Above All Powers: The Cornerstone
First in a series of two, “Above All Powers”
Matthew 21:33–46 // Phil 3:4b–14 // Isaiah 5:1–7
Grace, mercy and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text for today is the Gospel reading, beginning with a parable about a vineyard and tenants.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
We are working through a mini-sermon series, a two-parter, on Matthew 21 and 22, as we ask the question, What authority does Jesus have? Today we consider this title of Jesus as the Cornerstone, next Sunday, we consider Jesus as the Bridegroom.
Jesus tells a parable. He echoes the words of Isaiah 5 and the song of the vineyard, but he changes and develops it in significant ways. For Jesus, the point of the parable focuses not on the fruit (like Isaiah 5) but instead on the role of the authorities – the chief priests and the Pharisees, in the parable called the tenants.
The tenants were given the vineyard to produce fruit and to give it to the farmer, but they were breaking this agreement. They wanted to keep the fruit for themselves.
The Farmer is God. The messengers are the prophets. The Son is Jesus, and the tenants are the religious authorities over the people. Properly interpreted, this parable applies first to those in authority over the church—the leaders and the pastors of your church.
This parable comes down hard on church leaders. It’s the same thing that Paul says too that the leaders of the church the pastors and elders and bishops of the church will be judged beyond others because they are held responsible for the eternal spiritual health of their people. The church leaders need to focus on what matters.
So, what were the Chief Priests and Pharisees focusing on? First, let’s say what they weren’t focusing on. They were not interested in the truth. We find this out just before the first parable in this set of three. They asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” And Jesus replies, “I’ll tell you that if you tell me this. The baptism of John, was it from God or from man?” Their reply is so telling. They are not concerned at all about the truth of the baptism of John.
What are they focused on? They are concerned about winning the argument, about looking good, about what they thought mattered. “If we say from God, he’ll ask why we didn’t believe. If we say from man, we are afraid of what the crowds will do to us.” Nothing from their answer has anything to do with the truth. And that continues at the end of this parable.
Notice this, that the Chief Priests and Pharisees have given the correct answer to Jesus’s question (which is difficult to do, if you read the Gospels!), but even being correct isn’t enough. Even having and speaking the truth with their own lips isn’t enough. It isn’t enough because they are not focused on what matters. They are concerned with appearances.
So, what are they focused on? It’s easy for us to armchair quarterback from the 21st century, but remember, they were focusing on some real and imminent dangers. They were afraid of the crowd. Hundreds of thousands of people swelled the city Jerusalem during the Passover. Just one or two days before this little conversation with Jesus, those same hundreds of thousands of people were waving palm branches and crying, “Hosanna!” Saying the wrong thing in a crowd could mean the anger of the people turning against you, and you end up being torn limb from limb. They were afraid of the Romans. Saying the wrong thing to the Roman Government, and they could come down on everything, tearing down the temple and destroying Jerusalem (Which they did because of someone claiming to be the Messiah 40 years later!).
What real and immanent dangers are we tempted to focus on? Perhaps it's the mix of truth and lies that are being told about your candidate. Perhaps it’s dangerous conditions in the streets of the cities. Perhaps it’s your own mortality, brought to light. Perhaps it’s our own vulnerability.
I’m not telling you “don't act.” No, when you see hurt and evil and sin and danger, please, do act! But act as you keep your eyes focused on Jesus. There were real and immanent dangers that surrounded them, but still Christ calls them to focus on something more important still, that he is the cornerstone.
And then, as Jesus often does, Jesus goes further. It turns from a parable condemning the Pharisees to a parable proclaiming Christ. Jesus quotes Psalm 118, “The stone the builders rejected”—the son the tenants killed—“has become the cornerstone”—has remained the heir. Jesus subverts—he changes—the focus of the parable from the wickedness of the church leaders of the day to the proclamation of the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.
Notice the wild amazing truth of the Gospel here. Jesus takes this tale of stubborn unbelief and proclaims the Gospel through it. He takes a tale of murder and rebellion and in the end God uses it for life.
It’s the same thing that God has been doing from the beginning. “He will crush the serpent’s head; and the serpent will strike his heel.” It’s captured in the iconic phrase of Joseph in Genesis 50, after everything his brothers did to him, he says, “You intended this for evil, but God meant it for good.” It’s what allows Paul to say, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all.” What was he counting as loss? Everything that he had once found valuable. His name, his reputation, his pedigree, his status, his possessions. Everything that did not point to Christ was counted as loss. Everything that did point to Christ was now Christ’s.
So, what matters in this parable? Two thoughts in conclusion. It matters in this parable that the fruit belongs to the farmer, and it matters in this parable is that the son who was rejected is still the cornerstone.
First, it matters that the fruit belongs to the farmer. For church leaders, that means that my flock, my congregation belongs to Christ. I’m just an undershepherd. Your true pastor never changes; he’s Jesus Christ. Undershepherds come and go but the Good Shepherd stays the same. It matters that the fruit belongs to the farmer.
Second, it matters that the son who was rejected is still the cornerstone. That's the story that changes every story. It changes the rejection of the Pharisees into the sacrifice of God’s Son for our sins. It changes the punishment of the cross into the victory of the resurrection. It changes the wall of death into the open door of eternal life.
And so, if God can continue and change those stories, how much more can he do for you in your story?
Amen and amen.
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