Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Stone that the Builders Rejected

Matthew 21:33-46

 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes.

Years ago Newsweek magazine published an article called, “the Other Jesus” by columnist Kenneth Woodward. In it he discusses why--although many religious traditions have adopted Jesus as their own--the Jesus of the gospels in unique. He writes,

“Clearly, the cross is what separates the Christ of Christianity from every other Jesus. In Judaism there is no precedent for a Messiah who dies, much less as a criminal as Jesus did. In Islam, the story of Jesus' death is rejected as an affront to Allah himself. Hindus can accept only a Jesus who passes into peaceful samadhi, a yogi who escapes the degradation of death. The figure of the crucified Christ, says Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, "is a very painful image to me. It does not contain joy or peace, and this does not do justice to Jesus." There is, in short, no room in other religions for a Christ who experiences the full burden of mortal existence--and hence there is no reason to believe in him as the divine Son whom the Father resurrects from the dead.”

Our Gospel reading today brings us face to face with the rejection and murder of God’s son. In it we learn that Jesus’ imminent death was not a mystery to him. He understood it to be the consummation of his mission, the very purpose for which he was sent. It was prophesied beforehand. He quotes from Psalm 118:22 to indicate this.  It the Lord’s doing he said. Somehow God is able to turn the deepest human rebellion into his greatest blessing to humanity.

The people to whom this revelation was entrusted, his own nation, the nation of Israel, could not perceive it. He tells of his rejection and crucifixion under the cover of a parable. The landowner is God, the vineyard he plants and provides for is the nation of Israel. He built a fence around his vineyard, meaning he called them to be holy and separate. He entrusted his vineyard to tenants, meaning the rulers and chief priest. He looked for fruit but found only wild grapes. The servants he sent—his prophets—were shamefully treated, beaten, and killed. Finally he sent his Son—Jesus himself—but they cast him out and murdered him.

Interpreting Jesus’ parables can sometimes be challenging, but this one seems obvious to us, in light of what we know about to happen to Jesus. Jesus’ hearers, Israel’s religious leaders seem incapable of hearing what Jesus is saying to them. What should happen to the tenants that have murdered the landowners son? “Kill the wretches!” they say, “give the vineyard to other tenants who will be faithful!”
They were unable to see that Jesus was speaking of them!

If their problem was merely ignorance, then they would have received the prophets with joy, for they brought them the light of revelation. If all that was needed to direct them to righteousness was a bit of guidance, than a wise teacher or religious sage would have been savior enough. The problem was much deeper and more pervasive than this however.  It wasn’t that they were ignorant of God’s ways--after all he had given them the law and sent them the prophets—the problem was that they were captive to a wicked power, a spirit of rebellion fundamentally opposed to God. This needed to be broken. Their rebellion needed to be overcome, and their sins which separated them from their God, needed to be atoned for.

Israel’s rebellion against God and their rejection of his Christ was not unique to them, rather their rebellion and captivity is a picture of the state of the whole human race. Because we have rebelled against God and rejected his rule, we have fallen under captivity to the devil, sin, and death. Only the death of God’s Son is able to liberate us from this captivity.

Jesus is the Stone that the builders of this world rejected. In ancient architecture the cornerstone was the principle stone placed at the corner of a great edifice, such as the temple. The Cornerstone was the most precious, valuable, and carefully constructed stone in the entire building. It was the stone upon which all others rested and it brought unity to the whole. The Church can be compared to a temple with each of us being like living stones. Christ is the head corner stone. Our strong foundation, the one who holds us all together, and the one given the greatest honor. The metaphor is similar to the picture of the Church as one body with Christ as the head. This one, that has been scorned and rejected by the world, is the one whom God has given the chief importance and the greatest honor.

The stone is a common image for Christ throughout the Bible. For instance Christ is the rock which was stricken and gushed out water for the people of Israel in the wilderness. Jesus is also the Rock prophesied of in the book of Daniel. The stone not carved by human hands that would smash the kingdoms of this world to dust and become a mountain that will fill the whole world.

Those who fall on this stone—who are offended at Christ and reject him as Lord—are broken to pieces. None can oppose his rule. Either we receive it with gladness or we are destroyed with all that stands in opposition to his righteousness.

In seeking to destroy Christ, the evil forces that rebel against God and hold the human race captive—sin, death, and the devil—were themselves destroyed. They saw in him one who was meek, lowly, and defenseless like a lamb and like wolves they descended on him to slaughter him, but instead found themselves consumed by his mighty power like gazelle who sought to oppose a lion. They railed against the indestructible stone of his divinity and were shattered into pieces.

As Saint Paul says, if the rulers of this age knew his true identity they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory (1 Corinithians 2:8).
The Early Church Father, Gregory of Nyssa, used this power metaphor,

“the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down [by the devil] along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active."

Christ bore the worst of human sin on the cross. He absorbed our rebellion and destroyed it in the blazing fire of his righteousness. Through his death, death itself died. Although we rejected him, God raised him up and gave him the name above every other name. If we share with him in a death like his, we will also share in his undying, resurrection, life.
Christ made our denial of him the means of our acceptance, he turned weakness into strength, disrespect into honor, and death into life.

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