“…those who come to me and hear my words and do them, I will show you what they are like: they are like those building a house, who dig deep, and lay the foundation upon rock…” (Lk 6)
The saying of Jesus comparing those who receive His Word to builders is about foundations, “first principles” in the language of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, or roots in the organic imagery of the parable of the Sower and the Seed. Coming as it does in Luke’s gospel shortly after the naming of his select followers and his first public discourse on the mount, this saying is an important instruction about discipleship and how to get it right from the beginning.
For one who comes from a family of carpenters, builders, and architects, in which two of my brothers have designed their own houses and one of them has built his almost by hand, a family in which any one of my six sisters is as likely to be as comfortable with a tool box or shovel as with a cook book—which is certainly not to dismiss their egg and potato soufflés—these words about how to contract a job have particular resonance. Parent tapes are easy to down-load: “Measure twice; cut once”; “A half-way job is worse than no job at all.”
Jesus’ instructions to his followers seem to contain the perfectly good advice that what is important, like the trajectory of a person’s life and the response to Christ’s invitation to work for the Kingdon, should be grounded on a solid foundation: things like lasting and durable values and deep experience (many of Jesus’ parables speak about “wise vs. foolish”: wise being deep and solid and time-tested; foolish being fleeting, fashionable, and temporary). It seems like only good sense for Jesus to counsel his disciples to avoid what is simply the latest fashion and to build the house on firm ground with the same care that one might plant seed in good soil.
But, as with most of Jesus’ parables, there is an alternate reading. There is also a contrasting theme in the gospels that would urge us to trust God rather than ourselves, not to seek to control the outcome of our efforts, for we have not here a lasting city-- certainly not one that is entirely subject to our power and will. The sower in the familiar parable about the planting of the Word of God, remember, scatters the seed in all directions, seemingly careless in allowing the precious germ of life to fall among thorns, along the wayside, or on the road where it gets trampled under foot. The moral of that story seems to be: “Don’t worry, it will all get sorted out in due time.” And the implication is that the energy of God’s creative power is so prodigious that it should not be doubted and can even afford to be wasted. Perhaps rather than trusting our own plans and care in building (or planting, or parenting, or selecting a health insurance plan), we should face the fragility of our lives, live gratefully, and depend on the providence of God? I am reminded of the futility of the farmer in another parable who knocks down his barn and builds a bigger and presumably stronger one, all for naught since even his own life is beyond his control and will soon be taken from him.
I smile as I write this, recalling my response to seeing the buildings along the roads in the neighborhood where I made my retreat in July on the coast of Massachusetts. Like many Jesuit retreat houses, the one where I stayed is an old property, not much improved from the Depression days of its splendor and gone a bit threadbare in spots. Still a beautiful location for prayer, but certainly more spartan than the grand trappings of the Boston “gold coast” that surround it today. Just across the harbor, for example, the new “home”, built as if from a suburban kit to replace the stone and brick building that stood on the property before, commands the harbor and is connected by a bridge to the mainland like a medieval fortress. Many more summer “homes”, some less and some more ostentatious, are hidden back in the woods and gardens along the lanes where I walked and rode my bike during retreat. One of the things that struck me was that there was so little evidence of people “at home” there. No lights from the windows in the evening, no children or toys in the yard, only gardeners and workers patching the driveways and a few well-groomed dogs. Not that I wasn’t just a little bit jealous, and I imagined that if I had been born to one of those manors, at least I would be home. In fact, it would probably take the sheriff to have me removed!
I was reminded of a saying by Bill McKibben that in today’s culture, the appearance of the second home is testimony to the failure of the first, and I suspected that the buildings that were so conspicuous and could be mistaken for country clubs designed in a style I call “neo-mortuary” might really be an effort to put up a defense against the unavoidable outcome of life—read, death. In a sense, they could literally be seen as “funeral homes”: elaborate and defiant gestures toward the inevitable consequences of creatureliness. Rather appropriate reminders during my retreat of the meditations from St. Ignatius’ first week of the Spiritual Exercises, as well as some of the key meditations of the Kingdom and Two Standards. I smile because my encounter with what I regard as such excess, which I can easily renew by visiting the far-reaching suburbs of even the most modest of Midwestern cities, usually triggers the same spontaneous rant that it did during my retreat: “worst” Omaha, where they cut down all the trees and name the streets after them!
But I must admit that I am deeply torn. I like to have things well prepared, planned in advance, my itinerary carefully charted out, my oil changed and tires rotated, my materials durable and archival. I hate to leave a mess behind or get caught unprepared. I admire striking buildings.
In the end, as I have learned in retreats before, the words of Jesus challenge me not to be more fearful of failure, but to look more carefully to the one who really is doing the building. In the parable, I am not the contractor of my life, I am but one tool, and a pretty simple one at that. My temptation is to see the project of discipleship as a lasting monument to myself, my legacy, the collected archive of my life’s work, what will be created for the admiration of others or left behind to posterity. My prayerful response to the principle and foundation of my life is to seek to accept the gift of life humbly, one day at a time, not as an entitlement or reflection of my personal worth, but in deep gratitude to the God who gives it.
So where does good sense and careful planning lead to excessive reliance on myself? At what point does wisdom and maturity give way to my temptation to foolish vanity? And, perhaps most importantly, when might prudence and conventionally sound judgment need to yield to the risks to which I am called to build the Kingdom of God?
In the words of Ps. 127: “If the Lord does not build the house, those who do build labor in vain.”
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