The imagery of homes devastated by flood waters is familiar to all people through the ages. As long as people persist in building homes by rivers there will be repeated scenes of floods destroying property. Those of us who live in the safety of the hill country (who needs flood insurance?) can’t help but wonder, “Why do the river people keep inviting such misery? Come join us on the mountain and you’ll never have to fear the floods again.” But the river people say, “What’s a little clean up every now and then? Our house is still standing. The concrete foundation didn’t crack. Besides, it was about time to renovate the old homestead anyway.” And therein lies the difference between Jesus’ day and ours: we can put houses just about anywhere we want because of the way foundations are laid. Footings are dug and concrete is poured to create the necessary foundation for homes built on the mountain or by the river. Dig deep enough and massive condos can be built right on the sandy beach, as close to the water as you want. But in Jesus’ day, you couldn’t put your house anywhere you wanted. Rather, one had to look for a rock upon which to build the house. And, in lower Galilee basaltic formations of large boulders—the hazard of farmers (Matt. 13:5)—could be found hiding under the shallow ground, especially up the mountain. But to build a house on sand near a wadi (dry-bed creeks that would swell with water during the rainy season) was shortsighted foolishness. To ignore the years of wisdom of your neighbors who built their houses on rock foundations was the height of arrogance. It was only a matter of time until everyone would see the house on beachfront property come crashing down (Matt. 7:27).
Situated on a mountain, Jesus encouraged the crowds to build their lives on his rock-solid words. No need to look anywhere else for a foundation. If they did what he said, choosing to live in the shelter of his words, then no persecution, no flood, no affliction, no trouble would overwhelm them. Even during the last days, when the earth groans under the weight of messianic woes unleashed on a troubled world, Jesus predicted his disciples would weather the storm because they chose to follow him to the end. It’s no wonder, then, that the crowds marveled at his teaching and followed him down the mountain (7:28; 8:1). No one spoke like this. Even their experts—the scribes—didn’t speak with such confidence (7:29). Jesus knew what he was talking about: to have a righteousness that exceeds scribes and Pharisees, to live with the confidence that you are blessed by God because you follow Jesus, to enter the kingdom of heaven now, to pray for God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, to look upon all creation with kingdom eyes, to love your neighbor as yourself, to love even your enemies. This is the only way to live—to enter the narrow gate leading down a difficult path that ends with great rewards for the wise. Only a fool would think otherwise. And, it will take the rest of the story to see the difference.
The way of mercy is difficult; it requires humility, forgiveness, and sacrifice. The way of judgment is easy; only words are required to condemn others. And it’s quite apparent that words are not difficult to come by when we judge others. All you need to do is read the comment section of any online news story or blog to see the vitriolic spew of arrogant judges. When we speak our minds the underbelly of humanity is easily exposed. Snap judgments and knee-jerk reactions to what others say and do are almost always hateful and abusive. What bothers me is that I see the same tendency on so-called “Christian” blogs and e-magazines. One should expect kind-hearted, gentle, and yet pointed dialogue among those of differing opinions in the Christian Blogosphere. Nothing could be further from the truth. At times I can’t tell the difference between the comment section on a story at cnn.com or christianitytoday.com. Only those who “scream” the loudest, using unmercifully cruel “zingers,” get noticed. Ad hominem attacks and arrogant non sequitur abound in the Christian world of crusaders defending the faith. The way of judgment is broad and many people find it. It’s enough to make the pure in heart wonder how anyone could see God on this path of destruction. Indeed, the comment section is no place for the meek; the humble are wise not to build their house there. Come to think of it, I’ve never read a single comment beginning with the line, “I could be wrong but . . . .” Judges don’t talk like that.
And yet, to judge judges for their judgmental words is easy to do. Everyone recognizes the bad fruit, the destructive words of hypocrites who can’t see the plank in their eye. We who love words and reverence their power—especially those of us who make a living by using words—should be the first to recognize the dangerous satisfaction that comes with condemning the hypocrisy of judges. (The irony is hard to miss, like when I preach a sermon about how faith that relies upon words is useless according to James. Shouldn’t it be the shortest sermon I ever preach, knowing that we’d all rather see a sermon than hear one?) Jesus knew that too, which is why he made it clear that offering a sermon on a mountain or merely hearing a sermon wouldn’t be enough. He had to come down from the mountain and show us all what mercy looks like, and he expected his disciples—true prophets—to follow him all the way to the end. Merely repeating what Jesus said is never enough. To see the red letters animated in living color (incarnation!), in ourselves and in others, this is the kingdom of God.