Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Greatest Commandment – Sermon on Matthew 22:34-46

October 26, 2014

When our son was living with us while attending college, I would often come home to find him unwinding from a hard day of study, sprawled in front of the television. Almost always, I would find him shouting out responses to the game show, Jeopardy! He was pretty good at remembering the bits of trivia that were represented by various categories on the game board, and he was extremely good at remembering to always phrase his responses in the form of a question.

It’s easy to play Jeopardy! from the comfort of your own couch, where you can feel brilliant every time you get one right. The stakes aren’t very high if you miss one, and if you get too frustrated, you can always turn off the TV. Jeopardy!’s format puts questions in the form of answers, and answers must take the form of questions. It’s obviously a winning formula for a game show, because Alex Trebek just started his thrifty-first season as game host.

That whole question-and-answer thing was something Jesus was pretty good at, too. Over the past several weeks, we’ve been following the conversation between Jesus and various religious groups, and these conversations all seem to revolve around questions posed as answers, and answers that sound like questions. But today, we come to the end of the conversation. In today’s passage, Jesus gets the last word, and yes, it takes the form of a question.

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord,
           “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”
No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. – Matthew 22;34-46

So let’s review:
In chapter 21, the Temple rulers challenge Jesus’ authority to teach in its courts and throw out the money-changers. Jesus meets that challenge by telling the parable of the two sons, insulting the religious leaders with the news that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of the scribes and temple rulers.

Jesus then tells the parable of the wicked tenants, further accusing the chief priests and Pharisees of rejecting God’s anointed one. It makes them mad, but they are afraid of the people, so they don’t arrest Instead, they conspire to trap him.

Jesus responds to their anger with the parable of the wedding banquet in chapter 22, a particularly difficult story that ends with a wedding guest being thrown into outer darkness, simply for wearing the wrong tie to the party. “Many are called, but few are chosen,” Jesus tells his opponents. In other words, since you have rejected God’s chosen Messiah, others will be invited to participate in the Kingdom of God in your place, but even these must commit fully to faith in Christ to be included.

Then, last week, we heard the conversation between Jesus and a new batch of antagonists, that awkward alliance between the disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians. They try to trap Jesus into revealing himself as either a traitor to God or a traitor to Rome, certain that whichever way he answers their riddle about paying taxes, he will say something worth getting arrested. Of course, they run the risk of causing a riot by setting Jesus up this way, but Jesus slips through their trap by turning their political question into a spiritual one, and he confounds his accusers once again.

We skip over the story of the Sadducees trying to trap him with questions about the resurrection to get to today’s passage, but it’s worth noting that he silences the Sadducees and sends them away with the notion that “God is not God of the dead, but of the living.”

So far, Jesus has interacted with Temple rulers, Pharisees, disciples of Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees. In every instance, Jesus astonishes his listeners with a wisdom they have not heard before. And the stakes get higher and higher.

Now, the Pharisees are back for one last attempt to trick Jesus into saying something that will justify arresting him. Naturally, it’s a lawyer who comes up with the ultimate question. This is actually a no-brainer. Everyone knows the Shema. It’s fastened to their foreheads and on their doorposts. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”[1] It’s a good answer, straight from scripture, and the Pharisees nod in agreement.

But Jesus adds something to it, another commandment from Leviticus. Okay, this is a little unexpected, but still well within everyone’s understanding of what God wants from us. Loving our neighbors as ourselves is certainly a good commandment to follow the first. The explanation Jesus gives for naming both of these commandments makes sense: the first five of the Ten Commandments are all about loving God, and the last five certainly show how to love our neighbors. While putting these two ideas next to one another may have been a new thing for some of those listening, it is well within the bounds of acceptable Jewish belief, and the scholars in the group would have heard other rabbis teach something similar. So far, Jesus has passed the test, and he has said nothing controversial or heretical.

Through all of these tests and challenges, Jesus keeps pointing back to the supremacy of God, and who can argue with that? But the real question isn’t about the Law or doctrine, or who is in and who is out. The real question, the one that is deeper than any the religious leaders have asked so far, is about the identity of the Christ. And so, Jesus puts that question to his opponents. It isn’t a trick question, as theirs have been. He isn’t being sly. He really wants to know what they think. But instead of asking “What do you expect the Messiah to do?” or “When do you think the Messiah will come?” Jesus asks, “Whose son is he?” The Pharisees answer automatically from the tradition of the prophets[2] It’s a sound, scripturally based answer, again the one everyone expects. The Messiah will be the Son of David.

The promise God made to David, and the prophetic writings about the identity of the one who will come to save Israel, all recognize that Messiah must come from David’s line. The Christ will have royal blood, but it will be good old-fashioned red-blooded human blood. The thought has never occurred to anyone that the one who comes to save Israel is anything other than a flesh-and-blood warrior who will conquer Israel’s oppressors.

The assumption that Messiah would be a “Son of David” included the understanding that this future “anointed one” would be a human king to rule over Israel when peace would finally come throughout the world. First century Jews, regardless of their political views, agreed that all kings of Israel were messiahs, because they were all “anointed.” But THE Messiah would be whichever king happened to be on the throne when world-wide peace was finally achieved. This Messiah would not be a miracle worker or a prophet. He would simply get to be the final king of Israel, descended directly from King David.

“How is it, then that David calls him “Lord?” Jesus wants to know. He quotes Psalm 110, which later became quite popular as a “messianic” psalm. But at this point in history, no one thinks of it that way. No one has considered that David might have been referring to his own descendant as “Lord.” Jesus forces them to see Psalm 110 in a new light. And that light reveals that even King David would bow down to this descendant, indicating that THE Messiah would be more than merely human. The Messiah would come from God.

In three short movements, Jesus has taken the most basic, common understanding of Jewish faith – loving God alone – and expanded it to include loving others, and then taken the most fundamental Jewish belief about Israel’s anticipated Savior and turned it on its head.

The Messiah comes from God, and is divine. The Messiah is both the Son of David and the Son of God. Putting these two ideas together was a good deal more radical than putting together the verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus to summarize the Ten Commandments. Loving God and neighbor are indeed the first and second most important commandments, but establishing Jesus’ identity as Messiah is the ultimate point of the entire conversation we’ve been exploring for the past several weeks. Anyone who believes that Jesus is, in fact, The Messiah, must believe that he is both human and divine. No wonder the Pharisees are left speechless. To consider that the savior they have hoped for might actually come from God is more than they can handle. From this point forward, they aren’t asking any more questions.

“Jesus is Lord” is perhaps the earliest confession of the Christian church. In Romans 10:9 Paul writes, “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

And in 1 Corinthians 12:3, we read, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.”

Saying aloud that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous and radical thing to do in first century Palestine. Naming Jesus as Lord identified that very human carpenter’s kid as God. It could get you in trouble with the synagogue for blasphemy, or crucified by the Romans for refusing to acknowledge Caesar as lord. One didn’t say it lightly. If you admitted out loud that “Jesus is Lord” you had to be willing to take the consequences, and that could mean punishment by death. If you were going to go around saying, “Jesus is Lord,” you had to really mean it.

But claiming Jesus as Lord is the only hope we have. We aren’t very good at keeping that commandment to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Too often, our hearts are distracted by our own desires. Our souls become shallow and closed off to anything that might cause us discomfort, or force us to change. And our strength is often spent in ways that do not honor God. We want to love God, but we don’t know how. We have forgotten that “the primary component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment.”[3] And we aren’t very good at commitment.

Which makes it hard for us to do very well when it comes to loving our neighbor. Especially when our neighbor is someone we don’t like, or someone who is very different from us. We forget that the kind of love God has in mind isn’t a fond emotion, but the hard work of caring more about another’s needs than our own.

No matter how hard we try, or how much we want to, we can’t seem to keep God’s greatest commandment, or the second that is like it. And if we cannot keep God’s law, our only hope is depending on God’s grace. Our only salvation is to call Jesus Lord, to recognize him as the one who became flesh for our sakes, who died that we might live, who rose again that we might have eternal life.

But if we are going to go around saying, “Jesus is Lord,” we have to really mean it. We can’t just give it lip service; it has to show up in the way we live. Our very lives depend on it.

So Jesus looks at us, as he once looked at Peter, and asks, “Who do you say that I am?” The Pharisees and Sadducees are done asking Jesus questions and putting him to the test. Over the next few weeks, as we near the end of this church year, Jesus will be putting us to the test. Here are a few of the questions he will be asking from the 25th chapter of Matthew:

Will we keep our light burning (ten bridesmaids, Mt 25:1-13)? Will we invest our talents (25:14-30)? Will we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned (25:31-46)? In short, will we love our neighbor in loving God and will we love God in loving our neighbor? Will we mean it when we say, “Jesus is Lord?”

[1] Deuteronomy 6:4-5

[2] Isaiah 11:1-9; Jeremiah 23:5-6, 30:7-10, 33:14-16; Ezekiel 34:11-31, 37:21-28; Hosea 3:4-5

[3] Douglas Hare, quoted by Alyce McKenzie

Chicken Enchiladas

I was sure this recipe would be here somewhere, but I’m not seeing it. I got it from a US Army wife when I lived in Germany. That’s another story. I shared it with my family, and now my nephew makes it for his family – so it must be good, right?

Start with:

1 chicken, or 4-6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

If you need some chicken broth, cover a whole chicken with water in a deep pot, add a bay leaf and a bouillon cube or two, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the chicken falls off the bone. Remove the chicken from the pot, and when it is cool enough to handle, remove skin and bones, shredding the meat into a bowl.

Or cook some boneless skinless chicken breasts in the microwave and shred them if you’re in a hurry and don’t want to mess with the bones and stuff.

In a separate bowl from the shredded chicken, combine:

1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can chopped green chiles
1 chopped onion (optional)
1 c sour cream or plain yogurt
Cumin (I use quite a bit, but I really like cumin) to taste

Mix HALF of the soup mixture into the shredded chicken, setting aside the other half for the final step.

Grease/butter/cooking-spray a 9×13 dish, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Open a package of flour tortillas, and separate 8-12 of them (this depends on whether you cooked a whole chicken or just some breasts). On a clean surface, spoon about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the chicken mixture onto a tortilla, and roll it up. Place the enchilada seam-side down in the dish, and repeat until you have no more chicken mixture left. Pour bout a cup of water or chicken broth (you can use whatever cooked out of the chicken breasts if you nuked them) around the edges of the dish to prevent the ends of the tortillas from drying out. Spread the reserved soup mixture over everything, and cover with about a cup of shredded cheese (cheddar, co-jack, “Mexican blend” pre-shredded, whatever… probably not Swiss) over the top and loosely cover with foil.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking until cheese is golden brown and the enchiladas are bubbly. Remove from the oven and let set 5 minutes before serving. You can garnish with sliced black olives and chopped tomatoes and chopped green onions if you want to make it look pretty for company.

Add a salad, and you have dinner.

Winter Wheat (reblogged)

Once a month, I write a short piece for our church’s print newsletter, the Circuit Rider. This publication was established fifty years ago, when the pastor at that time asked a legal secretary in the congregation to be the editor. Jo put together theCircuit Rider every month for fifty-plus years, until she joined the Church Triumphant on October 1st.

Here’s a link to my article for this month’s Circuit Rider. It’s in memory of Jo, who I’m sure has heard her Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Whose Image? – Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

October 19, 2014

This is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. We celebrate the part of our baptismal covenant that calls each member to be a minister, to live out faith through personal devotion to God and acts of service to others. Who makes up the laity of a church? Everyone who isn’t clergy – so that means each of you!

I like to use the word “we” when I talk about our work together, but this is one area where I can’t include myself in the picture. As clergy, my job is to help you, to equip you do your job. Yours is the work of the church; you are the laity who make ministry happen.

But what exactly does it mean to minister as a lay member of this church, our church? How is God calling each of you to grow closer to God, deeper in faith, and more active in the mission and ministry of this congregation? As Methodists, we have John Wesley’s model for discerning God’s will in our lives. It’s a four point framework that begins with Scripture, and includes the traditions of the faith, reason, and our own experience of encountering God, as we determine what is the good and perfect will of God for each of us, and for all of us together.

As we turn to scripture first, our gospel reading for today takes us back to the Temple court in Jerusalem, only a few days before Jesus will be betrayed. Jesus is still teaching about what it means to live in the kingdom of God, a kingdom that has already broken into our world and is growing toward its fullness. Because the kingdom of God is already present, but not yet complete, our citizenship in that kingdom rubs up against our very real day-to-day living in a broken world. Sometimes the conflict between worldly reality and kingdom living becomes confusing and uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t know how to reconcile our allegiance to God with our worldly obligations. Jesus was faced with this same dilemma, and in today’s reading, he shows us how to live in the world while living into the kingdom of God.

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22) 

Here’s the story so far: We’re still in the Temple on Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus has already cursed a fig tree, challenged the authority of the chief priests and elders, and told parables to anger the Pharisees – and it isn’t even noon. That’s the setting.

The characters in this part of the story include Jesus, of course, but the rest of the cast has changed somewhat. Now, instead of the Temple rulers who challenged Jesus’ authority in the last chapter, the Pharisees have sent some of their own disciples to speak with Jesus. This is the only time disciples of the Pharisees are mentioned in the entire New Testament, so that might be an important detail to hold in the back of our minds. In addition to these disciples, the Pharisees have apparently taken advantage of the lunch break to enlist the help of their opponents, the Herodians. The Herodians weren’t particularly religious, but they supported the Roman authority given to Herod over Israel. An alliance between the religious Pharisees and the political Herodians was unusual – they only worked together because of their mutual fear of Jesus and his growing influence with the people. So we have Jesus, the Pharisees’ disciples, the Herodians who have joined them in an awkward alliance, and the silent onlookers who have gathered around Jesus to hear him teach. We have the setting and the characters. It’s time to introduce the plot.

As the Pharisees go off to conspire with the Herodians, they look for a way to force Jesus to reveal himself as a rebel against Rome or a blasphemer against God. Preferably both. They decide to start with flattery, hoping to get Jesus to let down his guard, so he will walk right into their trap. They describe his impartiality to all, and his disregard for rank, encouraging him to denounce Roman authority. At the same time, they refer to his sincerity and truthfulness, encouraging him to claim a level of righteousness that belongs only to God.

The problem these religious and political leaders set before Jesus is one we face every day: To whom do we owe our primary allegiance? When the law of the land seems to go against the law of God, what choice will we make? This is the problem in the story’s plot that must be resolved. They think they have set up the perfect “either/or” riddle, because whichever way Jesus answers, he’s going to offend one group or the other: he will either break Roman law or Temple law – he can’t have it both ways. They wait for Jesus to answer. They are sure they’ve got him now.

“Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” he asks. And we suddenly remember another conversation, at the very beginning of his ministry, when Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 to Satan in the wilderness:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt 4:7).
In that conversation, Satan has invited Jesus to throw himself down from a pinnacle of the Temple, to prove that he is the Son of God. But Jesus knows better.

And now, facing the Pharisees and Herodians as they gang up on him, Jesus sees through their hypocrisy, just as he sees through ours whenever we pretend to submit to God, but hold in our hearts the desire to have our own way. We don’t like to think of ourselves as hypocrites. We don’t like to fall into that category Craig Groeschel describes in his book, The Christian Atheist: people who claim to believe in God, but who live as if God doesn’t exist. And those disciples of the Pharisees, who stood before Jesus, didn’t like it either. The Herodians might not have cared one way or the other, but those Pharisees considered themselves among the most faithful of all God’s people. They did not like being called hypocrites. At. All.

Let’s pause here at this point of tension in the story. Imagine you are one of those silent onlookers in this drama. Maybe you have been following Jesus as a faithful disciple throughout his ministry. You’re one of the insiders, one of the chosen twelve. You think you know this guy, this Jesus, but you are wondering how he’s going to wriggle his way out of this one. You’ve been close enough to hear him say, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised” (Matthew 17:22-23). You may be wondering if Jesus is about to be arrested, and you are about to be left without a leader.

Or maybe you are one of the people who came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and when you heard that this Jesus was preaching in the Temple courts, you went looking for him, to hear for yourself what this new rabbi was teaching. Maybe you were laughing along with the crowd when the pompous religious leaders heard their own words used against them. Maybe your heart was “strangely warmed” as you listened to this man teach with an authority that could only come from God. Maybe you have been wondering, as you listened, if this could be the Messiah after all. And now, you wait to hear what Jesus will say, how he will solve this riddle the Pharisees and Herodians have put before him. Because you are certain that whatever he says will force you to decide where your allegiance lies. Whatever he says will tell you if you should put your trust in him, or if you should walk away.

And Jesus says, “Show me the money.”

Notice that Jesus does not happen to have a denarius in his own pocket. But he’s pretty sure one of his challengers will have brought such a coin into the Temple. And he’s right; they hand him a denarius immediately, not even realizing they have exposed their own blasphemy, by bringing a Roman coin, bearing a Roman inscription that calls Caesar “divine,” into the Temple where God alone is to be worshiped as holy. But Jesus does not call attention to this. He turns the coin over in his hand and asks a question any child could answer. “Whose image is this, and whose inscription is on this coin?” And with this seemingly simple question, Jesus raises the stakes even higher.

You see, this wasn’t just any coin, but a coin required for paying a tax to the Romans. And it wasn’t just any tax. First century Jews had to pay their share of taxes, just as we do. But the tax that required payment with a denarius was the Imperial tribute, or “census” tax that had been instituted about the time of Jesus’ birth. It was the tax Jews paid to support the Roman occupation of Israel. The Jews had to pay one denarius a year to finance their own oppression.

I have to imagine it was the Herodians, those Jews who supported the Roman occupation, who answered first. “The emperor’s,” they said. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

You can almost hear the wind going out of their sails, can’t you? The Pharisees and Herodians are amazed. There is nothing more they can say, so they turn and walk away. Those who are gathered around Jesus are left to ponder what this all means. At first, it seems as if he has foiled his opponents once again with a “both/and” answer to their “either/or” question. But an unspoken question hangs in the air: If the image stamped on a coin determines whose it is, what has God’s image stamped on it? The Herodians and the Pharisees may have already left, but a deeper truth begins to dawn on the rest of us as we remember the story of Creation from Genesis:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

You belong to God, for you were made in God’s image. Whether male or female, God created you to bear his own divine likeness. Your purpose, your calling, is to bear that image into the world as a constant reminder that God’s kingdom has a higher claim on each of us than this broken world of ours.

Some have used this passage to defend the separation of church and state. That isn’t what Jesus is talking about. Some insist that this is another one of Christ’s lessons on the proper place of money in our lives. It isn’t. This lesson isn’t even really about money at all. It’s about recognizing the image of God when we see it in one another, and calling attention to that image as a reminder that God is very present, even when we feel the most oppressed or threatened by the world around us. When Jesus says, “Give to God the things that are God’s,” he’s reminding us that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who created us, the one who loves us more than we can ever imagine.

At another time in Jewish history, another oppressive regime ruled over the nation of Israel. The prophet Isaiah described the love of God to people who had given up all hope, who were certain that God had abandoned them forever. We read in Isaiah 49:13-16,

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.

Not only do you bear the image of God, you have been inscribed on the palms of God’s hands. Not only are you inscribed on the Creator’s hands, but also on the hands of Christ, those hands that bear the marks of death on a cross for our sakes.

Sometimes the image we bear may be difficult to recognize. It may be distorted by the world’s inscriptions on our lives – what we wear or drive or eat, how we live and whose opinions we value. But under all those inscriptions is a deeper mark. It is the mark of the cross, drawn on us at our baptism, on Ash Wednesday, and at the time of our death. It is the mark that says, “You belong to the God who formed you, who loves you, who will not let you go.”

This is our primary identity: we are the beloved children of God. That identity is the filter through which we make all our decisions. It is the standard against which we must measure all our choices. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. But give to God the things that are God’s.

Since we are in the middle of our stewardship drive, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by increasing your pledge. Since we are in the middle of nominating season, you may think I’m asking you to reflect God’s image by agreeing to serve on a committee, or at least complete the Time and Talent Survey that someone has graciously given time and talent to put together for us. I’m not asking you to do either of those things. I’m simply asking you to remember that you are the image of God shining out into the world, and the people you encounter every day, whether you like them or not, whether you approve of their actions or political opinions or theological beliefs – they also bear the image of God to you. Look for it. Recognize it. Know that someone is looking to you, often when you least expect it, to find that image and see it as a reminder that God has each of us marked on the palms of his hands.

Today is Laity Sunday in the United Methodist Church. We celebrate the part of our baptismal covenant that calls each member to be a minister, to live out faith through personal devotion to God and acts of service to others, to shine God’s image into a broken world until the kingdom of God comes in its fullness. Amen.

 

Rejected Stone – Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46

Today’s passage follows immediately the one we heard last week, and it offers us, for the third week in a row, a story about a vineyard.

“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’  So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46, NRSV)

Even though we are hearing this parable a full week after the story of the two sons whose father sent them both into the vineyard, the original listeners heard it in the next instant. Jesus is still in the Temple court, it’s still Tuesday of Holy Week, the Temple Rulers are still standing there glaring at Jesus, challenging his authority to kick out the money changers and teach openly in the Temple courts. They are getting more and more angry, because Jesus has just clearly labeled the Temple rulers as worse off than tax collectors and prostitutes. But Jesus isn’t finished with them yet. He takes a breath, and starts in again with a new parable. The setting is still a vineyard, but this time, Jesus draws on an image that would have been familiar to most of those gathered around, especially those who had been trained in the scriptures. As Jesus begins this new parable, he purposely uses language from the fifth chapter of Isaiah, language that immediately tells everyone this isn’t just another vineyard story. Listen to the first two verses of Isaiah 5, and see if you hear the connection:

“My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.”

The chief priests and Pharisees immediately heard the connection. They knew this would be a story about the relationship between God and his chosen people. They instantly recognized that this vineyard represented the Temple, and the servants sent by the vineyard owner represented God’s prophets.

We will have an opportunity to dig deeper into the parable of the wicked tenants another time. Today, let’s take a closer look at the proverb that Jesus uses as a punch line for his parable. Let’s think about what he means when he draws on the image of a rejected stone becoming the very cornerstone.

This familiar saying comes from Psalm 118, and it reminds us that the parable in chapter 20 about the workers who all received the same wage, no matter how long they worked in the vineyard, also ended with a proverb. This quotation from Psalm 118 would have been well known to the people who heard Jesus that day. Psalm 118 closes the “Full Hallel” that begins in Psalm 113, the songs of praise that were sung as the Passover lamb was being slaughtered. And Psalm 118 begins the “Great Hallel” that ends in Psalm 136. These were the songs of praise sung on the first night of Passover, as the meal was about to be eaten. Remember that this is Holy Week, and the feast of Passover is about to begin. This Psalm reference held significant meaning for those who heard Jesus use it, even though they did not know, as we now do, that he was referring to himself as the rejected stone.

What would cause a stonemason to reject a particular stone as a cornerstone? What attributes does a stone need to have in order to become the cornerstone? What is a cornerstone anyway?

My stepdad had two cousins who were bachelor stonemasons. They built a structure on the farm where they grew up that is a work of art. Each stone is fitted perfectly into its own space, like pieces in a puzzle. And on the northwest corner of the building, at the very base of the foundation, lies the cornerstone. The cornerstone is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All the other foundation stones are set in reference to this stone, which means that the cornerstone determines the position of the entire structure. For the building to be sound, all the foundation stones must line up with the cornerstone as their reference point.

The other stones may be of various shapes and sizes, but because of its function as a reference point, the cornerstone needs to be of fairly good size, and relatively square. It needs to be a solid chunk of good quality rock, without defects. The whole building is going to rest on this stone, or be lined up with it, so most stones will be rejected for one reason or another. And this quotation from Psalm 118 about a rejected stone is the key to understanding the parable of the wicked tenants.

In Aramaic and Hebrew, the word for “stone” sounds almost like the word for “son” so this wordplay between the vineyard owner’s son in the parable, and the rejected stone in the proverb would have been quite evident to those who heard Jesus tell the story. When he identifies the builder who rejects the stone with the Temple rulers, it comes as a shock to his audience. Biblical scholar Klyne Snodgrass writes: “No Jewish listener would identify himself or herself with the tenants. Rather, the tenants would be evil people, possibly the Romans, who were violating God’s vineyard … The quotation says explicitly and dramatically what the parable intends: the religious leaders have rejected the son, … but this rejection will be reversed by God and the leaders will lose their role in God’s purposes.”[1]

So the parable, and the proverb from Psalm 118 that follows it, are primarily about response. How will we respond to the claims God has on our lives? Will we align ourselves with the cornerstone, or will we reject Christ in favor of our own desires, as the wicked tenants did? Are we willing to accept the responsibility that goes with the privilege of living in covenant relation with God? Can we give God our all, in response to the limitless grace we are offered?

The answers lie in our alignment with Christ as our cornerstone. Staying in line with Jesus keeps us in line with God and his purposes for us. God has laid the cornerstone in Jesus, but the foundation and the building of the kingdom of God must be made up of other stones, what Peter called “living stone.” In 1 Peter 2:4-6 we read,

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

We are those stones, when we are arranged in perfect alignment with our cornerstone, Jesus Christ. But how do we do that, exactly? How do we stay in line with Christ? Of course, we could always fall back on the answers of reading the Bible regularly, and praying without ceasing. We could talk about maintaining fellowship with one another. Those answers are all good, and those activities are certainly part of staying aligned with Christ. But even more, I think, it requires intentionality on our part. We must desire to be in God’s will. We must make a conscious effort to line up with our cornerstone, Jesus Christ.

The parable of the wicked tenants shows us that God is persistent in seeking his people. God sent his own Son, who has been rejected by many. God will eventually reject those who reject his grace, but God will always seek those who are willing to live in right relationship with him. That relationship depends on our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we will align ourselves with Christ, the cornerstone, we will be in right relation to God the Father.

John Calvin said that we should expect people, especially religious leaders, to try to hinder the reign of Christ. But whatever obstacles are raised, God will be victorious. Christ will reign, “a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” Amen.

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 290.