Sermon - Ordinary 27A Year A | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

The stone the builders rejected

In the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-43), or the parable of the tenants who killed the son, we see people who had become used to having property that belonged to someone else use violence to keep what they had. They were not willing to admit their responsibility to the owner and tried to act as if it all belonged to them. To secure their ambitions they killed the owner's son and heir, hoping thereby to succeed to the property, but the owner came and threw them out. We, of course looking back know that the son in the story stands for Jesus and that his death was not the end of his story. Indeed his death was but the beginning of a great triumph, so that in the terms of Psalm 118 the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. There were many momentous consequences which follow from that rejection, and we need to reflect upon some them; but first let us pause a moment to see how the rejection came about.

We are stewards of riches which belong to the Lord of creation. Those riches include not only those parts of the natural world, and the life and culture of humanity, which is placed in our hands, but also our own bodies and our very lives. Like anyone put in charge, as stewards, of what belongs to someone else, if we have it long enough, and especially if we have not often been called to account, we are easily tempted to imagine that we own it outright and that we can do as we please with it. So the great error of human pride occurs to let our God given control of what God has given us deceive us into denying that we owe anything to the Creator or displacing onto ourselves the sovereignty of God.

It is easy to forget whose we are: that we are clay in the hands of the potter, as Jeremiah saw it. The greed of the unruly tenants in the parable of the vineyard is the natural greed of fallen humanity. It leads to killing the one whose very existence reminds the tenants that they are not themselves the Lord of the vineyard. The point of the story turns on his death, the death of the son and heir. We who believe that Christ is the Son of God the Father, and that God raised up him to rule with him, know that '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). It is as well for us to remember too those qualities we share with the rest of humanity which led to his rejection. To exalt in our knowledge of his becoming the cornerstone without at first confessing our identity with the killers would miss the point of the story.

True believers in the Son are those who know how closely they are related to the tenants who killed him, like the poor and the lame who were brought in from the highways and byways to the wedding feast of the king, and like the gentile church who God called when many of the Jews rejected the Gospel. Believers are beneficiaries of the vineyard after the wicked tenants have been thrown out, but it is not our doing, it is the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes. But, as the inheritors, we also run risk being dispossessed of the vineyard through failure to acknowledge its true owner and his messenger. Only by remembering whose we are and keeping our focus on him can we avoid the temptation of falling back into the error of the tenants which is the general cause of all human failings, namely denial of God. The parable remains good news to those who know they are in need of the grace of God.

With that basic point of the story in mind let us look a little closer at the parable which is unusual in being clearly recorded as an allegory. It is based on another allegory that would have been known to Jesus and his listeners, a symbolic story in which the actors correspond directly to real people, in the Old Testament in Isaiah 5:1-7:

It was understood as an allegory of the history of redemption in the life of the people of Israel: it is a love song addressed to "my beloved" who planted a vineyard. The prophet sings this love song as a lament to the Creator who is disappointed in his people. They are like wild grapes, not the fruit the Lord of the vineyard expected. God had done everything for them but they turned out to be a disappointment. The people were "his pleasant planting, he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!" (Isaiah 5:7). Therefore he withdrew his protection and allowed the vineyard to be laid waste. Isaiah was a prophet of the judgement that would come upon the people of Israel when they became unfaithful, and later of their recovery by the mercy of God. When he told his parable of the vineyard, Jesus would have had all this history in mind. So we have the original covenant between God the owner and Israel, the vineyard, the leaders or rulers of Israel, the tenants; and then the appearance of the prophets, the messengers, and finally the son, later recognized as the Messiah, but first the death of the son (and in Luke's version the promise of resurrection). So it came about that other people, the new Israel, or the church later made up mainly of Gentiles, became the beneficiaries of the vineyard.

The fate of the prophets, especially the reference to stoning:

The hearers of the story in its new form as told by Jesus would know too that the new elements he introduced were backed up by other events in the history of Israel and other aspects of scripture. Isaiah, who told it originally, was only one of many prophets who were sent by the Lord of the vineyard whom they treated shamefully, and Matthew with his greater interest in the Jewish background makes an emphasis on this point.

There is direct parallel the to the stoning in 2 Chronicles 24:21 (regarding Zechariah):

The early Christians were encouraged to remember the suffering of the faithful in former times, amongst whom are the messengers, so we find in the New Testament letters to the young churches where persecution was also being experienced:

Jesus too remembered the treatment of the prophets when he cried in love for the city:

The rejection of the son, and God's building on him

Jesus saw himself in this succession. As he entered the city on this note of sad compassion while the crowds rejoiced and called him the son the David, the Messiah, he knew and he had already warned his disciples that he would be killed. All that was foreshadowed in the parable recalling God's dealings with his people the tenants of the vineyard. Again he referred to the ancient writings in summing up the result of the their actions against the prophets and now against him, in the words of the Psalm:

It was one of most vivid images in the teaching of Jesus. It remained with his disciples and was recalled with passion in their proclamation of the gospel. For example, while they were still in Jerusalem and in conflict with the Jewish Council, it was so seen by Peter and John in the early proclamation:

and in the early church generally eg.:

The good news that we share

So the image of the rejected stone became central to their understanding of who they were. The sacrifice of Jesus, the rejected one, was made for our salvation. With the apostles they were to be built with him into spiritual temple based upon his sacrifice, the building of the fellowship of believers, the household of God, was based upon the rejected stone, the son who was killed:

All may benefit, if only they will enter the house and consent to be joined with him into that holy dwelling place of God, to whom the vineyard is restored by his Son. We then who share the sinfulness of the rebellious tenants are now restored to our Creator, the Lord of the vineyard. And when the harvest time comes, we all meet at the feast of the Kingdom. All glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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