Matthew 7:24-27

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 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.  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. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

 

Exodus 3:4-5

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

 

I would like to begin by saying that I do not believe faith need be based on any kind of foundation.   I think that the teaching of Jesus regarding the wise man building his house upon the rock has misled people into thinking that some strong foundation is required for faith to last through difficult times. Part of the problem lies in the way the word faith is used. Regardless of what people say about faith, the way they use the word in sentences seems to suggest that it is a kind of intellectual assent or loyalty to certain prescribed propositions. This makes it consistent with the way philosophers of religion use the word faith and why most of them believe that faith needs to be grounded in something that justifies the holding of religious beliefs (belief also being a word that means intellectual loyalty to prescribed propositions).

But is Jesus making such a claim in his analogy about the wise and foolish builder? It would seem that he is. Wise people build on strong foundations while foolish people build on weak foundations. I agree that Jesus is perhaps saying something like, “don’t build your lives, hopes and dreams on something you think is unshakable but really isn’t.” Unfortunately, the most obvious example would be the metaphor of building houses on good foundations verses poor foundations. But if Jesus is really talking about the meaning of lives, hopes and dreams and we remember that the building metaphor is just that, a metaphor, then Jesus is really trying to prevent us from building our lives, hopes and dreams on idols that come with the promise of being rock solid.

When Moses appears before God at the burning bush, God instructs Moses to take off his sandals because Moses is standing on holy ground. I agree with how Walter Brueggemann describes holy ground in his commentary on Exodus found in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume 1:

Second, the commanding voice in the bush asserts an awesome limit, caused by the reality of God’s holiness (v.5). The key term is holy. The voice in the fire asserts that God’s own preemptive presence is here. The presence transforms everything at hand, including the place and the conversation. The crushing, awesome reality of God’s holiness requires respectful distance. The removal of the sandals is an act of willing submission. The place has been transformed by the speech and presence of God. Moses is now taken up into the sphere of that awful holiness.[1]

Here, the holy ground does not refer to something like bedrock or solid ground or firm foundations, it refers to the earth shaking, unstable and even violent potential of the holy unleashed upon the earth. It is a holiness that challenges our foundations and our intellectual assertions or justifications. It is this ground upon which one “builds” one’s life, hopes and dreams, rather than the false prophet ground presented to us as solid rock. Jesus’ analogy does not contradict this kind of holy ground, but it has misled western theologians and philosophers of religion into believing that faith requires a foundation that cannot be moved.

Of course all ground can be moved, and that is exactly the point. The earth’s tectonic plates shift, volcanoes erupt, earthquakes and tsunamis render all ground shakable, and this is true of the wise man’s rock in Jesus’ analogy. Unless the rock of the wise man is really not rock at all, but an awareness of the fragility and vulnerability of our lives, hopes and dreams.

Pema Chodron makes the point beautifully in her chapter “Hopelessness and Death” in When Things Fall Apart. She says that “hopelessness is the basic ground” meaning that groundlessness is the basic hope. She means giving up hope that we can escape or deny fragility, vulnerability or mortality. [2] Believing that our beliefs have solid justification leads to arrogance, denial and cruelty. In fact she says, “a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.”[3] I do not think Jesus could have said it better. In fact, he could have said it better had he not used the misleading analogy of building on rock. His point remains true however, and it is Pema’s point, that the only unshakable ground upon which to build one’s life, hopes and dreams is the acceptance that all ground is shakable. As long as you think otherwise, you will fall apart when trials and hardships come, which of course they will, because that is what it means to be a human being.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume 1(Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1994) p.712

[2] Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart (Shambhala: Boston, 2000) p. 42

[3] Ibid, p. 40

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