“Broken or Crushed” (Luke 20:17-18)
When I was growing up, my dad and I rode dirt bikes. We had some favorite places we would ride in the deserts or the mountains of Southern California. There was one place we often rode that always made me fearful. It was a mountain trail that led past a huge pile of rocks with one very large boulder perched precariously on top. It seemed as though any strong gust of wind or a mild earthquake would easily cause that rock to topple over and crush whatever was beneath it … including me, if I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Or should I say, the WRONG place. Needless to say, whenever we reached that part of the trail, I would open up the throttle and zoom past as quickly as possible.
Jesus talks about a dangerous rock in our text today. “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” That’s not a pleasant prospect, being shattered or flattened by a rock. Jesus is the stone in our text today. He says that a person will either be broken or crushed by him. Will we fall upon this rock in repentant trust? Or will that stone fall upon us in condemnation?
Jesus leads up to those words by first telling the parable of the vineyard. This parable was meant to describe how the religious leaders of God’s Old Testament people had responded to God’s Word, especially when they were confronted with their unfaithfulness.
God is the owner of the vineyard and his people are the vineyard. There are several places in the Old Testament that use that picture to describe the people of Israel. God planted them and took care of them.
The tenant farmers in the parable are the leaders of the people. They are the ones to whom God had given the responsibility to take care of the vineyard. They were supposed to faithfully lead and teach the people about God’s Law, and then point them to his merciful love. But they had failed in that task. They pointed people away from God’s truth. They often chased after other gods. And after the people of Judah returned from exile in Babylon, and by the time Jesus was born, the worship of Yahweh, for the most part, had degenerated into a system of legalism. Being obedient to the Law had become an end in itself, without true trust in God.
The servants sent to collect the fruit of the vineyard are the prophets sent to find the fruit of faith, that is, repentant trust in God and the good works that flow from faith…loving God and loving your neighbor. But the farmers beat the servants and sent them away empty handed. That’s exactly how the prophets were treated, proving that those who rejected them had no faith and no accompanying fruit of faith.
Finally, the owner of the vineyard decides to send his son, thinking they will respect him. Instead, the farmers killed the son. Of course, Jesus here is foretelling his own death. He knew that this is what the leaders of his day were planning. Jesus had predicted it several times. In fact, at the end of today’s text, St. Luke writes, “The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.” They were fully aware that Jesus had spoken this parable against them. They knew that many of the people believed his teaching, so they were afraid to arrest him for fear of how the people might react. And so, Good Friday had to wait for a little while longer.
But at the conclusion of the parable, what did Jesus say would happen to the farmers who rejected the son? They would be killed and the vineyard would be given to others. The religious establishment that had rejected the Messiah would be ended. It was indeed ended when Jesus offered himself up as the final sacrifice for sins. Now all who trust in Christ as Savior, whether Jew or Gentile, would be a part of God’s Vineyard, God’s New Testament Church. And to emphasize the finality of Jesus’ sacrifice and his condemnation over unbelieving Jerusalem, the temple was destroyed and the city overrun by the Romans in 70 AD. The system of sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple was ended, because there was no more need for them. Jesus is the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world at the cross. There he took your place and mine and atoned for our sins.
To use another image from my motorcycle riding days, Jesus “shifts gears” a bit after having told the parable. The people protest what Jesus has said about the tenants being destroyed and the vineyard being given away. “Surely not!” they cry out. Jesus responds by quoting Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
A cornerstone is that first stone laid on a foundation with which all other stones must line up. By Baptism and by faith,, you and I are placed as living stones as a part of this building called the Holy Christian Church, all who by faith trust in Jesus for forgiveness and salvation.
But we don’t normally think of cornerstones as falling and crushing someone. We would normally think of other pieces of buildings that are much higher up that might possibly come crashing to the ground. Or boulders that might roll down a hillside and crush a teenager on a dirt bike.
It might be tempting to open up the throttle and cruise by these words of Jesus because they are so uncomfortable. But let’s not. This is God’s Word, too, so we must deal with it. “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
It looks like there’s no getting around this Stone. We will either be broken or crushed. Like the religious leaders of whom the parable of the vineyard condemned, those who reject this Stone will face the crushing blow of judgment. Unbelievers will be crushed by this Stone. For them, Scripture calls Jesus a “stumbling stone,” which does more than make them stumble. It crushes them. The crucifixion of Jesus is the ultimate stumbling block, as St. Paul relates to the Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:23) And to the Romans, he writes, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Rom. 9:33)
When we stub our toe on a rock, it hurts. It hurts worse if you fall down upon a boulder and break a bone or two. Years ago, one of my friends foolishly went rock climbing by himself without telling anyone where he was going. He fell and shattered one of his legs on the rocks beneath him. He managed to drag himself to a place where he could call for help. But you can imagine how much pain he had to deal with in the meantime.
Being broken hurts. And in our sinful pride, it hurts even more to admit that we cannot make it on our own. We need help. We need our sinful nature to be broken and even killed. And this can only happen if we fall upon the mercy of the Stone who was crucified for us.
There’s no getting around this Stone. We will either be broken or crushed. But as we just heard from St. Paul, “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” Those who believe in this Stone as Savior must fall into the brokenness of repentance. And there is no shame in repentance. There is no shame in admitting to God that you are broken, that you are sinful. We bring to him the brokenness of our hearts and lives, especially the brokenness we have because of our sin. Then, God begins to put us back together again.
“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again,” so goes the old nursery rhyme. Jesus, our Divine Savior, is more than able to put us back together again. In the power of his love and forgiveness, he makes us whole. He makes us to be a new creation by the power of the Holy Spirit working in the water of Baptism and in the Word that is preached. He gives us a share in the life that he has in himself, abundant life, real life, eternal life. And he keeps on giving us that life in his Word and as we receive his body and blood in the Holy Supper. Then, he raises us up again as new beings, living stones in Christ, the temple of God in whom he dwells.
Broken or crushed? We don’t have to be afraid of being crushed by God’s judgment, because Jesus was crushed at the cross for us, as the prophet Isaiah said, “he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Is. 53:5)…and as we sing in the hymn “What is this bread? Christ’s body risen from the dead: This bread we break, this life we take, was crushed to pay for our release. Oh, taste and see – the Lord is peace.” (LSB 629.1)
When we place our faith and trust in the Innocent One who was crushed for our sins, we taste and see his goodness. We taste and see that the Lord is our peace. And our hearts can rest in his peace, knowing that he loves us. We are forgiven. And we are set in place as living stones in God’s eternal kingdom.