Editor's Note: Huffington Post Religion has launched a scripture commentary series, which will bring together leading voices from different religious traditions to offer their wisdom on selected religious texts. Next month we will have Muslim commentaries for Ramadan, and in September Jewish commentaries for the High Holidays. Each day this week we will have commentaries on the Gospel featuring reflections by Rev. Jim Wallis, Dr. Serene Jones, Dr. Emilie Townes, Sister Joan Chittister, and Rev. James Martin, S.J. They will all be offering their meditations on the same passage from Matthew 7: 24-27, in which Jesus says:
24Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The 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. 26And 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. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall!
What's a parable? Hard to say. Like the form itself, the word is notoriously hard to pin down. My favorite explanation comes from the Protestant Scripture scholar C. H. Dodd, who defined a parable as "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought."
In other words, a parable is a kind of poetic answer. In his ministry on earth, Jesus of Nazareth favored the parable style, particularly when responding to difficult questions. Whereas a strictly worded definition or precise answer can close down people's minds, a story, a metaphor or a parable opens them up. And that's what we see in the story of the two builders: one who builds his house on rock, the other on sand.
Unlike many other parables which left the disciples scratching their heads, this one, which comes during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel, is straightforward. If you act on Jesus's words (not just listen but act on them) you'll be like the fellow who builds on rock. Your life will be steady, unshaken, permanent. Notice that Jesus does not say that you won't encounter any storms in your life. The one who builds on rock still has to face the rains and the winds. Believing in God, and acting on Jesus's words, does not guarantee that your life will be free of suffering.
That goes against the grain of much of contemporary Christianity, which says that if you believe in Jesus your life will be one of ever-greater success and comfort. In other words, free of suffering. Just looking at the great Christians of our age shows how false that is. Did the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. suffer because he somehow had insufficient faith? Did Mother Teresa suffer because she didn't act on Jesus's words? More to the point, did Jesus suffer because his belief in God was inadequate? No. Suffering is part of everyone's life -- from the devout believer to the doubtful seeker.
But, as Jesus says in this parable, following the word of God means that the suffering will not shake you.
When I worked with refugees in East Africa in the mid-1990s I knew someone who had built his house on rock. By the time I had met him, Kabina, a refugee from Ivory Coast, had already led a difficult life. At one point, fleeing from West Africa into East, seeking a better life, he was pursued by police -- since he had no papers -- into a Kenyan game reserve. Running through the thorn trees that dotted the arid landscape, he told me, his clothes were virtually torn off. In desperation Kabina knelt in the dirt and cried out to the one who was at the center of his life: "Help me God," he said, "I have nothing!"
In time, he made his way to Nairobi, where the Jesuits sponsored him in a micro-financing project, and he was able to start a small business. Though he knew he was in danger, he said, he also knew that God was with him. Kabina would never say that his life was free of suffering. But he knew who his foundation was.
Our culture encourages all of us -- me included -- to build our psychic homes in the wrong kinds of ground. Our foundations are sometimes status, money and power. But Jesus knew the ultimate emptiness that comes when we build on those unstable soils. The same kind of sadness that came to the foolish builder, who watched his house swept away, probably cursing himself as it did so.
Christian teachings are often seen as overly restrictive. Here, however, they are shown in all their beauty. Jesus offers us parables not to browbeat us with rules, but to invite us into a life that is not without suffering, but filled with joy. The only thing we have to do is build in the right place.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America magazine, and the author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.