I can’t imagine writing a single post on this subject, nor can I image it not being extremely pervasive and convoluted with complexities. There is simply too much to say, and EVERYTHING else you talk about depends on the foundation laid here. Thus there is no way I can possibly speak to either the depths or widths of this post appropriately. Who is sufficient for such writing?
Yet, I find no one else addressing this (at least not in my sphere of relations). So I proceed trusting God will supply what my offerings lack. I encourage you to take inspiration from this post, and then pursue and research matters further for yourself. I certainly will not exhaust the topic with this post.
As I so often do, I must appeal to N.T. Wright and say I got this from him. But man years ago, I read one of his comments on the last portion of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, the part about the fool building his house on the sand and the wise man building on the rock (Mt. 7:24-27). And with just one or two simple remarks, Wright blew the doors off my theological imagination and sent me running all through the Bible with a fresh insight through which to view practically everything else, and which then began to change so very much of my understanding and my faith.
What did he say???
(So glad you asked.)
Well, without quoting him exactly, I will point out that he challenged the idea that the wise man and the fool are generic characters by which we might measure ourselves in some free-floating and generic spirituality, and for that matter, the “house” being built there in that sermon illustration is not just any old house, any old building project or just any old example of faith. Thus, even if we liken our own lives and spiritual matters to these generic ideas, we surely must not reduce them to that.
No. When Jesus takes a multitude of rebels (and rebellion-minded people) up into the hills (among rebel hideouts in rebel-hideout country) and preaches a revolutionary message to them, the “wise man” and “fool” suddenly become covert ways of speaking of Israel’s kings. And the “house” is not just any old house, as I said above, but rather covertly revealed as the temple which is built by Solomon (the wise king) and rebuilt by Herod (the fool). And by the time Matthew pens this recital, Herod’s temple is destroyed, having been built on the proverbial sand. Meanwhile, Jesus, who stands in as the New Solomon, has built his church on the rock (Mt. 16:18), which will stand forever. (It’s all rather apocalyptic, as we will soon see (read below for details).)
I must say, with Wright’s brief remarks, I had a new lease on Bible study! If Wright is on to something here, which I believe he is, then I dare not simply read the last few verses in the Sermon on the Mount and think: Oh.. Okay. So I must be like the generic wise man and devote my life to God, build my spiritual life on the foundation of God’s word, and not be like the generic fool who spurns God’s word and lives a life of hedonism, sin, and loose morals. Even if that is true, and in a sense it is, that is a sad reductionism of Matthew’s Gospel. On the contrary, suddenly the church itself has a deeper connection to the real world in which I live! Herod’s Temple is long gone! Nothing left but a wailing wall. The church is still here, and is the HOUSE of God where I can go for all the blessings anyone ever thought they would find in that temple of old, yet available still to us even today!
(Sadly, some still mourn the loss of that fool’s house to this very day. But I need not be one of them.)
HOUSE of God (A Closer Look)
But here’s what that did for me:
If Matthew can use that word “house” in such a deeply subversive and theologically loaded way, then very likely other Bible writers do it too. And wouldn’t you know it? As I go reading Mark (my personal favorite Gospel account of Jesus), I get Mark 2:1-12 and find this little “house,” this fisherman’s hut way up in Capernaum, rivals the monstrous temple Herod is building for all he is worth in Jerusalem.
And what is happening in this little house?
Well, for starts… Jesus is present there! Jesus who personifies God himself is IN THE HOUSE! And if God is in a house, then that house is temple!
What makes a temple a temple? Is it all the gold you cover it with? Is it all the fine sacramental furnishings?? Is it the really good preaching???
If God is not in there, then it is just not a real temple. But if God is in there, then it is temple no matter how counterintuitive it may seem! And Jesus, according to Mark 2:1 is IN THE HOUSE!
Suddenly, all that subversion I found in Matthew 7 is exploding off the page in Mark 2! And Jesus is teaching, and healing, and… and… and… FORGIVING SINS in this little fisherman’s hut way up in Capernaum a long way from what otherwise might seem to be the temple, Herod’s Temple – the fool’s house built on sand!
And what do the Scribes think to themselves when they find Jesus forgiving sins in this house?
They think: “No one can forgive sins but God!”
Got your decoder ring for this deep, covert, subversive level of reading Mark now???
Yeah. They didn’t teach me to read it like this in church when I was growing up. No. My youth group had pizza and a movie. My kids’ youth group had a ski trip. But “church” did not teach me this. Nor, for that matter, did my Bible instructors in college or grad school.
But when Wright gave me this little key to start unlocking doors, I found it unlocked a LOT OF DOORS!
I started chasing this idea through the Hebrew Old Testament too, just to make sure I was on a solid foundation. And what do you know? It’s there too! Go read all the passages regarding Solomon’s plans and execution for building a temple and find how often the place is referred to as the “house of God” or even just the “house.”
This kind of language holds up to the scrutiny of good Bible theology. And when you then begin looking carefully at the likely dates for the publications of the four canonical Gospels, you find that even though the church was established within weeks of Jesus’s resurrection, the Gospel accounts were all written down either right about the same time Herod’s Temple is destroyed, or shortly thereafter – and, it would appear, in large part as a response to that temple’s demise! Most of us modern, American Protestants this far removed from the time, place, and culture in which the church originally is founded just do not have a good appreciation for the incredible shockwave the destruction of that fool’s house had on God’s people! The reversal of fortune is like whiplash!
Let’s Talk “Apocalyptic” Now
In fact, in my own study, I have begun to find that “the little apocalypse” (as tradition calls it) of Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, and/or Luke 21 is not actually little at all, and the apocalypse found in those passages is not limited to them. Actually, the traditional language and style of apocalyptic becomes prominent in those brief passages, but I will argue that we need to consider just how deeply and subversively apocalyptic the rest of the Gospels are as well – though lacking the style of language.
Look at Mark 4 in particular by way of illustration. This is the parable of the soils passage, and likely Mark writes his account before Matthew and Luke, meaning he sets the pace which the others follow. This is a strange way to deliver a sermon, but Jesus begins preaching in parables that no one understands (see 4:2, 11, and esp. 34 for this). “If you don’t understand THIS parable, how will you understand all of the parables?” Jesus asks (v. 13). Thus this parable may be a key to the rest as well as free standing in its own rite.
Ever listen to a preacher who preaches all kinds of eloquent sermons but you just can’t quite seem to understand him???
Turns out Jesus preached like that.
And look closer at the language used within this passage which actually does use some of the more traditionally apocalyptic style, even if only in small doses. He speaks of a “mystery” which is “revealed” (see v. 11 again). Jesus is telling us to think apocalyptically about the parables! And apocalypse is sort of a coded way of talking especially during war time. The Nazi’s have their enigma machine for this, but Jesus has parables! And he wants his hearers to lean in, so to speak, and apply their best effort and catching his drift.
This always reminds me of the slaves in the American South singing songs like Swing Low Sweet Chariot. To the white task masters and oppressors, the song sounds like a church hymn depicting God’s salvation of lowly slaves, but to slaves in the field picking cotton, it sounds like Harriet Tubman telling her family goodbye just before she bolts for the forest in a bid for freedom! A coded way of saying, I love you, and goodbye.
I always get a little nervous talking about Bible “codes.” This is a notion which needs to be explored, to be sure, but which is ripe for horrible abuse. Beware of the abusers! Take care what you hear and what you say at this level. We are now, I think, where angels fear to tread.
But we must move forward. Carefully, to be sure, but we must move. We are not at the end of this yet.
Here’s the thing:
Mark’s Jesus preaches in parables, enigmatic/apocalyptic sermons, and without a parable he does not speak (4:11) all the way until we get to chapter 8. Then he suddenly starts “stat[ing] the matter plainly” (8:32).
And the message he preaches with which he dispenses with all the coded talk?
Jesus starts foretelling his own death, and suddenly he ain’t mincing words no more. But St. Peter ain’t havin’ it! At just the moment when Jesus drops all the parables, the codes and apocalyptic stuff, the message he preaches is so deeply counterintuitive that even his closest friends just can’t deal with it.
(Hold on to that thought! We too are going to have to struggle with the same thing when we get to the application phase of all this. And you need to have this in mind when we get there.)
Oh… and this all comes on the heels of that strange little story about healing a blind man twice! (As if Jesus can’t heal the guy right the first time! Ha!! It turns out, its not really THAT GUY’s sight that is struggling to see so much as our insight!!!) The story, even if it is historical fact, is a coded way of suggesting that you are gonna need to read Mark’s Gospel all the way through twice because it is going to have a surface meaning all through which just ain’t gonna make sense of the conclusion the first time, and which, if you are beginning to get teased by this deeper level, you will start digging for and leaning in on more diligently upon your second reading! And honestly, I could get rather exhaustive about exploring this point in order to justify my assertion, but this is just a single blog post. So now is not the time and this is not the place, but I have my own unpublished commentary on Mark which I will be happy to share upon request if you find pursuing it necessary.
Here’s where I am going now: Application Phase
I said all that so I can now say this:
I am seeing a trajectory in all of this, one which you need to struggle with like Jacob wrestling the Angel, one which points to humility/humiliation, to risk and faith, to vulnerability and suffering and away from all the things which normally attract confidence. It turns out, all that gold, that grand scale of hugeness, the patriotism first century Jews have “for God -n- country,” and all the political ploys of Herod are like the fool building his house on the sand. When the winds and the storms come, great is it’s fall. Ironically, Herod’s Temple can’t compete with a fisherman’s hut (presumably a fishy smelling place) in Capernaum! Herod’s Temple is the parody of which the church built on the rock is the real thing. The church??? The church is built on the rock, and the rock is Peter who looks and feels so counterintuitive, so humble – so humiliated!
You know… when I was a small child, a very small child, I can remember people claiming that humility is a virtue. That is long gone now. And even by the time I was a teenager pride became the virtue and humility was scorned. As a young adult, Michael Douglas told me “Greed is good” and bumper stickers proclaimed American Pride.
I’m not entirely sure I can make American blog readers understand what I am saying even if I “state the matter plainly.”
The head of the church is a crucified Savior. A Lord and King who takes a crown of thorns and is enthroned on an executioner’s cross. We follow THAT One!
We don’t put our trust in chariots and horses, in NATO alliances, or nuclear weapons. We don’t put our trust in Mammon, even if Mammon says, “In God we trust.” We are called to humble, self-sacrificial LOVE of God and one another. And ironically, THAT is a good foundation for the HOUSE of God. But I really don’t get this sense of “church” where I go, where we are neck deep in all the latest trendy comforts and novelties, and where our relevance is measured in money and political clout.
Oh… and just to make this post entirely relevant to this blog, let me say: The HOUSE of God is a good place for America’s homeless to live!