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Fall 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 2 · pp. 143–149 

Broken Parallelism in Matthew’s Parable of the Two Builders

Gary Yamasaki

Matthew’s parable of the two builders does not appear to pose any significant exegetical questions. It presents two scenarios in antithetical parallelism—one of a house built on rock and the other of a house built on sand—explicitly stating the point to be derived from each scenario, thus yielding the message: just as the nature of a house’s foundation determines how well the house will hold up against the forces of nature, so also the extent of one’s obedience to the words of Jesus determines how well one will hold up against the trials of life.

Noting Matthew’s disruption of perfectly parallel descriptions of the storms faced by the two houses enhances the basic message of the parable.

A closer look at this parable reveals an interesting exegetical issue related to the nature of the parallelism between the two scenarios. At first glance, there appear to be breaks in the parallelism only where necessary to establish the antithetical nature of the parallelism:

vv. 24-25 vv. 26-27
acts on [Jesus’ words] does not act on [Jesus’ words]
wise man foolish man
built his house on rock built his house on sand
it did not fall it fell


A comparison of verses 25 and 27, however, reveals something further. These verses depict the stormy conditions faced by the respective {144} houses, both verses speaking of rains falling and torrents coming and winds blowing and coming upon the houses. It is the concluding segment of this series that warrants further notice. Here is how a number of modern English translations describe the winds’ actions against the respective houses:

house built on rock (v. 25) house built on sand (v. 27)
NASB burst against burst against
NASU slammed against slammed against
NEB beat upon beat upon
TEV beat hard against beat hard against
NIV beat against beat against
NAB buffeted buffeted
NKJV beat on beat on
CEV beat against beat against
New Century hit hit

Given the extent of the parallelism between the two scenarios of this parable, it is not surprising that the translators of these versions choose to maintain parallelism here as well. This, however, does not reflect a break in parallelism executed by Matthew as between verses 25 and 27:

v. 25 kai katebē hē brochē kai ēlthon hoi potamoi kai epneusan hoi anemoi kai prosepesan tē oikia ekeinē

v. 27 kai katebē hē brochē kai ēlthon hoi potamoi kai epneusan hoi anemoi kai prosekopsan tē oikia ekeinē

“and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and ______ against that house”

Obviously, the translators of the versions outlined above do not see any exegetical significance in the shift from prospiptō in verse 25 to proskoptō in verse 27. Translators of other modern versions, however, do acknowledge this shift, and thus render prospiptō and proskoptō with different English words. Yet even these evince no recognition of exegetical significance in the shift, since in each case the different renderings are essentially synonymous: {145}

prospiptō proskoptō
RSV beat upon beat against
JB/NJB hurled themselves against struck
NAB buffeted lashed against
REB beat upon battered against
NRSV beat on beat against

Most commentators take no notice of these verbs at all. Among the few who do, Alan Hugh McNeile makes comments on each of the two verbs but does not bring up the fact that a shift from one to the other constitutes a break in parallelism. 1 R. C. H. Lenski posits that prospiptō is used to create a play on words; he notes “the paronomasia in prosepesan and ouk epesen; the winds fell against the house, but it fell not.” 2 He does not, however, note the shift to proskoptō in verse 27. Robert Guelich does note the change in verbs, but he suggests that despite the difference, the meaning remains the same. 3

Unlike these commentators, Robert H. Gundry does recognize a significance in the shift in verbs. He presents the plausible, yet unconvincing, suggestion that the change was made “probably in anticipation of a different result.” 4 Hans Dieter Betz, as well as W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, see in the change of verbs a heightening of the parallelism without, however, explaining how a shift from prospiptō to proskoptō produces a sense of heightening. 5


A closer look at these verbs suggests that more is going on in this parable than these commentators reveal. Both verbs can be used to indicate the action of something striking something else, 6 and it is this sense—with no distinction as to the nature of the impact—that has been almost universally attributed to prospiptō and proskoptō in this parable. Therefore, the two scenarios have been understood as depicting parallel images: two houses facing winds of the same velocity.

This understanding, however, does not do justice to Matthew’s construction of this parable. In his crafting of these two scenarios, he matches the second to the first with word-for-word parallelism—except to insert “foolish” for “wise,” and “sand” for “rock”—through twenty-three straight words. Matthew thereby indicates his desire for the audience to see these two scenarios as parallel. This being the case, it is only natural that he use parallel verbs in the twenty-fourth spot to describe the winds’ actions against the respective houses. Yet he does {146} not, fracturing the parallelism with the insertion of proskoptō in place of prospiptō.

So to an audience which has just witnessed a house built on rock struck by winds, and is now expecting to witness a house built on sand struck by winds in the same manner, the jarring insertion of proskoptō represents a signal to recognize a distinction between the two pictures. Therefore, in addition to straightforward images of winds striking houses at one level, this parable also depicts—at another level—a difference in the actions of the winds as they come up against the houses.


What type of distinction does Matthew wish to depict through his choice of the verbs prospiptō and proskoptō? The choice of the verb prospiptō is curious. As mentioned, it can be used with the sense of “strike against.” It is questionable, however, whether it is used with this sense in any of its twenty-three occurrences in the Septuagint, and it is unquestionably not used this way in any of its seven other occurrences in the New Testament. Rather, its other occurrences in the New Testament—and almost one third of its usages in the Septuagint 7—carry the sense of “fall prostrate before.” 8

This usage pattern suggests that by the time of the New Testament era, prospiptō had become a technical term within the early church for the action of falling down in obeisance. 9 This being the case, Matthew’s use of this verb in the first scenario yields striking imagery. In addition to producing the straightforward image of winds striking a house firmly founded on rock, this parable also produces the image of winds, when faced with a house so firmly founded, finding themselves compelled to admit that they have met their match and so fall down in obeisance before the house.

This interpretation does face some challenges. First, when Matthew elsewhere indicates the action of falling down in obeisance, he chooses words other than prospiptō. In fact, Matthew even changes Mark’s use of prospiptō at 7:25—to describe the Syrophoenician woman’s actions as she approaches Jesus—to proskyneō in his own account (see 15:25), a verb that he uses on three other occasions as well to indicate the action of falling down in obeisance. 10 Though this evidence could appear fatal to the proffered interpretation, it is so only if Matthew has here the one goal of projecting a single image of winds falling down in obeisance before the house built on rock. As suggested above, however, Matthew’s goal here is to project images at two levels, a straightforward depiction of winds striking a house on the one hand and a more {147} stylized depiction of winds falling down in obeisance before the house on the other. For this purpose, proskyneō would not suffice, for it is capable of supplying only the second image; prospiptō is needed here for the purpose of supplying both images.

Second, the theological implications of this interpretation are, at first glance, troubling. The understanding of the parable proffered here could suggest the following interpretation: just as winds facing a house built on rock recognize that they have met their match and so fall down in obeisance before it, so also disciples who obey the words of Jesus have foundations so solid that the trials of life will fall down in obeisance before them. This of course would imply that obedience to Jesus results in a life free of trials, whereas passages such as Matthew 5:44; 10:16-25; and 13:21 make clear that Matthew’s theology of discipleship presupposes trials.

The image of winds falling down in obeisance before this house, however, need not be taken as an indication that no trial can ever touch a disciple living in obedience to Jesus. Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has demonstrated that Jesus is not averse to using hyperbole to enhance a point. 11 And here, at the end of a sermon which sets out extremely high standards, and even a requirement of righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20), a hyperbolic image of winds falling down in obeisance before a house representing those living in obedience to Jesus is highly fitting.


Unlike prospiptō, proskoptō is indeed used in the New Testament and the Septuagint with the sense of “strike against.” In both Matthew 4:6 and Luke 4:11, LXX Psalm 90(91):12 is quoted: epi cheirō n arousin se, mē pote proskopsē s pros lithon ton poda sou, “Upon (their) hands, they will lift you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” This sense of “striking against,” however, is not found in any of the word’s fifteen other occurrences in the Septuagint nor in any of its five other occurrences in the New Testament. Further, the sense of “striking against” conveyed by proskoptō in Psalm 90 seems hardly appropriate for the image of fierce winds battering a house. The context of Psalm 90 speaks of angels bearing one up lest one experience some harm even as minor as striking one’s foot against a stone. So the sense of “striking against” here is nothing more than stubbing one’s toe. In fact, Liddell and Scott are not able to cite any usages of proskoptō in all of ancient Greek literature which demonstrate an impact more serious than this.

In twelve of its fifteen other occurrences in the Septuagint, 12 and in {148} all of the other five occurrences in the New Testament, 13 the sense of “stumbling” is found, in either a physical or a metaphorical sense, i.e., of a spiritual fall. In fact, Psalm 90:12 = Matthew 4:6//Luke 4:11 could comfortably be fit into this category as well, since the action of striking one’s foot against a stone is in essence the action of stumbling.

As is the case in the first half of the parable, Matthew appears to be choosing a verb which allows him to project images on two different levels. In addition to producing a straightforward image of winds striking a house weakly founded on sand and knocking it over, he is also producing the almost comical image of weak winds merely stumbling against the house built on sand, and even with such minimal impact, causing the house to collapse because it has such a weak foundation. 14 So the point emerging from this second level is that failing to obey the words of Jesus leaves one with a foundation so weak that even the insubstantial trials of life can prove spiritually devastating.

In conclusion, noting Matthew’s disruption of perfectly parallel descriptions of the storms faced by the two houses does not change the overall message of the parable of the two builders. This observation does, however, unveil striking images—of winds falling down in obeisance and winds stumbling along—that not only enhance the basic message of the parable, but also demonstrate Matthew’s artistic abilities.


  1. Alan Hugh McNeile, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1915), 98-99.
  2. R. C. H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1943), 311 (emph. original).
  3. Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), 405.
  4. Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 136.
  5. Hans Dieter Betz, The Sermon on the Mount (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995), 567, n. 79; W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 723.
  6. See Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1940), s.v. prospiptō I.1 (also “attack, assault” I.2), and proskoptō I.
  7. In the Septuagint, see 1 Esd. 9:47; Esther 8:3; Ps. 94:6; Jth. 14:7; 2 Macc. 10:26; 3 Macc. 1:16; and probably Exod. 4:25. {149}
  8. See Mark 3:11; 5:33; 7:25; Luke 5:8; 8:28, 47; Acts 16:29.
  9. James P. Wilson conjectures that in the original text there was no break in parallelism, the original prosekopsan in v. 25 having been changed to prosepesan through scribal error: “In Matthew vii. 25 is prosepesan a Primitive Error displacing prosekopsan?” Expository Times 57 (1946): 138. On the other hand, Karl Lachmann—followed by Eberhard Nestle and S. A. Naber—suggests that the verb in Matt. 7:25 was originally prospaiō, reading prosepaisan as opposed to prosepesan, cited in Walter Bauer, et al., eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 3d ed. (BDAG; Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. prospaiō.
  10. See Matt. 8:2; 9:18; and 20:20.
  11. See for example, Matt. 5:29-30 and 6:3.
  12. See Prov. 3:23; 4:19; Jer. 13:16; Dan. 11:14, 19; Tob. 11:10; Ecclus. 13:23; 30:13; 31:17; 32:20; and probably Judg. 20:32; Pss. Sol. 3:9.
  13. See John 11:9, 10; Rom. 9:32; 14:21; 1 Pet. 2:8.
  14. Cf. Lenski, 313.
Gary Yamasaki is Professor of New Testament at Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, British Columbia.

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