teacher,” or “swell guy,” or “great example.” If someone is calling Jesus “Lord” they are declaring for Jesus a title of authority. If Jesus is Lord, then they are his subjects. Saying Jesus has authority in our lives but stopping at “hearing” is a position that lacks essential integrity. It is professing to be one thing, but not actually doing anything about it. We do this all the time. Maybe we bring a reusable bag to the grocery store and pat ourselves on the back for saving the planet. Maybe we donate a few items of clothing we don’t wear anymore and consider ourselves generous. I find it helpful that the parable just before this one is the parable of the tree and its fruit:
43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.
The idea here is one that was very commonly understood in the ancient world— that character is revealed by action. The idea is not that we really should be perfect and if we’re not, we’re in trouble. Nor is the idea that we are earning anything with our efforts. This pair of parables is saying something else— if your life is not starting to look like Jesus’, if we never take a step beyond hearing his words, our faith has no foundation. We are invited to come. We are encouraged to hear. We are being asked to act.
We are not living in a world that looks like the beatitudes. The poor, the hungry, the weeping do not seem particularly blessed. And those who are rich, full, and laughing definitely don’t seem to be experiencing any woe! So what can we do? What is it that we, as seekers after that enigmatic Jesus, are to do? We come, we hear, and then we act. We learn to love our enemies. We seek to extend the compassion and mercy of Jesus to those around us. We do our best to be people who do not judge others as if we are equipped to see everything clearly. We learn to take small steps, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to look like Jesus, our Teacher.
- Act. Listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit as you pray this week, and be prepared to take action, even if it is of the smallest kind— smile at someone who you find really difficult. Spend a little money that you would normally use for someone else to help someone who needs it.
- If this feels impossible for you, it’s okay. Imagine yourself as one of the crowd who has come to hear Jesus, but maybe isn’t sure if you’re ready to follow. Simply pray for Jesus to reveal himself to you in his incredible love and compassion. It is only when we have experienced this love that we are able to act in concert with it.