A reflection in Psalm 118:19-25 and Matthew 21:33-46 for Sunday, March 21, 2021 at Mosaic Baptist Church
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.[c]
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Psalm 118:19-25 (NRSVA)
“Now listen to another story. A certain landowner planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, dug a pit for pressing out the grape juice, and built a lookout tower. Then he leased the vineyard to tenant farmers and moved to another country. At the time of the grape harvest, he sent his servants to collect his share of the crop. But the farmers grabbed his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. So the landowner sent a larger group of his servants to collect for him, but the results were the same.
“Finally, the owner sent his son, thinking, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’
“But when the tenant farmers saw his son coming, they said to one another, ‘Here comes the heir to this estate. Come on, let’s kill him and get the estate for ourselves!’ So they grabbed him, dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him.
“When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those farmers?”
The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Didn’t you ever read this in the Scriptures?
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has now become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing,
and it is wonderful to see.’
I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit. Anyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”
When the leading priests and Pharisees heard this parable, they realized he was telling the story against them—they were the wicked farmers. They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, who considered Jesus to be a prophet.
Matthew 21:33-46 (NRSVA)
If you are familiar with how the prophets fared in Israel – as the ‘chief priests and Pharisees’ were – the direct, even unimaginative, nature of this Jesus-parable is confronting.
Israel was long considered God’s vineyard. The prophets have always been marginalised.
The Jewish scriptures clearly tell of one who consistently sends witnesses. God’s desire for a fruitful Israel was long established.
Perhaps the only real surprise here is the introduction of ‘tenants’. This is exactly what the religious leaders consider themselves to be – although Jesus seems to be uncomfortably accurate in declaring that they desire to be owners.
The religious leaders see their likeness here before they even realise where Jesus’ account is taking them!
These tenants, however, are far from faithful. The master’s representatives are consistently ‘beaten and stoned’. Their arrogance peaks at the landowner’s sending of his son. In their power-mad reasoning they see an opportunity to take over. Theirs is an irrational killing.
What system eliminates the heir and expects the reward of inheritance? The law surrounding heirs has never worked this way.
And, what landowner would not return with vengeance to radically re-arrange the lease?
Jesus’ quoting of Psalm 118 is much more than accusation. It reminds Jesus hearers that even now God’s plan is unfolding – and in ways previously unimagined.
A cornerstone was the first stone laid in a building. Size, shape, strength, and position were all vital. It was a master art in itself to select and shape a cornerstone. The same could be said of a capstone – the final stone laid in an archway to hold the structure in place.
Considering David’s reference to the gateway that brings salvation, Psalm 118 refers to the capstone. It is the stone providing a way of escape.
In Matthew 21, given Jesus proximity to the temple and all it represents, Jesus seems to point to Psalm 118 as a way of referencing the ‘cornerstone’.
Either way, the coming rejection of Jesus will bring about something ‘amazing’: a new cornerstone or capstone from which everything is aligned.
And then, as if Jesus has not been direct enough, Jesus looks into the eye of Israel’s leaders: ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.’
Unsurprisingly our text states that they ‘…realised that he was speaking about them’. One might think this clarification unnecessary. With all their learning, surely this is easy to understand.
But they haven’t understood.
So much so that they – staggeringly – leave the encounter only to plot the parable’s fulfilment. They are looking to kill.
Do you favour either ‘capstone’ or ‘cornerstone’ in this Psalm? Why might it be interpreted either way?
Where do you think your life is aligned well with Jesus? Where are you still aligning yourself with Jesus vision of the Kingdom of God?