One of the strangest and to my mind most disturbing sayings of Jesus is in Matthew 21:44. It occurs after of parable of conflict with the Jewish religious establishment. Jesus said,
“The very stone with the builders rejected has become the head of the corner? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on anyone it will crush them.”
What does this mean? I can’t be certain of all it means but I believe that these remarks of Jesus point to the root of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious community especially the Pharisees. “This is also the issue between Paul and his Jewish opponents. It is a sort of which came first the chicken or egg question.
According to Jesus and Paul it was the gift of God’s presence that made a good life possible rather than if you live a good life God will be present as a reward for your goodness. The challenge of Jesus was this: obedience does not lead to God, rather God’s love leads to obedience. This is the reverse of what was happening in 1st Century Judaism. Christianity is not immune from the tendency to think we should or could EARN God’s love.
The deepest longing of the Jewish people was for the Messiah to come and bring the Kingdom of God. The Pharisees who have a bad reputation among Christians were really a renewal movement among Jews. They longed for the Kingdom and Messiah. Further they were proactive and decided to do their part to make it happen. They believed that if everyone followed the law that Messiah would come. They pushed not just the 10 commandments, but all the rules and interpretation of the law.
TAKE IT FURTHER!
They wanted the ritual purity of the priests in the temple – to be normative for all Jews in all parts of their lives. They were deeply motivated to keep the law and hostile to those not so inspired because the laxness of some prevented the coming of Messiah.
Now Jesus tells them that they had it all wrong. Being good and getting your ticket punched will not bring God’s presence; rather God’s presence enables goodness. Keeping all the laws won’t bring Messiah – Messiah will come when he chooses and furthermore here he is: the stone, which the builders rejected, has become the keystone of the arch.
The Jews have a saying:
“If a jar falls on a rock, woe be to the jar.
If a rock falls on a jar, woe be to the jar.
Either way, woe be to the jar!”
God will being in his reign of peace, the Kingdom in his way, on his terms, not because we hold our mouths just so and wish real hard, keeping all the rules and getting our tickets punched. When the Pharisees and others thought keeping the law would produce God’s presence they were forgetting their own history.
- Abraham didn’t go to Canaan looking for God. God lead him there.
- Jacob fled his home to escape his brother Esau, whose blessing he had stolen. As he slept God came looking for him so that Jacob awoke and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”
- Moses did not set fire to the bush – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob came looking for him
- The prophet Isaiah reminds the children of Israel (and us) that it is God that makes a way in the sea, who does a NEW THING, waters in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.
- Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Philippi that he presses on to reach the goal of participating in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. “…but I press on to make my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
- In the reading from Matthew, Jesus tells the story of the wicked tenants, who refused to recognize the heir of the vineyard’s owner when he came to receive what, belonged to the owner. The vineyard was a common symbol of Israel. The scribes and chief priests understood the story as a critique of their leadership of Israel.
The irony is that Messiah had come. The very one that their hearts most longed for had come and they didn’t recognize him because he had not come on their terms [they weren’t good enough yet] but on his father’s terms. That’s really tragic.
It’s sort of like the old couple who began dating after their spouses died. They spent a lot of time together and one day as they sat on the porch he leaned over and whispered, “Let’s get married.” She laughed and said, “It’s a great idea but who would have us?”
We will encounter the rock, the stone rejected by the builders, whether we recognize him or not. We will finally encounter the reality that we can’t make it on our own. We may live in denial and avoid it for as long as humanly possible but eventually the jar and the rock will collide.
Most of us talk about grace but we really prefer to earn our way. We believe that our goodness brings God’s presence when God’s presence brings whatever goodness we display. Salvation finally is a gift, if we are to be saved. I at no other time at death we will finally admit/submit to power beyond us – the jar and the rock will collide. Fortunately that reality is a God who is generous and wants the best for us.
We do not have to wait to the end. We can choose to embrace the reality that God’s presence is a gift now! “If you fall on the stone you will be broken to pieces but if the stone falls on anyone it crush them.” I submit that it is better for God to pick up the pieces of our ego and rework them than to be pulverized. We can cooperate with our salvation or we can resist it. It is up to us.
The Shakers have a hymn that sums this up, “I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble (bow like the willow tree). I will bow this is the token I will wear the easy yoke. I will bow and be broken, Yea, I’ll fall upon the rock!”
Let us then fall upon the rock – For indeed – brothers and sister it is the rock of our salvation. Amen.