A Strong House

by Lois Tverberg

Why do you call Me, `Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great. – Luke 6:46-49

In this parable Jesus stresses the importance of obeying his words. A similar rabbinic parable from around 70 AD sheds light on Jesus’ lesson in Luke:

Said Elisha ben Abuyah: “A virtuous man who has studied the Law diligently is similar to one who builds a foundation of stones and a superstructure of bricks; though they be inundated, yet they cannot be moved. One who is not virtuous, in spite of having studied the Law, is similar to one who lays stones on a brick foundation: the smallest freshet will overturn the building.” (1)

A Strong House

It is interesting that these parables are so similar. Both address building a house that will endure a flood and the need for a strong, well-laid foundation. And the message of both is identical – that listening must be paired with obedience. The only difference is that the rabbi stresses obedience to the laws of the Torah, and Jesus stresses obedience to his own words.

Much of rabbinic literature emphasizes the importance of pairing study of the Scriptures, especially the Torah, with obedience to God’s word. A distinct feature of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6 is that he points people to himself and his own words, not just to the Torah. This is initially surprising because Jesus always lived and taught about humility. Yet he readily accepted the title “Lord” which was reserved for royalty, and he expected obedience from those who recognized who he was! It was as if his torah (“teaching,” as the word in Hebrew means), was the natural culmination of all that God taught his people through their Scriptures.

(1) Avot de Rabbi Natan, in Pirke Avot, Babylonian Talmud. An interesting fact about Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah is that although he was a very highly respected thinker that others widely quoted, rabbinic literature says that later in life he became a “heretic.” Some have postulated that he became a Christian and was rejected because of his new beliefs.

Photo: Daniel Case

Narrow Gates and Wide Roads

by Lois Tverberg

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. – Matthew 7:13-14

As we walked through Israel, the contrast was striking between the humble Jewish villages and the imposing Roman cities. The Jewish community in the village of Capernaum lived in simple basalt houses that were close together, and often were a maze of rooms that were added as the family grew. A synagogue was centrally located in the town, suggesting that faith and family were what mattered most here.

In contrast, a few miles away, the Roman city of Beth Shean had a large theater and public bath houses, and a wide central street (cardo) that was lined on both sides by ornate columns, showing visitors the glory of the Roman culture that built it. In fact, the Romans made a point of constructing enormous gates with statues to emperors and pagan gods, and widening roads for their chariots and armies. All of their construction was intended to convince the onlooker that their way of life was superior to all other ways.

Cardo Beth Shean

One scholar suggests that Jesus may have been thinking of the Roman gates and roads when he spoke about the wide roads that lead to destruction, and how alluring they are compared to the narrow old paths. He may even have been speaking of the Temple, whose gates were ornate, but narrow in comparison to the massive entrances into the pagan poleis.

As Jesus watched wealthy Gentiles arrive at the opulent city gates of Beth Shean, he knew they were literally walking into a life of futility – thinking only of wealth and politics and social standing, and worshipping lifeless gods that could not save. Jesus knew that the humble paths into the Jewish towns led to synagogues where the words of the true God could be read. And inside the narrow gates of the Temple were the courts where prayers were offered to the God who actually could answer.

Jesus, of course, was especially talking about what it is like to follow him. It is a narrow, humble path that few choose to follow, in contrast to the wide colonnades of wealth and glory that attract the rest of the world. But, surprisingly, the old, dusty road that this Rabbi trod is ultimately the path the leads to life, now and in the world to come.

Based on an article by Michael Knowles of McMaster Divinity College, in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism (2000) p 176-213