Sermon on Matt 21:33-42.
“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Matt 21:42; Ps 117:22)
Thus Jesus arrestingly concludes his parable of the wicked tenants – with this quote from Psalm 117 and a new image. Remember, he has been speaking of a vineyard, its vinedressers, and its owner’s son – not of a building, its builders, and a stone. Yet he shifts suddenly to this new image.
Partly, this says the same thing in a new way: that the very people the Lord has chosen to love and serve him – the tenants of his vineyard or the builders of his temple – will reject and kill his Son. And partly it says something additional: that after his rejection, he will become the cornerstone. That is, after his crucifixion, he will rise again.
These coming events are much on Jesus’ mind, I expect, because he speaks this parable on Holy Tuesday, only three days before he will suffer his passion and death on the cross, having been turned over to such ignominious death by some of the people to whom he is speaking – the chief priests and elders of the people of God. They are standing in the court of the temple (cf. Matt 21:23). Perhaps being in the stone temple[i] brings to Jesus’ mind the image of the cornerstone from the Psalms.
Here is the scene: the chief priests and elders of the people of God are standing in the temple of God, speaking to the Son of God. They did not know what they were saying when they condemned the wicked tenants of Jesus’ parable to a miserable death. They did not know that they were the wicked tenants who had rejected the Lord’s servants and would soon reject his son. Nor did they know that the condemnation they spoke was against themselves. They did not know to whom they were speaking. And as he is being crucified for them and for us, he will forgive them for they do not know what they do. “Let Israel say, ‘His mercy endures forever’” (Psalm 117:2).
And by his forgiveness and his rising from the dead, Jesus Christ becomes the cornerstone. “That is,” writes the Blessed Θεοφύλακτος, “He [becomes] the head of the Church, joining Jews and Gentiles in one faith. For as the stone which forms the corner of a building makes continuous the walls leading to and from it, so Christ has bound all together in one faith.” The Jews are like the wall that leads to Christ, the cornerstone, and the Gentiles are like the wall that goes from Christ, the cornerstone. Christ makes us a seamless whole. He unites the Old and New Testaments as only he can.
When Jesus suddenly interjects a verse from the Old Testament at the end of his new allegory of the vineyard, he recontextualizes the Psalm – as opposed to decontextualizing it. He gives it or finds in it a true messianic prophecy perhaps never before seen or understood.
Of course it makes perfect sense that we have to read the New Testament in the context of the Old – because the Old Testament comes before. It describes and provides the context in which the New Testament was originally received and understood and so without it, we can never hope to truly understand the Gospel on even a human level.
But with Scripture, interpretation goes the other way as well. We also read the Old Testament in the light of the New. Because, in addition to being written by humans, scripture also has God as its author. God inspires scripture, and he is not bound by time. Our chronology does not limit him. So when Jesus offers us an interpretation of the Psalms, as he does today, we should listen! Be attentive – because – even though the Psalms were written centuries before Christ was born, when Christ interprets them, he speaks with authorial authority. He doesn’t interpret scripture as you or I must, nor does he interpret as the scribes and Pharisees must, or still less as the Sadducees. He, alone among humans, can give scripture authentic meaning that even its original human author did not intend – because he, alone among humans, is the God who inspires all scripture. And “All scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching…” (2 Tim 3:16).
In its original context, it is fairly clear that – by the stone – the Psalmist is referring not specifically or directly to the coming Messiah, but to the nation of Israel. Israel was rejected and oppressed and exiled repeatedly – by the Assyrians, by the Babylonians, by the Persians – and the Psalmist is praising the Lord who has delivered Israel, granted them victory over their enemies, and restored them. Despite being rejected by “all nations” (Ps 117:10), Israel remains the chosen people of God, among whom the Lord dwells in his temple – “the house of the Lord” (Ps 117:26). So, Israel is “the stone which the builders rejected, [which] has become the cornerstone” (Ps 117:22).
But now Jesus teaches us that this also applies to him – personally. That he – a true Israelite – is “the stone which the builders rejected” and that he, personally, will “become the cornerstone”
When Jesus mentions a stone, I think Peter’s ears must have pricked up. “Oh – a stone – that’s me!” he may have thought – “Jesus calls me a rock and now he’s talking about a stone – I had better pay attention to this.” Be attentive! It seems that Peter did pay attention – because he really latches onto this image. This passage from Psalms is quoted twice more in Scripture, and both times it is quoted by Peter.
The book of Acts records that rulers and elders and all the high priestly family inquired of Peter “by what power or by what name” he had healed a cripple. Peter answered boldly, “be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12)
And in his first letter, Peter, the rock, rhapsodizes much on this rocky image of Christ:
“Come to him,” Peter beckons us, “to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves 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 [That is, in the prophet Isaiah (28:16)]: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.’
“To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,’ and ‘A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall.’ For they stumble because they disobey the word…. But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:4-9).
[i] That the temple is stone: cf. Matt 24:2