Two Houses

In life we must make choices. Some, like where and how we should live, are very important. Others are comparatively trivial. Today, we’re spoiled for choice with regard to pretty much everything. That’s not always been the case. For example, I remember a time when, if someone wanted electricity for their home, they could purchase it from only one company: the Electricity Board. Now there’re a great many providers, each competing for your custom, flaunting their green credentials, and promoting tantalising offers that you can’t refuse. To which should you switch? And, does it really matter in the end? Because you can always either reverse your allegiance or else sign-up with another company when a better deal presents itself.

Christ talked about choices of the most serious kind, where decisions had enormous significance and their consequences were irrevocable. However, in his scheme of things there were only ever two alternatives from which to choose: one was right and the other, wrong. Moreover, he always made it very clear which alternative a person ought to choose, and what would be the catastrophic outcome of making a bad call.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 7, which concludes his Sermon on the Mount, Christ placed before his listeners several pairs of contrasting options: two gates (one strait and the other wide); two roads (one narrow and the other broad); two groups of travellers (one which was few in number and the other comprising a great many); and two destinations. The strait gate and the narrow road led to life, while the wide gate and the broad road led to destruction.

He also told a story about two men, two houses, and two ways of building. One thing only distinguished these men, he said: the first was wise and the second, foolish. Likewise, their respective houses were differentiable only in one respect: the wise man’s house was built on rock and the foolish man’s, upon sand. For all we know, both houses had been constructed using the same materials and quality of workmanship. Under normal circumstances, they appeared to be in every respect identical. Their contrast became apparent only when a terrible storm struck. The two were alike beaten by wind and subject to flood and rain. The house built upon the unstable base collapsed; but the wise man’s house prevailed, because he’d constructed it upon solid ground.

Of course, Christ wasn’t teaching a common-sense lesson in good-building practice. Rather, he was comparing these houses to a person’s life and the type of foundations they’d laid. But who were they whose lives had been established upon rock? ‘Everyone’, he said, ‘that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them.’ In other words, ‘If you wish to build for permanence, accept and do what I say. For the alternative is certain spiritual destruction’. The foolish man — who was unwilling to put in the additional time, labour, money required to securely underpin the load-bearing part of the building — represented those who either wouldn’t listen to his teaching, or else listened but didn’t proceed to act.

Thus, Christ ended this most famous of all sermons not with words of comfort and encouragement but, rather, a severe warning about the responsibilities of active and responsive listening. None of what he’d promised in the Beatitudes and elsewhere would benefit anyone one wit unless they proceeded to faithful obedience.

Sielo (Calvinistic Methodist) chapel, Queen’s Road, Aberystwyth (courtesy of Coflein, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales)

In Aberystwyth, Wales, there once was a Methodist chapel called Seilo. It was designed by a local architect, John Lumley, and built in 1863. Here we have, in one building, an illustration of the parable of the two houses. The chapel is the only Welsh Nonconformist place of worship, as far as I’m aware, that has had a face-lift. This this was not, in the manner of some Hollywood celebratory has-been, undertaken in order to cheat the ageing process. Not long after it was built, the congregation noticed that the chapel’s façade was in grave danger of falling away from the rest of the building. For while the rear portion had been founded upon bedrock, the frontage had been erected upon a shifting sand bank. (The building next to where the chapel stood – the oldest in the town – is called ‘Sandmarsh Cottage’. You’d have thought that this alone might have alerted someone to the approaching problem.) As the storms and tides pounded the seafront close-by, the vibrations were transmitted along the road and, over time, gradually eroded the already soft and unstable ground. In 1956, the congregation demolished the original façade and built a new one made from wood, so as to lighten the load. But, in time, this new section began to move too. Finally, it was decided that no further remedial work was worth undertaking. In 1995, Seilo was demolished.

John Harvey, Two Houses (1990) pencil on paper, 39.9 x 38 cm

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