Sometimes our collective experience of a current event enables us to hear a text of Scripture with a fresh vividness. Notice how the experience of Hurricane Katrina helps us hear afresh today’s Gospel reading, the final words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
Every one who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like the wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined. Matthew 7:24-27.
Some of the engineers who examined the breached levees in New Orleans found that some of those structures were indeed built on sand and were breached not because of the force of the surge but because of the poor foundation. Well, anyway, reports like this and the photo and video imagery that accompanied them, help us feel anew the power of Jesus’ images.
The choice of a house has archetypal power. People who write about the significance of dreams say that in a dream a house represents your life; and the quality of that house — ordered, say, or chaotic, dark, well-lighted, messy, decorated — represents the quality of your life. It is clear that the houses (built on sand or built on rock) represent the possibilities on one’s life. Egyptian pharaohs, with no other foundation available but sand (!), built the most solid structures they could, those impressive pyramids.
Jesus, of course, was not recommending pyramids. What does Jesus say makes the difference between a life headed for disaster and a life that is solid? Doing the will of God, according to what he has just laid out in the Sermon on the Mount: curbing your anger, reconciling, curbing your lust, being faithful in marriage, speaking with straightforward honesty, responding to hostility with nonviolence, even loving the enemy—in all things doing to others what we would have them do to us. Anything else, he says, is like building a house on sand. And what does it take to live like that? It takes a village—well, at least it takes a community of faith, who know that they need a power greater than themselves to do it. That’s why Matthew put the Lord's Prayer smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.
Those British Jesuits saints we celebrate today, Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, could have built stunning careers had they conformed to the Elizabethan heresy. Campion could have built a life of high political honor and Southwell might have built a literary life that rivaled Shakespeare’s (even what little he wrote prompted the Bard’s imitation). Deciding that such careers would have been building on sand, they chose to risk all for service of Jesus according to the lights of the consciences, and wound up hung, drawn and quartered—and now hailed as saints of the Church.
These examples can help us think about what we are trying to build with our lives, and on what kind of foundation.
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