It is certain that the rain, floods and winds will come. Images of devastating floods in Haiti, Chiapas, New Orleans, Malaysia, Pakistan and, most recently, Sri Lanka, fill our news. When many of the places hardest hit are where the world’s poorest people reside, the pleas to God in today’s psalm to be a “rock of safety” take on a literalness and an urgency. Sometimes preachers declare these disasters to be punishments from God, and they urge people to repent of their sinfulness. These preachers espouse the kind of theology found in the Wisdom literature: that good things come to those who act uprightly and that punishment awaits those who do not. The story of Job, of course, like that of Jesus, proves the inadequacy of this approach.
In the Gospel today, Jesus presumes that rain, floods and winds will occur, both literally and metaphorically. What he offers is not a theology about why these things happen but a manner of life that enables believers to withstand all of life’s challenges and to be found upright when the final reckoning occurs (signaled by the phrase “on that day” in verse 22). The Gospel is the concluding section of the Sermon on the Mount, on which we have been reflecting for the past several weeks. Jesus sums it up by saying that anyone who listens to “these words of mine”— that is, the way he interprets the Torah—and acts on them will be “set solidly on rock.”
Two things are necessary to build this firm foundation: both hearing and doing the word. Listening is not enough. Nor is it adequate simply to proclaim Jesus as “Lord.” Many times in the Gospel, people in need cry out to Jesus as Lord to save them. “Jesus is Lord” was also an acclamation used in early Christian liturgies (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; Phil 2:11). More is needed than calling on Jesus at times of crisis or acclaiming his power in liturgical gatherings. Doing the will of God by putting Jesus’ words into action is also essential.
At the same time, Paul reminds us in today’s second reading that being in right relation with God, self and all creation does not depend on our own actions but on God’s grace. This, Paul insists, is a free gift already accomplished by Christ. Our part is to believe. This faith is both having the conviction that God can and does accomplish in us the transformation wrought in and by Christ and also acting in accord with the gift offered us.
To hear the words of Jesus and put them into action requires an active choice, just as it did for the Israelites, as we hear in today’s first reading, in which Moses puts the choice to them concerning God’s commandments. As the season of Lent approaches, it is an apt time to examine our choices. Are we building on a rock-solid foundation by adopting daily practices that sharpen our hearing of the word and that impel us to act on it? Do we take a lesson from Peter, named “Rock”: that, as for him, our surety can be a rock of stumbling, as when he rejected Jesus’ hard words about his own suffering and death?
Three concrete actions for building our house on rock are given by Jesus in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday: almsgiving, prayer and fasting (Mt 6:1-18). In prayer, we allow God to attune our ears to the divine voice echoed in all of creation, both in floods and calm. In fasting, we empty ourselves of our own desires, so as to hear the cries of those who hunger not by choice. In almsgiving, rather than shore up our own individual rocky perches, we become a rock of safety for those who are buffeted hardest by life’s storms.