The Stone That the Builders Rejected.
by Rev. Kevin Daugherty
Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today’s gospel passage in the lectionary follows a similar theme as we reflected upon last week. In last week’s gospel reading, which was from the same chapter, Jesus challenged the Jewish clergy of his day. Jesus tells them very plainly that the tax collectors and harlots (i.e. traitors and sinful women) are going into God’s Kingdom before they are. Today’s passage continues the story.
In this passage, we begin with Jesus giving us what is commonly called the “parable of the tenants” or “parable of the wicked husbandmen”. This parable is pretty straightforward:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
The essential elements to understanding this parable are: the landowner is God the Father; the vineyard is Israel (compare our other lectionary passage, Isaiah 5); the tenants are the religious leaders; the slaves are the prophets who remained faithful to God; and the son is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Like the parable in last week’s gospel reading, Jesus is being very anticlerical here. The religious leaders have lorded themselves over God’s people and have abused those who continued to serve the Lord. Finally, the Father sends his Son, and they respond even worse to him.
There is a tension in the Bible between the religious hierarchy and the ministers of God. You see it many times over in the history of the Hebrew Bible, and Christ and his disciples ended up continuing that pattern. Religious leaders often become attached to power. They want the status of being a “leader”, and they want their doctrinal opinions to be respected. So when the Spirit of God moves, and calls attention to the errors in the religious hierarchy, it never goes well. This brings us to a very famous verse in the Psalms:
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes
Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22. It is also quoted in the other synoptic gospels (Mark 12:10-11, Luke 20:17), and several other times in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 4:11, 1 Peter 2:4-7). This was clearly one of the favorite Scriptures of Jesus and his earliest disciples.
In the gospels and in Acts, this verse is quoted against the religious leaders. They are the builders. The stone that they rejected is the cornerstone. Here, we have a crucial message to understanding what the gospel is all about. God builds his Kingdom upon the rejects. Consider how God revealed himself to the Hebrew people. They were surrounded by many powerful empires, but instead, God chose a small tribal group in a very tiny strip of land. God chose the slaves in the Exodus. It is a theme that repeats itself time and time again in the Scriptures. In the context of the gospels, the Word of God was made flesh in the humble form of a carpenter, rather than in the temple priesthood or the Sanhedrin.
Jesus describes it this way in this passage:
Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you [the religious leaders] and given to a people who will produce its fruit.
The Kingdom of God is an upside down kingdom. The poor are made rich; the meek inherit the earth; the last are made first; the servants are made leaders; the wise are made foolish; and the lowly carpenter is the King of Kings.
Paul touches upon this craziness of the Kingdom in this week’s passage from Philippians:
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ
The Kingdom not only turns our society upside down. In Christ, our gains are losses, and true gain comes from giving all things over to Christ. In the previous paragraph, Paul describes his Hebrew pedigree, rabbinic training, and his authority as a Pharisee. Paul dismisses it all as “rubbish” in order that he may gain Christ.
It is in Paul’s example here that we learn what could have redeemed the clergy who Jesus was talking to in Matthew 21. They needed to give up their pedigree and authority, and hand it all over to Jesus. They need to become simple ministers of God rather than human authorities.
In the coming Kingdom, our credentials, experience, training, social class, nationality, religious traditions, and so on are all vanity. Our place as Christians is to be humble servants in love. We must gain Christ and recognize that everything else is rubbish.