The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes. —Psalm 118: 22-23
This Friday’s Gospel was Matthew 21:33-43.45-46, the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. At the end of the story Jesus quotes Psalm 118: “Did you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes’?
I’ve long wondered about the literal meaning of that verse. Was it referring to an actual event, a real story about a real stone, perhaps in the building of the Temple? What would it have meant to the original Jewish listeners?
I’ve been frustrated because all the commentary I’ve seen skips right over the literal meaning of the story and jumps to talking about how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Scripture, the stone rejected by the builders. That’s all very well and good, but I was taught to begin with the literal meaning and to work my way up to the typological meaning, not to begin with the type-antitype.
So I went googling to find a Jewish commentary on the Psalm, figuring that at least might get me closer to the literal level. I found two interesting commentaries, one from a Jewish site and one from a Christian site, but repeating a Rabbinic story. (I actually found that second one in two different places told slightly differently.)
There is an old rabbinic parable used to explain Psalm 118:22, which I think sheds some light on this parable of Jesus’:
When Solomon’s temple was being built, it was forbidden for the sound of hammers to be heard at the job site because it was a holy place of worship. You can’t have worship with construction going on in the background! So it had to be quiet. What this meant for the construction was that each and every 20 ton stone had to have a ‘shop drawing’ and was made several miles away in the quarry. Several miles away each stone was carefully cut for its exact spot in the temple. From the very start, there was a plan for each stone. The very first stone to be delivered was the capstone, but that’s the last stone needed in construction. So the builders said, “What is this? This doesn’t look like any of the first stones we need. Put it over there for now.” Well, years went by and the grass grew over the capstone and everyone generally forgot about it. Finally the construction was done and the builders said “send us the capstone” and the word came back from the quarry “we already did”. They were confused. Then someone remembered what they had done with the very first stone sent to them. It was taken from its lowly position among the overgrown weeds where it had been forgotten, and it was honored in the final ceremony to complete the temple. Thus the scripture says, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.”
And another variation:
ABOUT A THOUSAND YEARS BEFORE CHRIST, King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. All the stones for the Temple were precut at the quarry and delivered to the site. We can read about that in the Old Testament book of First Kings.
But elsewhere it’s recorded, that one day a shipment arrived that included a large stone with a very odd shape. The foreman, the construction administrator, the architect, the priest in charge of the work– they all said, “What are we supposed to do with a botched-up stone like that? They must’ve made a mistake at the quarry!” So the builders had the unusual stone dragged over to the side of the jobsite, to be hauled away with the rest of the rubbish once the Temple was completed.
They went on with the work, until it was time to finish up the great lintel over the Holy Place. The work was all being supported by scaffolding up to then, but once that lintel was done, the scaffolding could be removed and the building would stand up by itself. The workmen looked and looked for the capstone, and they couldn’t find it anywhere. Till finally someone said, “What about that odd-shaped stone out in the rubbish pit? Would that fit there?”
So they went and looked at the rejected stone. They brought it back and lifted it up and sure enough, it was an exact fit! The stone the builders rejected turned out to be the capstone of the whole Temple!
And all the people, from King Solomon to the lowliest slave, marvelled at this. They recognised that the Lord had done this, to remind them that His foolishness was wiser than their wisdom, and His weakness better than their strength.
The builders had meant well. They wanted the Temple to be built. But they’d let their own ideas about how it should happen blind them to the way the Lord wanted things to be. They had to humble themselves and repent. And from what we read of the joy at the Temple’s dedication, I’d say they were happy to do so.
And a song was made, this Psalm 118 that we used part of for our Call to Worship, commemorating what the Lord had done. God’s people sang it every time they came up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the great feasts, especially when they came to celebrate the Feast of the Passover. “O Lord, save us!” the people sang; that is, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Second, this, from a rabbi who connects the Psalm to King David:
The verse was written by King David in reference to himself. When Samuel the Prophet was sent to Jesse’s house to choose a king from among his sons (I Samuel 16:1-13), Jesse brought all his sons before Samuel except for David, the youngest, who was in the fields tending the sheep. Samuel thought that G-d would choose the oldest son, but G-d told him, No, I have rejected these. Finally Samuel asked, Do you have any other sons? And Jesse sent for David. G-d said, Arise and anoint him, for he is the one. David was thus the stone rejected by the builders Jesse and Samuel, and he became the cornerstone of the great dynasty of Jewish kings.
I was really glad to find a literal stone. I don’t know if the story is apocryphal or if its well attested and I’m certainly not doing the research to see how widespread it is; but at least somewhere someone thought it referred literally to a stone. (And I’m going to come back later to look more closely at the verse in the context of the original psalm to see that there might be good reason to believe the psalm refers to a stone in the Temple.)
The application to King David could have been a secondary allegorical meaning added to the story of the stone of the Temple by a later author. Obviously David himself could not have been writing about the Temple, which was built by his son Solomon. So I’d have to think it was a secondary author writing in the style of David and attributed to David. But I still really like the story about the stone referring metaphorically to King David. And then when we look at the typological meaning, David is a type of the messiah, the Christ, and so there’s another layer of meaning when Jesus refers to himself as the stone, he’s also then referring to himself as the Davidic messiah.
Is there other textual evidence to support the idea that the stone rejected by the builders refers to a stone in the Temple? Well, the lines right before “the stone which the builders rejected” have to do with pilgrims entering the gates of the Temple:
Open the gates of righteousness;
I will enter and thank the LORD.
This is the LORD’s own gate,
through it the righteous enter.
I thank you for you answered me;
you have been my savior.
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
So, if the story about the rejected stone that was found was common knowledge, then you can imagine people singing the song as they go through the gate into the Temple and looking up at the stone and remembering the story about the construction and how it was lost and then found. Doesn’t that give you shivers? To me the psalms come alive in a completely new way when I picture the Jews singing them in the Temple or as they climb up to the Temple. And I remember too that Jesus would have sung these songs as he walked to the Temple with Jospeh and Mary for the great feast.
Also, a little aside, but I can’t help but detour to point out this even more shivery moment, the verse about the stone rejected by the builder is later followed by these lines:
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
We bless you from the house of the LORD.
The LORD is God and has enlightened us.
Join in procession with leafy branches
up to the horns of the altar.
This acclamation, “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” is sung to Jesus on his way to Jerusalem by the people who lay palm branches at his feet and wave them in the air. Not only do the psalms anticipate Jesus, they also accompany him on his journey, they are the music to whose rhythm he trod the earth when he was a man. He sang them. He prayed them. And how wonderful it must have been for Mary and Joseph to hear those prayers on His lips.
But now, having established possible literal and metaphorical meanings of the stone, let’s get back to the Gospel of Matthew. The odd thing here is where Jesus quotes that Psalm. It seems almost like a non-sequitur after the parable of the tenants who kill the son, thinking they can thereby have the inheritance. Why, when he has thus far been talking about vines and vineyards, does Jesus suddenly switch to this architectural metaphor?
The main story is the story of a vine grower, which refers back to another psalm, Psalm 80, in which God is the vineyard owner who brings a vine cutting out of Egypt and clears the promised land to give it a place to grow, but then he breaks down the walls that protected the vine and allows it to be ravished by passersby and wild animals. So the Pharisees and priests immediately know that the vineyard owner in Jesus’ parable is God and the vine he’s growing is his chosen people, Israel. So the tenants to whom God has entrusted his vineyard must be the priests. Ouch. Those who are supposed to make wine out of the produce of the vineyard, who are supposed to turn its yield over to God, have instead killed the servants and the son so that they can keep the wine for themselves. (Missing the fact that the son’s true inheritance is not the wine but the loving relationship with his father, which they cannot win by killing him.)
The Gospel tells us that they know immediately that the parable is about them. But what they miss in their anger is that it’s also about Jesus; because they’re so self-centered they miss the bit about the son who is killed and they don’t seem to wonder who he is. (Or maybe they do recognize that Jesus is claiming to be the son, the messiah? But they don’t want to acknowledge him as messiah and so they willfully blind themselves?)
In any case, since they seem miss the significance of the dead son, that’s when Jesus underlines it with the bit about the stone the builders rejected. Essentially he’s saying: I am the son, I am the stone. You’re trying to build without God. You are trying to take my inheritance by killing me.
Jesus tells these stories back to back for a reason. I’d never really thought about that before. Partly, I didn’t see it because I lacked the context. I wasn’t reading it through the lens of the Psalms and the Old Testament verses and images that Jesus is referencing. Both the parable about the tenants and the lesson about the stone rejected by the builder are directly quoting the psalms. And in both, if you have eyes to see it, you can see that Jesus claims to be God at every turn.
When the LORD called down a famine on the land
and ruined the crop that sustained them,
He sent a man before them,
Joseph, sold as a slave.
They had weighed him down with fetters,
and he was bound with chains,
Till his prediction came to pass
and the word of the LORD proved him true.
The king sent and released him,
the ruler of the peoples set him free.
He made him lord of his house
and ruler of all his possessions. Psalm 105: 16-17.18-19.20-21
And… a few further thoughts… the lectionary pairs this Gospel story of the tenants with the story of Joseph’s brothers who want to kill him but instead sell him into slavery, and with Psalm 105 that continues Joseph’s story and recounts how Pharaoh makes him “lord of his house and ruler of all his possessions.”
The psalm about Joseph shows how the king ends the famine by making the beloved son into the master of his house and distributor of the bread. I tend to think of Old Testament Joseph as a type of New Testament Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus. I think of Joseph, the dreamer, Joseph who saves his family by bringing them to Egypt. But in this Psalm he’s clearly a type of Christ,
who is betrayed by his brother, stripped of his clothes, put into a well and sold for 20 pieces of silver.
So in Psalm 105 the king who releases Joseph and makes him master of the house is a figure of God the father and Joseph is the chosen son who distributes the Father’s goods to the people so they don’t starve. Who literally gives them bread.
Now going back to the Gospel, the tenants who kill the beloved Son to steal his inheritance are like Joseph’s brothers who want to take his inheritance, who are jealous of the father’s love and favor for him. As if killing him could win them the love that was his portion. Well the tenants think the wine is their inheritance. Don’t they? Wine as a substitute for real love.
And this image of the tenants who kill the son so they can keep the wine for themselves instead of turning it over to the vineyard owner is a very serious indictment of the priests, isn’t it?
You don’t even want the love of the father, Jesus accuses them. You idiots just want the wine. You’re only interested in the material goods you get out of this priestly gig. Ouch!
But also… one of my favorite moments, a classic trope from tales where the villain pronounces his own sentence, Jesus has the priests and pharisees speak their own indictment: “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” he asks.
They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.”
What’s more, they realize it! When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them and they were enraged. He tricked us! Because it was true and they hated it. No wonder they wanted him dead! He kept poking them in the eye. He kept trying to get them to acknowledge their guilt and turn back. But no matter what he tries, it only makes them angrier. Harder of heart.
Finally, when we were reading the Gospel Sophie remembered another story Jesus tells about a vine, where he’s no the vineyard owner’s son, but, somehow, the vine itself.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.
He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.
You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned.
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.
By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
John 15: 1-8
How can one thing mean two things at once? Sophie asks. How can the vine be Israel and Jesus? I asked her a different question: How can water symbolize both life and death? We talked about how without water to drink we will die. Without water all our plants and animals will die. Water is life. But if you fall into the ocean you will drown and die. Water can be deadly. Likewise fire can be life-giving when it keeps you warm in winter, but it can kill you if you are stuck in a burning house.
Many thoughts to ponder from just one day’s readings. I need to stop and read more carefully with the children more often.