Thursday, October 15, 2009

A New Reading of the Wise & Foolish Builders

Isn't it great when you read a passage of Scripture from a new perspective? Especially when you discover the way the passage was supposed to be read all along?

My buddy Mark did this for me last year for Jesus' teaching on money & rendering unto Caesar. "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and render unto God what is God's." Well, Caesar's coin had Caesar's image on it. So what is God's image on? Our entire being. We are made in the image of God. Therefore render ourselves unto God. Brilliant!

(That reminds me. I miss those ads for Guinness beer. "BRILLIANT!")

It's kind of amazing the things that shape your view of texts without you even realizing it. For me, reading the story of the wise & foolish builders at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew chapter 7) always felt like another installment of "Goofus & Gallant."

Does anyone else know who Goofus & Gallant are? Or am I the only geek who grew up reading Highlights Magazine? I hope not. I was the only one at Church on Sunday, but maybe someone out there read it, too. I always made sure to catch each monthly entry of Goofus & Gallant. I'll let Wikipedia sum it up for you:

First appearing in Highlights in 1948, Goofus & Gallant is a cartoon feature created by Garry Cleveland Myers and drawn by Anni Matsick. The strip features two contrasting boys, Goofus and Gallant. In each cartoon, it is shown how each boy would respond to the same situation. Goofus chooses an irresponsible path, while Gallant is kinder. Goofus and Gallant's primary function is to teach children basic social skills.

It's entirely as simple as it sounds. Goofus is a doofus. And Gallant is valiant. Goofus had unkempt hair and always did the wrong thing. Gallant's hair was never out of place, and he always did the right thing. It made you want to be like Gallant.

There is a way that this simple form of propaganda is used in one of the most beloved TV shows today. Its "The Office!" Just look at Andy Bernard (douchey), Dwight Schrute (nerdy), and Michael Scott (pathetic). Especially Michael Scott (he's especially pathetic). Who wants to be like them?! Nobody, that's who. You'd rather be like Jim: funny, cool, likeable. And so watching "The Office" is rather like watching a social morality play that teaches adults basic social skills.

And innocent little you thought you were just enjoying fun entertainment. :)

So, I always read Goofus & Gallant (or Michael Scott & Jim Halpert) into the story of the Wise & Foolish Builders from Matthew 7. But, thanks to this Alan Perkins sermon, I'm now convinced that this was wrong.

Why? Because the foolish man did quite a few things right. I mean, he did actually BUILD A HOUSE. Have you ever considered that? I've never even tried to build a house. It takes a lot of hard work and technical skill. Not that I'm against hard work. It's just that with my complete lack of technical skill, it'd make the hard work even harder, right?

So evidently, even the foolish builder was an energetic, diligent, and skilled hard worker. It's no easy thing to put up a house. I think it's important that we grasp what the true contrast is here. It's not a contrast between someone who can build & someone who can't build. Or a hard worker & a lazy worker. Jesus isn't knocking the foolish builder for his lack of skill or work ethic. Think about it: no power tools or Home Depot. He probably would have had to carry stone, and cut wood, and form bricks out of clay. It probably took him weeks & months of back-breaking labor. And he didn't even quit: the foolish man persevered until the structure was complete.

And THAT is what really makes the story so heart-breaking: because the good, hard-working builder made one incredibly foolish decision. So that in the end, all of his hard work was lost.

It's easy for us to confuse activity with godliness. We assume that if someone is hard-working and energetic, or sincere and diligent, that they're ultimately probably a "good person." And that's not always the case. And that's the point of the passage immediately preceding the wise & foolish builders:

Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?" Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"

The issue here is foundation. What is your life centered on? Is it your faith? Or do you consider your faith to be more like a slice of your life, along with work and entertainment and leisure and so on? Because it's how you answer those questions that is going to be determinative for how you fare when the storms of life arrive. Because you can build a really nice life for yourself, and have it all ripped apart if it's not on a firm foundation.

By all indications, the foolish man's house was a good, solid structure. That's not the way I always thought of it. In Goofus & Gallant terms, I always kind of pictured Gallant's beautiful brick house up on the firm ground, and Goofus' rickety-looking shanty down on the beach.

But that's wrong.

By all appearances, the foolish man was well-off -- his house was well-built. It didn't fall down right away. It wasn't obviously defective. As long as the weather was fair, it was perfectly adequate.

But then the storms came. And then it collapsed.

You know, it's possible to accomplish a great deal in this world without Christ at the center of your life. You can build a business or a career. You can make money. You can have a reasonably good marriage & develop a wide circle of friends. You could even be a big brother or adopt a 3rd world baby. Whatever. You can do many big, important, impressive, and admirable things. But if your life isn't built on a firm foundation, eventually a storm will come along that will bring it all tumbling down.

It all kind of comes down to one question really: who is at the center of your life? What's the foundation upon which everything else is built? Who's the source & wellspring of all that flows out from yourself? If it's anything other than the God-made-man who we call Jesus, then I've gotta level with you: you're in for a world of pain.


Emily :) said...

Love this Philip! (BTW,I lived for Highlights.) :)

Anonymous said...

Great post, III. It's always a struggle to make believers and non-believers alike understand the concept that Christianity is not the dividing line between being a "good person" and a "bad person."

I think this is misunderstood by Christians so often because we misunderstand how truly sinful we are, and that, morally, we are in the same boat as everyone else.

I think this is misunderstood by non-believers primarily because of the results the Bible promises. Rewards are for good people and punishment is for bad people, right?

In the end, all is centered around God's identity, just as you pointed out about the coin and Caesar. God is the be all, end all, and He Himself is our great reward. To misunderstand this is to miss the point entirely.

III said...

Pride is such a pernicious thing, isn't it Lloyd? Appreciate the comment.

Appreciate your's, too, Barnabeus

Dan said...

Good post, Philip. That part about activity not being the end-all really hit home. Living in New Orleans, I've seen church group after church group come through here doing some amazing recovery work. Those groups have made such a difference to people, on the condition of their lives and property. But, now that the dust has kind of settled, I don't get the feeling that the spiritual condition of the city has been significantly impacted. A lot of the activity focused on the physical, not necessarily the spiritual condition of the people they were serving.

Now I don't mean to sound ungrateful or overly cynical, and I don't know what seeds may have been planted by all the work, and it was certainly worth doing, but your post sort of reminded me that activity alone won't get people to heaven. We have to seal the deal as well, let people know we serve in the name of Christ, not just because we want to help people in need, but because we believe there is a God in heaven who loves us, and we serve because he has given us so much love, and we want to share it with others as well. That's the foundation on which I hope we can rebuild homes and lives here.

Mark said...


I'm flattered that you remembered my other post. That's one I'm most proud of.

I like what you've done here, and you're absolutely right that we tend to gloss over it because it is familiar. Who knows how long the construction of a house would have taken? Who knows the expense or the effort?

What a tragedy to spend so much hard work on something only to lose it all.

Great post.