I continue into the series of introductory excerpts from book Right Parables Wrong Perspectives. These are used with the permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. You can get your discounted copy here or on Amazon. Today’s excerpt from pp. 10-13 talks about the basic elements of the Luke 6.43-49 parable itself.
Telling It Normal: Key Elements in the Story
43 For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from brambles. 45 The good person out of the good treasury of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasury produces evil, for his mouth speaks from what fills his heart. 46 Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and don’t do what I tell you? 47 Everyone who comes to me and listens to my words and puts them into practice—I will show you what he is like: 48 He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep, and laid the foundation on bedrock. When a flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the person who hears and does not put my words into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against that house, it collapsed immediately, and was utterly destroyed!
People with ADD often have other issues associated with the dysfunction. In my case, it’s mostly my dyslexia. When I’m tired, it’s hard for me to make sense of words, whether spoken or written. For others, they can’t stay on course in a single conversation because their minds are racing like a Formula One car around the track moving from scene to scene. Words however are important. Jesus here dealt with words.
The section of Luke 6:43–49 is a conclusion to Jesus’ speech (I will discuss the context of Jesus’ whole speech at the end of this section). Jesus’ speech concluded with two images: the fruit-bearing tree and the parable of the good builders. First, Jesus started with the fruit-bearing tree. He started with the negative stating that no good tree bears bad fruit. The words describing both the good and the bad are interesting. The “good” could describe something with good and healthy appearance, in an agricultural sense. The word “bad” denotes bad quality.
After Jesus spoke about the usefulness and health of trees, he began talking about humans. Since humans aren’t trees, Jesus used other Greek words for “good” and “evil” in Luke 6:45 that denote moral quality in humans. In other words, Jesus was saying that quality of a human would be analogical to quality of tree and its fruit. Thus, the morally good person who possesses a clear vision would bear fruit that benefits, much like figs and grapes would help the farmer. The morally bad person who possesses a muddled vision (with a deadly plank in his eye) would bear fruit that benefits no one. What then did Jesus consider the source of this goodness or evil? Luke 6:45 says that the quality of the person came from the heart.
The language he used to describe the heart resembles that of storage. No reasonable person puts rubbish in his storage. The rubbish belongs in the trash pile. The storage is for beneficial treasures one wishes to keep. Based on the metaphor, one’s heart ultimately brings forth good or evil words. Jesus concluded with a parable of the builder. This parable is a reinforcement of the previous one, especially regarding good work. This conclusion demonstrated to Jesus’ disciples that now that they had listened to Jesus, they needed to perform the compatible good work. The problem the builder story wants to address is in Luke 6:46. Many called Jesus “Lord” but didn’t do what Jesus said. The word “call” is in the Greek present tense (something different from the English present tense), denoting either a continuous or habitual action. In other words, Jesus was asking, “Why do you keep calling me Lord and do not (as a habit) do what I tell you to do?” The repetition of “hearing” in Luke 6:47 and 6:49 shows the context of the discourse for the disciples. These disciples were hearers, but were they doers? Now, they must perform what they heard.
We must read the saying on two levels. In Jesus’ time, before people really recognized his entire status, he was viewed as a respected teacher. The word for “lord” did not have to mean what it means for the church later. Within the story of Jesus in Luke, the repetition of “lord” shows the highest form of respect toward a revered holy man who could also perform miracles. For Jesus’ disciples, the saying could mean something like “Why do you keep on claiming that I’m your most revered mentor and not do what I tell you?” The logical incompatibility between the claim and the action is the point of the saying. For the churchly reader however, the saying would grow into a true understanding of all that Jesus meant to the church. Thus, readers should obey even more and not less, knowing all that they knew about Jesus in retrospect.
A careful reader will notice that in the modified telling of the story at the beginning of this chapter, I took out the storm that hit the houses. It is important to note that the missing storm makes what Jesus said somewhat less harsh. So what if people heard but didn’t do? There were no consequences (i.e., no storm). At worst, their laziness just made them bad people. However, there were consequences. The emphasis shouldn’t be taken away from the consequences. When a person did what Jesus taught, he would be like a man who has built deep foundation and remains unshakeable in the face of the storm-induced flood (Luke 6:48). Commentators interpret this storm in various ways, from divine judgment to the general storms of life. Within the close context of Luke 6:22–23, 26, 28, the storm seems to be persecution from enemies. What then happens if a disciple does not live by Jesus’ principles? He would be like a man who did not build a house on proper ground. Building a house on bad ground would be an amateurish mistake. Especially in denser cities, the people would build and cluster together. The chance of building on bad ground would be fairly low because people watched for where others built and then would build close to those areas. Thus, Jesus was talking about a near impossible situation unless it happened in a rural farming community. The well-learned disciple wouldn’t make such a mistake but maybe some did. If built on bad ground, the house would not be able to stand when storm water washed away its foundation (Luke 6:49). Thus, when dealing with a tough season, a person who followed Jesus’ principles would be able to withstand the persecution or opposition that would come (Luke 6:22).
What exactly did Jesus teach or what did they hear? For the answer, we need a broader understanding of what Jesus just taught within the event of the story. Let me summarize. In Luke 6:20–26, Jesus talked about disciples being aware of their place in the world as the persecuted “others.” In Luke 6:27–36, Jesus talked about how disciples were to react to oppression: with love and generosity. In Luke 6:37–42, Jesus talked about disciples as those who would be accurate and fair in judging while making sure they did not commit the same error. These are the basic teachings of Jesus, and he expected all those who called him Lord to follow them with love, generosity, fairness, and integrity.
While the fruit bearing metaphor speaks primarily of good work, the builder story extends further to the stormy part of living on this earth as disciples. Jesus was not contrasting a believer with an unbeliever. He was talking to his disciples. The builder story is in some ways more severe than the fruit tree metaphor because safety and lives are at stake with buildings. Safe buildings provide shelter. Shoddy buildings create liability and even death. Somewhere, some disciples will build their houses on the bad foundation of inconsistent lives, while claiming Jesus to be Lord. As they ignore his teachings, they will be like the builder who built a house on a bad foundation. The house will fall on the builder and destroy his life when hardship and persecution come.
While fruit bearing focuses on good judgment and good works, the good builder parable focuses on good works as a foundation of faith. Many who are from the Protestant Reformed tradition may find this troubling because Luke seems to be going against Paul’s theology of justification by free grace. This is not a description of a full soteriology. It is talking about the corporate body of the kingdom containing individual disciples who called Jesus “Lord.” Those calling Jesus Lord will build their faith on putting Jesus’ teachings into practice. We mustn’t read our theological concerns into Luke’s. It was natural in that society for people to obey whomever they called “lord.” Jesus’ words here are very much based on that system. Lordship implies thorough obedience. Lip service had never been enough when it came to “lordship” in Jesus’ society. Neither will it suffice for a vibrant faith today.