"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock."
"The extreme of the known in the presence of the extreme of the unknown." —Wallace Stevens
Whenever I plan a trip to a new destination, I enjoy discovering what has happened on its literary scene. So as I plan my trip to New Orleans this summer, I am delighted to find out that Mark Twain moved here with his brother for a few years, taking in the city’s charms. One aspect of New Orleans’ southern culture that fascinated Twain was the hospitality of its colloquial speech:
We picked up one excellent word — a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy, word — “Lagniappe.” They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish — so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a “baker’s dozen.” It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure (Life on the Mississippi).
Twain was enamored by the pervasive use of Lagniappe in their urbane way of living. From the household servant to the state governor, all the people seasoned their conversations with its flavor. It’s no wonder. When we use such a gracious expectation in our social relations, it goes a long way in smoothing out humane pleasantries. But we in the “Christ-haunted South” (to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s memorable description) are tempted to go beyond Lagniappe’s restricted meaning, spreading it out a little too far. If we dare to apply a Lagniappe approach to our spiritual relation with Christ, it will devastate our intimacy with the Divine.
In Matthew 7:24–29, Jesus tells a parable that resists our vain attempt at culturally accommodating His authoritative teaching as “something thrown in, gratis, for good measure.” Rather than being something extra, a little decorative grace sprinkled on top, Jesus asserts that His words are a necessary foundation that must be laid at the bottom of our life, so that we may stand secure. In this way, He makes a totalizing claim upon us, commanding our complete faith-obedience, even while charming us with His promise of blessing when we respond accordingly.
Of course, we can hear Jesus’ parable with as much intention to order our lives by its wisdom as we do while listening to a nursery rhyme like “The Three Little Pigs.” Perhaps the authority of His words does not astonish us when the weather of our present living seems clear with sunny skies. And yet, we know that the storms of life surely will come and that the proverbial wolf inevitably will threaten to blow our lifehouse down. Do not such storms test and prove the foundation upon which we build our life? Jesus warns us: foundations matter.
So in His parable, Jesus contrasts two possible life foundations. We may hear and obey His words as figured by the wise builder, who securely sets his house upon the solid rock. Or we may hear and disobey His words, which is as foolish as building a house upon shifting sand. Even so, our cunning strategy often is to try to negotiate a third way of hearing with qualified obedience. By this standard of cultural Christianity, we do not wholly disclaim Jesus’ teaching nor do we completely submit to its totalizing claim upon us; instead, we carefully select its aspects that we want to hear and obey. Rather than laying Jesus’ words as the foundation of our life, we prefer them more as a sprinkling of grace on the top of certain kinds of living. But time and time again, this illusory third way manifests itself as a sinful storm that destroys our life’s frail construction.
In the end, Jesus’ parable is an invitation for us to hear and obey His teaching, not as an afterthought, but more as a kind of planning beforehand. After all, an essential aspect of wisdom is a vicarious learning that applies both the knowledge of a warning against disaster and a promise of flourishing. The blessing Jesus offers, then, is in our doing — not merely our hearing — of His words. For it is precisely our obedience that shows that we have heard Him aright in faith.