Pentecost 18 – Series A – Proper 22 (October 8, 2017)
“The Cornerstone” (Matthew 21:33-46)
Unless you are looking for it, you might miss seeing a cornerstone in a modern building … that is, if the building even has one. In days gone by, brick and mortar buildings had a stone that was placed first. The angles of the walls that meet at that corner must line up with that initial stone, so it was a significant part – if not the chief part – of the foundation. Today, cornerstones are not always the first stone laid. They are often decorative, with the year the building was built engraved into it and other important information about the building, such as who the builder was, what organization or business ordered the structure to be built, and so forth. In some Lutheran churches, you may find a cornerstone with the initials “U.A.C.” etched on it. That stands for “Unaltered Augsburg Confession” and displays the fact that the congregation confesses the Augsburg Confession of 1530 before Philip Melanchthon altered it. He softened some of the language about the Lord’s Supper about 10 years later to appeal to Christians who denied the real presence of the Body and Blood of the Lord in Holy Communion. As a professor in Wittenberg and friend and colleague of Luther, Melanchthon was a key figure in the Reformation, but altering the Augsburg Confession was not one of his brighter moments.
It’s also possible that a cornerstone such as the one described in our text today could refer to a large decorative stone placed at the top of a corner where two walls meet. It gives the corner a beautiful, finishing flourish. This meaning of the word “cornerstone” would also make sense in our text today, since it has the potential to do some damage when it falls on someone. A cornerstone at the bottom of the building isn’t going to travel very far. And it certainly won’t crush anyone. Maybe a toe or two, if even that much.
Jesus quotes from Psalm 118 after telling the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Now, why would you reject a stone from being a cornerstone? Maybe it’s not substantial enough. It’s not made out of lasting, durable material, but will crumble under pressure. Maybe it’s not square enough. Its edges are uneven. It would be difficult to align the other stones with it after it’s set in place. Maybe it’s not beautiful enough for its nature as a decorative part of the building. A cornerstone must be perfectly suited for its task.
Jesus was referring to himself as the cornerstone that was rejected by the “builders” of Israel, the chief priests and experts in the law and other leaders of the people of Israel. He was rejected, even though he was perfectly suited for his task. He was substantial enough … True God in the flesh … “of one substance with the Father” as we confess in the Creed. He did not crumble under pressure when Satan tempted him and tried to divert him from his mission as the Messiah. He was perfectly aligned with his Father’s will as he perfectly obeyed the Law and willingly came to serve humanity as our Savior. He did not appear to be beautiful to those who saw him, though, as the prophet Isaiah said, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2). He came in all humility, not appearing gloriously as the Son and inheritor of the One who planted the vineyard, but rather as the son of an insignificant virgin from a remote village.
Yet he was rejected by the very ones he came to serve. Israel was the vineyard that God planted. It was all the Lord’s doing. He chose them as his own special people. They did not choose him. The Lord built a fence around his vineyard for protection, a winepress for provision, and a tower from which to peer for approaching enemies. In other words, God gave them the Torah to guide them in all truth. He gave them the priesthood to intercede and offer sacrifices. He gave them the prophets to call them back to the Lord when they would rebel. But the people of Israel notoriously rejected the Lord’s Word given through the prophets and put many of them to death. As Isaiah said, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, and outcry!” (Is. 5:7). The prophets preached against the unfaithfulness of the people, and the people responded with injustice, bloodshed, and unrighteousness. The prophet Zechariah the son of Jehoiada was stoned to death in the temple court by command of King Joash. According to tradition and possibly referenced in Hebrews 11:37, Isaiah was sawn in half. In the time of Elijah, the wicked queen Jezebel had many unnamed prophets put to death. And of course, there was John the Baptist, beheaded while imprisoned for publicly condemning Herod’s adultery (Matt. 14:1-12).
Yes, God planted Israel as his vineyard. But when he came looking for fruit, there was none. Nothing. The trees were barren. There was no fruit produced. No faith. Instead, there was the rotten fruit of unbelief, demonstrated in injustice, bloodshed, and unrighteousness. And the chief priests and the leaders to whom Jesus was speaking were about to demonstrate the same. In just a few days after Jesus told this parable, they would kill the Son of God. They “threw him out of the vineyard,” outside the walls of Jerusalem, as an outcast, as a criminal. They handed him over to the Romans who had the authority to crucify him. And in so doing, they failed to receive the Son’s inheritance … an honored place in the kingdom of God. This would be taken away from them and given to a people producing fruit … those with true faith and true fruits of faith. The very people whom Jesus came to save rejected him. And Jesus said, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” There is judgment awaiting those who reject the Cornerstone.
“This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” God is the one who planted the vineyard, Israel. He chose them. Yet they stubbornly rejected God’s will for them. At the same time, God is the one who knew that the rejection of his Son would mean the salvation of the world. It involved plenty of injustice, bloodshed, and unrighteousness. Christ’s blood was shed for us. All our injustices and unrighteous thoughts, words, and deeds were placed upon him. The cornerstone himself was crushed for our iniquities (Is. 53:5).
By baptism and faith, God plants you in his vineyard. He places you as a stone in his building, the Church. Yet we often reject God’s will for our lives, too. We don’t align ourselves with the Cornerstone. When you fall on the Cornerstone in repentance, you are broken to pieces. But the Lord puts you back together again. In Christ Jesus, you are made whole again. Your sins are forgiven. You are put back into alignment with Cornerstone. This stone will not crush you. But he does promise to crush all your enemies under him, your enemies of sin, death, and the devil. They were crushed when another familiar stone was rolled away, the one that tried to keep Jesus in the tomb. Those enemies still pester us and hinder us in this life and will continue to do so until Jesus returns in glory. But because Jesus has won the victory for you in his death and resurrection, you can see those enemies not as giant boulders ready to bowl you over, but as tiny little pebbles being tossed at you, a mere annoyance that we can walk right past because we are aligned with the Cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Aligned with the Cornerstone, we can hold him high, decorating our lives with his beauty and truth. We can stand on the firm foundation of the Word of God. We will receive the inheritance of our Lord Jesus, not as something we have earned, but as something that is freely given to us … living eternally in the presence of God, seeing Jesus face to face. And won’t that be marvelous in our eyes?