Matthew once again uses a parable of Jesus to allegorize it to make polemical statements about the religious leaders of his day. Remember that Matthew’s audience was a Jewish community that had come to see and to receive Jesus as the Messiah. Most of the Jewish religious leaders, the chief priests and Pharisees, did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
Today’s story, the parable of the wicked tenants, is told by Matthew to make sense of Jesus’ death – “hindsight is 20/20.” After the tenants had beaten and thrown out slaves sent by the landowner of the vineyard, the landowner sent his own son to collect what was due. “Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” (Matthew 21:37-39) One cannot help but hear this in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Matthew drives home his polemical point with this: “Therefore I tell you, the dominion of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of it…. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because the people regarded him as a prophet.” (Matthew 21:43, 45-46)
It’s noteworthy that at this point in the narrative, Matthew holds the crowds in higher esteem than the religious leaders. Sinners and tax collectors and others among the throng seem to “get” Jesus more than the chief priests and Pharisees.
But remember where we’re headed in Matthew. The story is moving to its culmination, the Passion, the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And remember who it was, when it was all said and done, who demanded Jesus’ crucifixion: it was the crowds who cried out, “Let [Jesus, the one called the Messiah] be crucified.” Religious leaders may have been instigators and the imperial authorities were the ones who carried out the execution. But the crowds demanded it.
So, let’s leave behind the polemic of Matthew’s day and community and begin to see ourselves in the long story line of the gospel. We are among the crowd, the throng.
In dramatic readings of the Passion during Holy Week, it is always poignant and bitter to me when the whole assembly speaks the voice of the crowd, “Crucify him.”
The late great New Testament scholar and Swedish Bishop, Krister Stendahl, did a lot of work confronting anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism as it appears in the New Testament – especially the tendency throughout the centuries to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. As an antidote to such anti-Semitic impulses among Christians, Stendahl invoked one of the stanzas of a beloved Lutheran hymn for Holy Week, “Ah, Holy Jesus.”
In this poetry by Johann Heermann in English translation, we hear: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.” (ELW #349, Stanza Two)
The point for us is this: We all share in the brokenness of humanity that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. If we were there, we would likely have been among those who shouted, “Crucify him.”
Likewise, we all share in the brokenness of humanity that has played various parts in leading to the deaths of countless innocent victims in all the nations of the world, throughout all human centuries, even up to our own day.
The good news is that the Crucified One became the Risen One who has the healing, saving, last word on all of the horrors that we humans create. Pointing to this reality, we see in the gospel for today a quote from the Psalms that foreshadows Christ’s resurrection victory: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” (Matthew 21:42, and cf. Psalm 118:22-23)
This stone cannot be broken. Rather, this stone is the one that does the breaking (cf. Matthew 21:44). Christ as cornerstone, or keystone, breaks the rule of sin and death, and then holds everything together, drawing the whole world to himself for our health and salvation.
In the prophecy from Isaiah which is today’s first reading, the vineyard that yielded wild grapes is ruined by divine judgment. In Matthew, by way of contrast, the vineyard is preserved to bear the fruit of the dominion of God. So it is in Christ, the vine, and with us who are his branches that we bear good fruit. We can only bear good fruit because of Christ. For apart from him we can do nothing. (cf. John 15:5)
The good news of the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone is what led Paul to observe and conclude in today’s second reading, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness based on faith.” (Philippians 3:7-9)
We may feel like broken stones all shattered and scattered about. Indeed, the longer the pandemic and other crises persist, perhaps the more shattered and scattered humanity seems.
But hear this, more good news: Christ gathers up these broken pieces, and builds them into a new temple, Christ himself, again, becoming the cornerstone that keeps this new temple of salvation solid and sound.
May these holy mysteries expressed in today’s readings be our hope in seemingly hopeless days. May these mysteries be the good news during a time of so much bad news.
May Christ be with you in palpable ways to bring you the bedrock confidence of hopefulness in him. Amen.
I invite your reflection, this time only one question: • In what ways do you see Christ as the cornerstone of your life and the life of the world?