Matthew 21:33–46

Jesus the Cornerstone

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

October 8, 2017

 

This week’s passage is really a continuation of last week’s. In it we find Jesus telling a second parable to the religious leaders who have, as was their wont, yet again questioned his authority. As we saw last week, after Jesus entered the temple courts a second time—having cleared out the money changers the first time[1]—“while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you this authority?’” (verse 23). And we saw as well that by way of reply, Jesus stated, starting in verse 24: “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” And when these leaders pled ignorance, Jesus told them that neither would he tell them by what authority he was doing these things—in other words, he knew they were avoiding the question. But he also told them the parable of the two sons we looked at last week as a means of teaching them and challenging their professed ignorance. And then he told them a second parable, that of the tenants which is our focus this morning.[2] So in both instances his primary audience is those who have been questioning him, the chief priests and elders of the people. So this parable, too, is best understood as a response to their having questioned his authority.

However, the parable of the tenants is a little more involved than that of the two sons. In this parable we’re presented with “a landowner who planted a vineyard” that “he rented…to some farmers and moved to another place” (33). So what was expected of these tenants was that they would care for the vineyard on behalf of the landowner. Hence, verse 34, “When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.” But from the start things went terribly wrong for rather than provide the landowner’s servants with the harvest that was rightly his, verse 35, “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.” So not only did the tenants not grant the landowner his due but they also abused—and even murdered—one of the servants he had sent to collect his fruit.

Now this being a parable, a means of teaching a lesson or making a point, things don’t unfold as we might expect for surely the expected action of the landowner upon learning that his servants had been abused in this manner would have been to immediately throw his tenants in jail for their cruel and criminal activity. But instead we read that the landowner, verse 36, “Then…sent other servants to them, more than the first time,” and yet “the tenants treated them the same way.” Again, real life would dictate that at this point the landowner surely would have taken action and done something about such evil and ungrateful tenants—but there’s more to the lesson Jesus wanted to teach by this parable so we read instead that this landowner, who had not only been twice deprived of the fruit of his vineyard but had also had his servants abused or killed, decided “Last of all,” verse 37, to send “his son to them, thinking ‘They will respect my son.’”

Yet rather than respect the landowner’s son, these wicked tenants, starting in verse 38, “when [they] saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” And having presented this tragic turn of events to these religious leaders, Jesus then turned to them, to these leaders who had questioned both his and John the Baptist’s authority and their having come in fulfillment of Scripture, and asked, verse 40, “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And, as was true last week, the answer is obvious. Given that these vicious, greedy, and wicked tenants had not only abused the vineyard owner’s servants but now, contrary to what the landowner thought, hadn’t respected but rather had killed his son, the religious leaders answered correctly in verse 41: “[The landowner] will bring those wretches to a wretched end…and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” Perfect! That’s precisely what the landowner should do. And having heard this correct reply Jesus next went on to further explain—and apply—the parable’s meaning. And he did so by referencing, as he often did, the Scriptures these leaders professed to hold and follow.

In verse 42 Jesus turned to Psalm 118, a psalm that in his day was understood to be Messianic[3]—that is, as pointing to God’s promised Messiah—and asked them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’[4]?” This psalm is one that proclaims God’s love, goodness, and protection. It begins and ends with the same refrain, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”[5] And the intervening verses reiterate this point[6] and offer specific examples of his protection, care, deliverance, and salvation. In the psalm though the cornerstone is rejected by the builders—that is the leaders of Israel—it is nonetheless and against all expectations, delivered by the LORD. And it is he who “has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

So the parable of the tenants read in conjunction with Psalm 118 indicates that:

First, the landowner represents God. He is the one who planted a vineyard and rented it out to some farmers. Now the vineyard was a common way of speaking of Israel in the Old Testament[7] for Israel was the first nation called to be steward of all the blessings God had provided it.

But the ruthless farmers also represent Israel for instead of taking care of the treasures given them by God, they turned away from him. Though throughout its history God had remained faithful to this nation that he had created from one faithful man, Abraham, the nation of Israel had often been faithless. And one possible explanation as to why the landowner in the parable sent his servants more than once was to present a picture of God giving these tenants, his people, numerous opportunities to repent, to turn back to him from their wicked ways.

And who were these servants sent by God? They were his prophets, seen throughout the Old Testament calling God’s people to turn to him. So in the book Amos, for example, it states how “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets”[8] and Jeremiah similarly speaks of God’s servants being his prophets.[9] Yet Scripture records how time and again these servants, God’s prophets, were abused and rejected by Israel even as the servants in the parable are abused and rejected by the tenants.

Last but not least, and easiest for us to see, the landowner sending his son to the tenants is a clear parallel of God sending his Son, Jesus the Messiah, to both the nation of Israel and to the Gentiles—that is, to those who would one day be blessed by and grafted into the family of Israel. In referencing Psalm 118 Jesus has applied the cornerstone rejected by the builders, by Israel, to himself. And we know that Jesus the cornerstone rejected by Israel became the cornerstone of his church. As Paul states in Ephesians, “19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”[10]

This is how Peter similarly understood the application of the cornerstone mentioned in this psalm. So we find, for example, in the book of Acts, that after Peter healed “a man who was lame from birth,”[11] he used this healing as an opportunity to bear witness to his fellow Israelites about how Jesus fulfilled all that the prophets had spoken about the Messiah that God would send them. And after Peter finished telling them about Jesus the religious leaders—this time it was the Sadducees who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead—“were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead” and so they put Peter and John in jail. And yet, “many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.”[12] When the next day Peter and John were brought before “the elders and the teachers of the law…in Jerusalem,” to question them concerning “By what power or what name [they had done] this,”[13] we read the following:

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, 10 then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. 11 Jesus is

‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ 12 Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

This is the very message Jesus was presenting the religious leaders who were questioning his authority and his kindness[14] in our passage in Matthew. And the answer is the same: Jesus is the cornerstone which they, the builders—again, those who had been entrusted with the Scriptures—should have recognized and proclaimed but instead rejected. And for rejecting God’s Messiah, they themselves would be rejected by this very Lord who had done such marvelous things by and through his Son.

Now recall the earlier connection between the vineyard in the parable with Old Testament teaching. Notice the number of shared images we find between Isaiah and this parable.[15] In Isaiah, after stating how this vineyard yielded only bad fruit rather than good grapes, the following question is posed: “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.” And this is precisely what Jesus states will occur to these leaders starting in verse 43, “43 Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” These religious leaders, again allegedly faithful Jewish teachers, embraced neither John the Baptist, God’s prophet pointing to Jesus as the Lamb sent by God to take away the sins of the world, nor did they embrace Jesus as God’s Messiah, the King who held the keys of entry into his—that is God’s—kingdom. Though Israel had been the first to receive God’s revelation, his Word, his communication via his servants, the prophets in the Old Testament, it now rejected both John and Jesus as fulfilling that very Word. And it is this rejection that led to entry into God’s kingdom being taken away from them and given to those who would produce its fruit—not only the tax-collectors and prostitutes as we saw last week but eventually all sinners, even the Gentiles, who embraced him as their Savior and Lord.

Make no mistake. Tax collectors—and prostitutes—and sinners—and you—and I—are now given God’s kingdom for one reason and one reason only: for recognizing and embracing Jesus as fulfilling the Hebrew Scriptures; for recognizing and embracing Jesus as the marvelous cornerstone. But those builders who rejected Jesus as the cornerstone; who didn’t recognize and embrace Jesus as fulfilling the Hebrew Scriptures; who didn’t recognize and embrace Jesus as the marvelous cornerstone, would be crushed by him. Because Israel had not cared for God’s vineyard; because it had not cared for the kingdom of Jesus, their Lord and King, that vineyard was being taken away from them and given to those who would care for it—that is it would be given to sinners who accepted the marvelous thing God was doing by means of his Son, the cornerstone, the foundation and culmination not only of Israel but also of the church, Christ’s body and temple.

So by the end of Jesus’ teaching by means of these parables, it’s clear that these leaders had taken his point for, we’re told, “45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.” They knew they were the son from last week’s parable who said he would do his father’s will—but didn’t; they knew they were, using their very own words in this week’s parable, the “wretches” who ought to be brought to a “wretched end” (verse 41) for Jesus was clearly stating that they were those who had abused and killed God’s servants, the prophets; and they were the ones who would even kill Jesus, God’s Son. And as was true of the wretched tenants in the parable, these chief priests and Pharisees, in “[looking] for a way to arrest [Jesus],” verse 46, would also end up putting him, God’s Son, the only Son of the owner of the vineyard, to death even if, for the time being they didn’t arrest him since, as was also true when asked about John the Baptist,[16] “they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.”

Sisters and brothers as we consider this parable, we should be humbled—and challenged—by the awesome responsibility we have been entrusted with. For we have been given God’s Kingdom not because of any good or noble work we’ve done but simply because we’ve accepted Jesus as the cornerstone, the rock, the foundation of our faith. Earlier I noted how Peter, as he proclaimed the Gospel to his fellow Israelites, identified Jesus as the cornerstone rejected by the builders—rejected by them. And Peter mentioned this cornerstone a second time in one of his letters in which he proclaimed the very same Gospel but this time to Gentiles who had come to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus as God’s Messiah by accepting him as the cornerstone. Listen to Peter’s words from I Peter 4:

4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”[17] Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,”—and here Peter again references the same verse in Psalm 118 referenced by Jesus—“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,”[18] and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”[19] They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Did you catch the end to which we have become God’s chosen people—his royal priesthood—his holy nation—his special possession? It’s that we might declare the praises of him who has called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. This is what it means to be good stewards of God’s vineyard, God’s kingdom. This is what it means to produce fruit for our Lord. This is the message we’re called to proclaim to Jew and Gentile and any with whom we come in contact. This is the means by which, if we’re to have an increase in numbers, that increase will come: By telling others of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. By telling others of Christ, God’s Son; by sharing Christ, the light of the world who entered this world in the flesh that we might see God and so have his hope—and so have his peace—and so have the courage and the strength to do his will on earth even as it is ever done in heaven.

In weeks that have been marked by tragedy upon tragedy:

By Hurricane Harvey in Houston;

And Hurricane Irma in southern Florida;

And Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico;

And a tragic shooting rampage in Las Vegas;

Don’t we owe it to others—don’t we owe it to each other—don’t we owe it to ourselves to proclaim that this is not the way God intended things to be and so follow the example of Jesus and Peter and of all who have ever been followers of our Lord and show kindness to and point others to the only One who is able to make things the way God intended? And so show kindness to and point others to God’s Son, the cornerstone who continues to be rejected by many but in whom lies our only and ultimate hope? As Peter told his fellow Israelites, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”[20]

So let us who once were not a people, but now are the people of God; let us who once had not received mercy, but now have received mercy show this mercy, love, and goodness to those around us.

Let us share with and tell others of Christ’s protection, care, deliverance, and salvation.

Let us remember that this life and whatever goods we may have in it are on loan to us and are to be used to proclaim the goodness and kindness of our loving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And so let us stand and bear witness with all who have ever known this one true God as we “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”[21]

Let us pray.

[1] Matthew 21:12–13: 12 Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. 13 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’[Isaiah 56:7] but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’[Jer. 7:11]

[2] Whereas Matthew is the only Gospel that records the parable of the two sons, Mark and Luke include the parable of the tenants after Jesus’ authority was questioned. Mark 12:1–12: 1 Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed. “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” 12 Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.; Luke 20:9–19: He went on to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. 10 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. 12 He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. 13 “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 “But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 15 So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “God forbid!” 17 Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? 18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” 19 The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.

[3] Crossway ESV Study Bible note on Mark 12:10.

[4] Psalm 118:22, 23.

[5] Psalm 118: 1, 29.

[6] Psalm 118:2, 3, 4.

[7] See, e.g., Isaiah 5:1–5: 1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. Psalm 80:8-18:You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. 10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. 11 Its branches reached as far as the Sea, its shoots as far as the River. 12 Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes? 13 Boars from the forest ravage it, and insects from the fields feed on it. 14 Return to us, God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine, 15 the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself. 16 Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire; at your rebuke your people perish. 17 Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand, the son of man you have raised up for yourself. 18 Then we will not turn away from you; revive us, and we will call on your name.

[8] Amos 3:7.

[9] E.g., Jeremiah 26:5: and if you do not listen to the words of my servants the prophets, whom I have sent to you again and again (though you have not listened) Jeremiah 44:4: Again and again I sent my servants the prophets, who said, ‘Do not do this detestable thing that I hate!’

[10] Ephesians 2:19–20.

[11] Acts 3:2ff.

[12] Acts 4:3–4.

[13] Acts 4:5–7.

[14] Matthew 21:14–15: 14 The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. 15 But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.

[15] Again, this is from Isaiah 5:1–5: 1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.

[16] Matthew 21:24–26: 24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.

[17] Isaiah 28:16: So this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic.

[18] Psalm 118:22.

[19] Isaiah 8:14: He will be a holy place; for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.

[20] Acts 4:12.

[21] Psalm 118: 1, 29.

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