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