To Study and To Do

September 21, 2017

 

"Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it" (Matt. 7:24-27; see also Luke 6:46-49).

 

Jesus most likely told this parable originally within the context of his reply to Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah of God” (Luke 9:18-20; Matt. 16:13-18), and his statement, “You are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18), which is part of a broader discussion about the nature of being a disciple of Jesus.[1] The setting of the parable in Matthew and Luke pertains to those who would be Jesus’ disciples: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21), and “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). The parable, then, speaks to what Jesus felt made one a disciple of his: doing the will of God.

 

Jewish learning in the first century was oral; therefore, the verb “to hear” came to mean “to learn” or “to study” (see Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Ex. 12:1). The phrase “I have heard” meant “I have learned.” Jesus’ parable contrasted those who heard his words (studied them) and did them—they are like the one who built his house upon the rock, versus those who heard his words (studied them) but did not do them. The faithful disciple studies the words of his master and does them. The unfaithful disciple studies but does not do.

 

 

This tension between study and action grew out of the Jewish sages careful reading of Exodus 24:7 where the people of Israel responded to Moses’ reading of the Torah, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will hear” (emphasis added). The sages raised the question, How could people “do” the Torah (i.e., the will of God) before they “heard” (studied) it? Which, then, is more important, the doing of the Torah or the study of it? This debate stands behind Jesus’ parable of the “Two Foundations,” as well as Paul’s words: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom. 2:13; emphasis added).

 

Jesus’ parable indicates that he expected the good disciple not only to study his words, but do them. Obedience provided the firm foundation that enabled the disciple’s life to be established. This emphasis upon doing, obedience appears frequently within rabbinic literature. It is particularly an emphasis of the piety of the Hasidim.

 

"Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa [a Hasid] says: Anyone whose fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but anyone whose wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom does not endure. He used to say: Anyone whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, his wisdom endures; but anyone whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, his wisdom does not endure" (m. Avot 3.9).

 

Jesus’ contemporaries likewise told parables to illustrate the importance of obedience (doing) over study (hearing). Like Jesus, the parables of his contemporaries contrasted those who study and do with those who merely study by using the image of foundations.

 

"Elisha ben Avuyah says: A man who has good deeds in him and has studied much Torah, to what may he be compared? To a man who builds first with stones and afterwards with mud bricks. Even when much water comes and rises up against them, it doesn’t dislodge them. A man in whom there are no good deeds, [even though] he has studied much Torah, to what may he be compared? To a man who build first with mud bricks and afterwards with stones. Even if there is only a little water, immediately they topple over" (Avot de Rabbi Nathan version A, 24).

 

"Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: Everyone whose wisdom is greater than his deeds to what may he be compared? To a tree whose branches are many, but whose roots are few. The wind comes, uproots it and topples it…But everyone whose deeds are greater than his wisdom to what may he be compared? To a tree whose branches are few and its roots are many. Even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they will not remove it from its place" (m. Avot 3.17).

 

The parable of Jesus like these of the sages address study and doing versus study alone. Jesus and the sages believed that study must produce obedient action. Obedient action lays the foundation that protects the faithful disciple from the storms of life.

 

In this parable, Jesus instructed those who would be his disciples that the evidence of their discipleship to him: obedience to his teaching—“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). As his followers, Jesus expected us to study his words, and that study should lead to obedient action. But we must act.

 

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt. 7:21; emphasis added). Discipleship for Jesus meant absolute devoted obedience to the will of God. It mattered little to Jesus what one thought of him if that person did not obediently submit to God’s will. On one occasion, a woman called out, “ Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked” (Luke 11:27). She recited a Jewish blessing for the Messiah (Pesikta Derav Kahana, Supplement 6) identifying Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. He rejoined, “Rather blessed are the ones hearing the word of God and keeping it” (Luke 11:28; emphasis added). Jesus did not allow her to follow him on the basis of the cult of his personality; rather, his followers are those who hear the word of God and do it. In two thousand years his discipleship hasn’t changed. Those who make up his movement—the kingdom of heaven—are those who hear the word of God and do it.

 

 

 

[1] See Marc Turnage, Windows Into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights from the Bible for Modern Readers (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2016), 251-274.

 

(c) Marc Turnage 2017

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I'm an author, traveler, biblical scholar, instructor, guide, lecturer, and foodie. I've been leading people through the lands of the Bible for over twenty years encouraging them "to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it" (Ezra 7:10).

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