Take a couple minutes and watch this awesome LEGO© version of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish builders that someone put together.
Pretty cool, right?
The parable and the house(s)
Notice that in this video version of the parable, the houses which the two builders build are completely different. One builds a hovel on a rock—and he is wise; one builds a mansion on the beach—he is a fool. I’ve looked at many different visual adaptations of this parable and see this theme over and over again. The foolish builder either builds a lavish house, or a slovenly quick-pop-up house, etc. The wise builder, by contrast, is often depicted as building a strong and simple house. His house lasts because it is well put together and not ostentatious. The foolish builder loses his house because it is poorly built or an extravagant waste of money.
The above video well illustrates this line of interpretation (and yes, videos and pictures are interpretations). The houses of the two builders are completely opposites of each other, so the foolish builder comes off both as a critique of where he builds and as a condemnation for his ostentatious wealth as displayed in the type of house he builds.
While fun, the interpretation in the video is not actually found in the parable at all. Notice that there is no actual discussion of how the house was built or what kind of house was built. The discussion in the parable is based entirely on where the house was built. We can imply that there was some difference in the house that was built and possibly that there was more work involved in the one than the other, but even in Luke’s version (Luke 6.46-49), the focus is entirely on the foundation. Not the house.
Letting our focus drift from the foundation to the sort of house that is built—and how much work goes into building that house—can desensitize us to the heart of the parable. The parable strikes a nerve and importing the notion of wealth and sensibility into it can make it miss some of that nerve. Jesus has lots to say about wealth, but that is not the point of this parable.
You see, in this parable Jesus’ point is not to condemn wealth or laziness. The point of the contrast is not that one builder worked hard to build the house and the other did not. The contrast is what kind of foundation they built on.
Keeping the main thing the main thing
I think the element of wealth and laziness vs. industriousness which this video introduces functions to lessen the strikingness of the parable. It makes it easier to swallow. When we turn the parable into teaching the virtue of working harder and smarter, it is suddenly easy to position ourselves as the “good guy” in the parable: “I am willing to work hard and I am not wealthy, so I must be the good guy in the parable, not the bad guy.” The problem though—and this was an endemic problem in Jesus’ ministry—was not that he was dealing with people who were too lazy to work hard at following God. In point of fact, many of the religious leaders who opposed Jesus most vociferously were extremely devoted to religious life. Jesus’ parable challenges their understanding not of how hard someone must work to get into the Kingdom of God, rather of how that work must be oriented.
There is a big part of us that likes the message “work harder, work smarter, and you will enter the Kingdom of God.” The problem, though, is that Jesus doesn’t say “work harder.” This parable is not about how hard the builders work, but about where they work. If you work hard building on sand, when the flood comes, whatever you built, no matter how hard you labored at it, will come crashing down. By contrast, if you work hard building on the rock, it will stand. The outcome is not based on how hard you work—it is assumed that you will be working at building your life. The outcome is based entirely on where you build.
Jesus does not call us to work harder. I should say, Jesus calls us to something more profound than working harder. Working hard is assumed. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t just tell us to work smarter. Again, that is assumed. Jesus challenges the very foundational principles of our lives. Where is our hope? What are we banking on to bring us through in the end? What are we turning to to find meaning for our lives? What is love and how do we show it to other people? These are the sorts of foundational principles of life which Jesus challenges.
You are building your life-house on something, and you are working hard at it. Jesus challenges us to be sure that the hard work we are doing is on the right building site.