People of a certain age who grew up in going to Sunday School likely sang “the wise man built his house upon the rock,” using the hand motions and visual aids. I had a Sunday School teacher who had a paper house, and when the “rains came a tumbling down” we would blow on the house and knock it over. She also had a brick decorated to look like a house, so when the “rains came a tumbling down” we tried to blow down the brick house, probably hyperventilating in the process.
Because of this popular children’s song, we all know this very simple parable. In fact, the details of the parable are not difficult to understand at all. Jesus is quite clear, if you hear his words you much make the choice to either do them or not. The one who does them will stand, the one who does not will suffer a terrible disaster. Taken as a conclusion to the whole Sermon on the Mount (and the whole book of Matthew), the wise person will enter into the Kingdom of God at the final judgment, the foolish person will be left outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In fact, for those who have heard the teaching of Jesus, there are only two ways: to do the words or to refuse to do them. This “two ways theology” is based on the covenant in Deuteronomy or the wisdom literature (Psalm 1, for example).
Perhaps the children’s song has taken the edge of this parable. Jesus says you are either wise, doing his words, or foolish, not doing his words. As Scot McKnight has observed, this parable is “one of the severest in the entire Bible” (Sermon, 275).
The wise builder builds on the rock. Modern readers tend to think of a wise person (φρόνιμος) as possessing wisdom, sometimes mixing up wisdom and intelligence. But Jewish wisdom literature focuses on the ways in which a wise person acts in a particular situation.
For Matthew, the wise person is the one who responds properly to Jesus and his teaching. Matthew 10:6, the wise person is able to recognize a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Matthew 24:45 the wise servant hears what his master has said and is prepared. In Matthew 25:2, wise bridesmaids are prepared for a long wait.
Building one’s house on a solid foundation is simply the wise way to build a house. Often pastors will discuss the technical aspects of building a house on a solid foundation which goes down to the bedrock. To a large extent, this is all superfluous, since the point is the wise person builds a proper house in the proper place so that the house lasts for a very long time.
The wise person builds a house on a proper foundation, and as a result the house will be able to withstand the winds and storms.
In contrast to the wise person, the foolish builder builds their house on the sand. Why would anyone build on sand? They are foolish! Foolishness is not stupidity, but rather a conscious decision to reject the good and choose the wrong. In the Proverbs, foolishness is always a choice to not do the wise thing. The person knows what the right way to do things, but they choose to do otherwise. Think of every lazy thing you have done, but it worked. You need a screwdriver, but that is out in the garage so you use a butter knife instead.
When the storm comes, the wise builder’s house endures, the foolish builder’s house is a spectacular failure. The house of the foolish man is not damaged, but utterly destroyed. In the context of the Sermon on the Mount and almost all of the parables in Matthew, this anticipates the final judgment. The foolish person just does not suffer a slight setback, he is completely wiped out when the storm comes.
Although we tend to think of the Middle East as dry and arid, there are often torrential rains which cause flash floods. On November 5, 2015, torrential rains in Amman, Jordan caused flash floods in the city, sweeping away cards in the street. (Here is a video of a flash flood at Wadi Qumran).
Since Jesus is making a contrast between the wise and foolish, the disaster is what would be expected based on Jewish wisdom literature. In Proverbs, foolishness is always self-destructive (10:25; 12:7; 14:11). When Jesus told this parable, he may have had any one of these lines from Proverbs in mind. Any Jewish listener who were given a basic education in the synagogue would have known these sorts of verses, these are the sorts of verses a Jewish parent might quote when dealing with their rebellious teenager!
The challenge of Jesus is clear in this parable: the wise person build son the foundation of Jesus’s teaching beginning with the Sermon on the Mount. The foolish person will not build on that foundation. Jesus never promises his followers will not endure troubles in this world, the storms fall on both the wise and the foolish. But the wise are equipped to endure the storms of this life. These storms are not dystopian persecutions or attacks by satanic forces, but just the normal kinds of personal disasters we all face because the world is fallen: personal betrayals, financial setbacks, disease, death,
This is a challenge to the stereotypical contemporary American Christian who has a shallow faith and is quick to blame God when life is difficult.