Like most parents, my children have been a source of immense joy and pride to me. But, if I am honest, they have also been the source of much pain, guilt and regret – not because of anything they have done, but because of the way they have forced me to see things in myself I would have preferred to ignore. Before I had children I thought I was a calm and generous individual, who always radiated the grace and compassion of Christ. After a few years of parenting, I had discovered tendencies toward violence, stubbornness and selfishness that appalled and shocked me. None of the parenting books I had read prepared me for the way I would see all of my worst qualities reflected back at me through my children.
In many ways becoming a father broke me – crushed me – and reshaped me into a very different person. And as painful as this breaking has been, I am deeply grateful to my children for the role they unwittingly played in the process, because I know that I have grown into a better person because of it. This is always the case with personal growth and change. It is painful, and we may want to blame those who bring it on, but it is life-giving and, once we have journeyed through it, worth the suffering and confrontation with our worst selves that gets us there.
The Rejected Son
Which brings me to this week’s Gospel reading. In Matthew 21:33-46 Jesus continues what he began in last week’s readings. Beginning with the cleansing of the temple, Jesus has been in conflict with the religious leaders, and a “great debate” has ensued. Last week’s parables introduced the idea that the religious leaders were being left out of God’s coming reign because of their failure to bear fruit. Now, Jesus drives the point home even more strongly through the parable of the tenant farmers. The scene is a common one for the people of Jesus’ time – a farmer who leases a well-resourced vineyard to tenants, and then sends messengers to receive his share of the harvest when the time comes. But, these tenants (as may have been a common feeling in those unsettled days) aren’t interested in giving away the fruits of their labour to their land-owner. So they beat and kill the messengers, and do the same to a second, larger group that the owner sends after them. Finally the owner sends his son, who is also beaten and killed.
At this point Jesus pointedly asks the religious leaders what the land owner will do to the tenants when he finally comes in person to deal with them. The answer is obvious – he will throw them out and punish them harshly. This, Jesus then explains, is what God is doing with the religious leaders, and those who would not be expected to be included in God’s reign are finding their way in. The message is clear – the land owner is God, the tenant farmers are the religious leaders, the messengers are the prophets and the son is Jesus himself.
All of which can leave us feeling rather relieved, because it seems that the parable doesn’t apply to us at all. It is simply an interesting glimpse into the religious dynamics of the day and the turbulent relationship between Jesus and his opponents. It shows us that Jesus knew what was going on, and was not surprised when the religious leaders finally decided to silence him. But, we like to think, it requires nothing of us except to note its prophetic value. However, if we approach this pericope in this way, we will not only miss the point, but we might end up discovering that we, too, have missed God’s reign and the life it offers.
The Rejected Stone
The key is in the final few words of this passage – the references to the Stone, which Jesus draws from Psalm 118:22 and Daniel 2. There is more being said here than the few words would suggest, and for Jesus hearers, the message would have been clear and challenging. We, however, need to unpack it a bit more.
To begin with, as Tom Wright points out, there is a play on words here. In English the words Son and Stone contain the same letters (with the latter adding a couple of extras in). In Hebrew the words are even more closely related. ‘Son’ in Hebrew is ben and ‘stone’ is eben. Jesus is the Son/Stone who is rejected but ends up in the place of greatest of honour (as expressed in Psalm 118). But he is also the Son/Stone who breaks those who stumble over him and crush those on whom he may fall. Here is where the powerful vision of Daniel comes into play. It is a reference to a dream that Nebuchadnezzar had that the prophet Daniel interpreted for him. In the dream a huge statue was seen, with a head of gold, chest of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron and feet made of a brittle combination of iron and clay. These different parts represented the kingdoms of history, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar’s and ending with a weak kingdom which is destroyed when a stone hits the feet of the statue bringing the whole thing crashing down in crushing destruction. This Stone, then, grew into a mountain that filled the earth. Jesus is saying, then, he is the Stone. Though rejected by the builders, he will be given the place of greatest honour, and will be the downfall of the kingdoms that stand in opposition to God’s reign.
Again, it may feel comforting to think that none of this applies to us, but, again, we would be wrong to do so. There are a number of significant implications in this story that we would do well to hear and embrace.
When the Son becomes the Cornerstone
To begin with there is the question of God’s message and its unlikely messengers. We are all tempted to scapegoat those who challenge our injustice, our inhumanity and our personal quests for power and control. It is far easier to blame the messenger, shift the focus away from ourselves, and even destroy the reputation, the credibility or the person of those who confront us. But, to do so, is to place ourselves squarely in the company of the religious leaders. The difficult alternative that is suggested by this passage is that we can learn to receive criticism and correction from others – especially those who are marginalised, silenced, vulnerable and powerless. These “least” ones may seem to be unlikely messengers of God, but, as Jesus often explained, they are often God’s prophets, and are actually the most qualified to speak because of their first-hand experience of the corruption and violence of the systems of our world. On a personal level, it is those whom we have hurt who are most qualified to confront us, and who deserve our attention, our gratitude and our willingness to change, rather than our aggression and scapegoating.
The second question that is raised by Jesus’ parable is that of the foundation on which we build our lives. The image of the rejected Stone becoming the cornerstone is a radical one, and it applies directly to the big crises we are facing in the world today. The ways of God’s reign – the Jubilee principle of economic sharing and justice, of freedom and redistribution of wealth – have been firmly rejected in our world. In their place we have chosen systems of greed and unrestricted accumulation, of power controlled by the few over the many, of factionalism based on nationhood, race, gender, sexual orientation or religious conviction. Yet, the foundation we have chosen for our world are crumbling. The system is broken and across the globe people of all walks of life are rediscovering the upside-down principles of God’s reign. And so the call is increasing for us to begin to live simply, to care for our planet and its most vulnerable citizens, to find a way to end war and to structure economics on more equitable principles. Which raises the question for us – will we continue to reject the Stone and the reign of God for which it stands, or will we place it into the foundation of our lives?
Finally, there is the question of breaking and crushing. It sounds like rather violent language coming from Jesus, but it relates back to something else he said. In Matthew 16:25 Jesus made this disturbing statement:
“If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake, you will save it.” (NLT).
A similar thing is being expressed in the words here about breaking and crushing. Essentially, if we seek to live as true followers of Christ, we will discover, as David did, that the sacrifice that God seeks is a broken heart and a repentant spirit. (Ps. 51:17) Within each of us are those things that need to be broken and removed before we can find wholeness and life. There are many things that can raise our awareness of these things – for me fatherhood was one of them – but, however we become aware of them, we will need to stumble over Jesus in order for them to broken and removed from us, and in order for Christ’s own humility and compassion and love to begin to grow in our lives.
Sometimes what is within us is rather like a “stronghold” that resists the call and challenge of God’s reign so much as to be in complete rebellion. When we seek to build our own little realms and bring others into service of our agendas, breaking is not enough. When we seek to control others and laud it over those who are different from us or “less” (in our eyes) than us, breaking is not enough. Rather we need to be crushed by God’s reign, brought down to a place of true humility, and firmly placed under the authority of God’s reign. In these circumstances, Jesus becomes the blessed Stone that does the crushing, in order to allow us to find life by losing it. This is, I believe, what the apostle Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 10:4-5:
“We use God’s mighty weapons, not worldly weapons, to knock down the strongholds of human reasoning and to destroy false arguments. We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ.” (NLT)
It is all too easy to read a passage like this and put it aside believing it has limited relevance for us. But, Jesus never allows us this luxury. When we are dealing with the reign of God and the Son/Stone who brings it to bear on our lives, we will always find the challenge both painful and liberating. The question is whether we are determined to stay in our self-delusional belief that we are fine just as we are, or allow ourselves to be broken, and the strongholds within us crushed, in order that God’s reign may become the true foundation for our lives. It’s a question on which hangs the future of our own lives and that of our word – and I do not say that lightly.