BUILDING SANDCASTLES AND LIVING IN THEM
It is human nature to cut corners, to try and get away with as little as we can. God values human freedom so much, he allows us to do this, but there is always a reckoning.
Today’s health and safety culture is the subject of great mockery, skewered regularly by the tabloid papers and Top Gear for infantilising mature adults. One aspect of the debate which rarely gets aired is the way the public’s increasing resort to compensation claims makes more regulation a sensible response to keep insurance costs down. In other words, if there is an insidious culture of health and safety, the public must bear some responsibility for it. The foolish man who built his house on the sand in Matthew 7 surely would not have obtained planning permission today for his reckless venture.
And if he had gone ahead and built the house on the sand anyway, when the building collapsed, may have sued the local council for letting him build it without their consent.
The parable had unanticipated resonance in the winter of 2013-14, as a relentless sequence of Atlantic storms battered the coastlands and floodplains of Britain, affording us a sobering perspective on its meaning. The story of the house on the rock might, however, be told a different way to developed economies. The parable of the wise and foolish consumer would do nicely. You want to buy a bookcase and the options are a ready-made pine version from a classy department store or the flat-pack self-assemble version you view online. There is no contest over price; unfortunately there is no contest over convenience either, once you unpack the materials. Several parts are missing; the pencil-line drawings on the leaflet bear no resemblance to what you have in front of you and the twenty minutes it is supposed to take to assemble mysteriously lengthens to two hours, at which point you give up and call it a score draw. It may have been Lenin who coined the term ‘violent struggle’, but I doubt he had in mind the masses grappling with their Argos bookcases. Eventually you assemble a leaning tower of Pisa, which is fine as long as you don’t try to balance any books on it.
It is human nature to cut corners, to try and get away with as little as we can. We know the risks, but it’s a game which seems to be hardwired into us. If the awkward consequence of a convenient choice can be deferred, the temptation to make that choice feels irresistible. The failure of the foolish man in this parable lies here. The house didn’t fall down because it was built on the sand; it collapsed when the storm came. In the modern world we have made an illusory success of building our lives on sand and we are not aware how precarious the foundations are. Growing wealth, good social provision and personal insurance means we can live securely cushioned from many of life’s imagined storms. But we are frequently only deferring the risks.
The desire to own more things leads people to take on levels of household indebtedness that previous eras would have blanched at, comfortably surpassing one trillion pounds. The last decade’s global economic crash swept away the house we had collectively built on sand, but there is little sense that we have learned any life-changing lessons from it. Instead we wait for the return to how things were before the crash, lovingly assembling another structure on sand.
Meanwhile a debate rages over climate change. Is it happening or isn’t it? If it is, is there a human dimension to it? A large majority of scientific evidence may answer both questions in the affirmative, but there are those who deny it and public opinion seems to be swayed more by prevailing media opinion than professional science. In Russia, warmer weather has resulted in the subsidence of houses once built on durable permafrost which is now beginning to melt. Who needs a parable about a house on the sand with living testimony like this?
Wherever we stand on the issue of climate change, there is a growing sense that we live for the now rather than for the welfare of the generations who succeed us; we like to build our houses on sand as long as someone else is living in them when the day of reckoning comes. There is precedent in scripture. When King Hezekiah was warned by the prophet Isaiah that the nation and its possessions would be deported to a foreign country, he embraced the word of God as good. ‘Why not’, he thought, ‘if there will be peace and security in my days?’
There is, nevertheless, an inescapably personal dimension to this parable of the wise and foolish men. We have a choice: to build our life on Christ’s word or on our own word. It was when the foolish man’s environment changed and the storm came, that everything went wrong. We each make every effort to control our personal environment because it is the only sphere within which we can be sure of projecting the image we want of ourselves. The truest test of character is made when a crisis emerges and we lose control of what is happening. And by crisis I mean anything on a scale from losing your car keys when you’re in a rush to being told you have terminal cancer. Most people are poised when they are in charge; it is only when they are threatened that you learn what they are made of, what they value in life.
Scripture gives us the coldest example of this in the last hours of Jesus’ life. Until them he had seemed so utterly in control of his environment, calming storms and restoring the dead to life. The disciples must have felt as safe as children tucked up in bed. Yet as the net closes around him, and the disciples begin to sense a growing passivity by Jesus in the face of evil, they become so unnerved that not one could stand by his side as the arrest is made. As St. Paul says: ‘if any one thinks he is strong, let him take heed in case he falls’.
The clue to building a house on the rock of Jesus is found in the preceding verse of Matthew where Jesus says: ‘not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven…On that day many will say to me “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you, go away from me”.
Much human behaviour is simply an imitation of another person and Jesus had his fair share of hangers-on who copied what they liked the look of. But their flattery was less than friendship and they received a painful rejection. Only those who do the will of God are received openly. And those who know the will of God are more likely to be found among those who read scripture, pray regularly and listen intently. The people who called him ‘Lord, Lord’ did not stop to listen whether he answered them back; the ensuing silence went unnoticed.
We can skimp on prayer and Bible study and, as we grow more insensitive to God, it feels like we can cope just nicely. Yet by their very nature, crises erupt when we do not expect them and we realise too late we have squandered the spiritual resources we should have amassed. The wise man was not spared the storm which is something we easily overlook. God does not spare the faithful from the human condition, which is to experience pain and suffering as well as health and happiness, but when adversity strikes, the one who does the will of God can find an inner place of poise even as the wind and the rain batter the house.
In the end, what endures are not the properties we buy, the extensions we build or the possessions we accumulate, but the relationships we form with God and through him, with one another. Everything else can be swept away and will be swept away ultimately. It is one of the mysteries of human life that so many run the risk of not investing in the one thing which lasts. Rather like the motorway driver who knows the third lane is about to disappear but can’t resist driving at top speed towards the advancing cones in the hope he’ll have space to swerve in to the middle lane at the last second, they hurtle down a lane which has no future. It is human impulse to take the risk; a human trait to prefer foolishness to wisdom in the only thing that really matters in life.
We can build our house on the sand or we can build it on the rock. God values human freedom so much he will give us planning permission for either. Responsibility for the outcome, however, lies entirely with us.
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