The Rejected Stone Becomes the Cornerstone
Matthew 21:23-22:14, Key verse: 21:42
“Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes”?’”
In the previous passage we learned that Jesus entered Jerusalem as a gentle and humble king, as a king of peace, riding on a donkey. Then he cleared the temple of money-changers and restored it as a house of prayer. In these actions, he displayed his identity and authority. Today we see the religious leaders’ reaction to Jesus’ authority. In response, Jesus gave them three parables that illuminated their status in regard to the kingdom of heaven. Also, Jesus reveals his own identity by quoting Psalm 118:22-23, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” We’ll see that like Jesus, who was rejected, the people who finally belong to the kingdom of heaven may not be who the world judges as worthy. This message has three parts.
First, Two kinds of sons (21: 23-32).
After Jesus cleared the temple, the noise of business was no longer heard. Instead, the life-giving words of God could be heard echoing throughout the temple as Jesus taught (23a). In our Bible study, we discussed why the religious leaders hadn’t just arrested Jesus immediately for his violent action of cleansing the temple. Maybe it’s because in their hearts, people knew that what Jesus was doing was right. When they heard Jesus say that they had made a house of prayer into a den of robbers, many people’s consciences were pricked, maybe even some of the merchants and even some of the religious leaders.
But to other religious leaders, Jesus’ actions wounded their pride and they were filled with anger. It was these who confronted Jesus in verse 23 and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” (23b) This is obviously not a question asked out of simple curiosity, but a direct challenge to Jesus’ authority. These chief priests and elders understood very well that Jesus was acting as the Messiah, but they had no room in their hearts for this possibility. They wouldn’t accept any Messiah who wasn’t authorized by themselves. Their true intent was that when he was confronted, Jesus would either back down, or else would say something that they could use to charge him with blasphemy.
Jesus could have simply refused to answer their question, because he knew the motive behind it. But instead, he promised to answer it on the condition that they first give their opinion on a question that he asked. The question was, “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” (24-25a) It is related to the question that they asked Jesus, because it’s also about spiritual authority. The two possible answers, “from heaven” or “from men”, are the same possible answers to the question they asked Jesus. Saying “from heaven” expresses one’s faith that someone is legitimately sent by God with God’s mission, while saying “from men” is denying that. Jesus asked this because he knew that, though John was not the Messiah, anyone who didn’t accept John’s ministry of repentance would not accept him either.
As we know, the religious leaders didn’t accept John’s ministry. They did not believe his baptism was from heaven, or else they would have repented and been baptized themselves. But they wouldn’t even come out and say so. Look at verses 25b-26. “They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” They answered Jesus by saying “We don’t know,” revealing that they were not interested in the truth but only in maintaining their authority through public opinion. So, Jesus rightfully refused to answer their question. Nobody can expect to be get an answer from others if they won’t honestly share their own thoughts.
Nonetheless, Jesus still wanted to help the religious leaders’ eyes be opened. In his great wisdom, by telling parables, Jesus helped them understand their spiritual condition, their root problem, and the coming consequences. If nothing else, they should know that God would fulfill his salvation purpose, with or without them. Most importantly, Jesus’ parables reveal God’s patience and love.
Jesus began his first parable by asking, “What do you think?” One of the most effective teaching strategies is not to just state a principle explicitly, but make the learner think and realize it for themselves. Jesus employs that strategy over and over in his parables. This parable goes: “There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.” This story is short and sweet. Then Jesus asked his hearers, “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” The question was not intended to be difficult or tricky to answer. It’s a simple judgment that anyone can make. Everyone agreed that the first son is the one who actually did what his father wanted, though he said at first that he wouldn’t.
The ethical point of this parable is easy to understand; it’s that lip service doesn’t count as much as action. In modern business jargon, we might say that the second son over-promised and under-delivered, but the first son under-promised and over-delivered. But the shocking thing is who Jesus applies this parable to. Jesus said in verse 31b: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Can you imagine telling a holy and respected church leader that a prostitute is better off than him? Why is it so? In verse 32 Jesus says, “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
Like the first son, the tax collectors and prostitutes were disobedient at first. They lived selfish and pleasure-seeking lives, hiding from God. But when they experienced the consequences of their sinful life, and then God’s servant John showed them the open door of repentance, they became humble and willingly repented. On the other hand, the religious leaders, like the second son, seemed to be very obedient. But God looks at the heart. Internally, they were self-righteous and very proud. They were just as sinful, if not worse, than the tax collectors and prostitutes. But because of their pride, they couldn’t realize this and they refused to follow the way of righteousness that John the Baptist showed them. Even after they saw the changed lives of tax collectors and prostitutes as example, they did not repent and believe. Though they kept many of the Laws of Moses strictly, when their hearts were hard, it was impossible for them to do God’s actual will, which was for them to repent and believe the gospel as the gift of God’s grace.
Can we fall into a similar mistake as the religious leaders? Yes, we can. As Christian workers, we might think that the one who works the hardest for ministry or takes the most risks or has the most disciplined life is somehow doing God’s will “the best”, or at least doing more of it. Of course, Apostle Paul did put a high value on hard work. But that’s not the fundamental thing. It’s possible to be working very diligently in ministry but not be doing the will of God, if what we are doing is not the fruit of faith but of a desire to justify ourselves. We always have to remember what Jesus said in John 6:29, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Going back to the parable, in our Bible study someone asked why Jesus didn’t mention a son who both said “yes” and did what his father asked. Wouldn’t such a one be the best son of all? Well, yes, he would. But the point is that none of us is like that. We are all sinners who had a broken relationship with God and could only get it right through repentance and trusting Jesus’ grace. We all have to be changed from not doing God’s will to doing God’s will. Let’s pray to not miss the way of doing the will of God.
Second, the parable of the tenants (21:33-46)
The second parable Jesus tells is longer and more detailed, to express more fully the serious spiritual problem of the religious leaders. Jesus said, “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.” (33-34) The point here is that it is a great blessing to be a tenant working in a vineyard such as this. The owner prepared everything for the vineyard’s safety and fruitfulness. He put a lot of trust in the tenant farmers, not micro-managing them but leaving them to work together freely and creatively to produce a good harvest. The only requirement was that they give the owner his share of the fruit at harvest time (34). In terms of economic theory, this is fair because the owner is the one assuming most of the risk of establishing a vineyard. But spiritually speaking, this parable is a concise summary of God’s blessings upon his chosen people Israel. He chose them and gave them the promised land of Canaan so that they might become a kingdom of priests and holy nation, a nation that bore spiritual fruit to lead the rest of the world back to God.
But what happened in the parable? When harvest time approached, the owner sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. Suddenly the tenants began to act in a hostile manner. They seized the owner’s servants; they beat one, killed another and stoned a third (35). They acted genuinely wickedly. What made them become like this? Somehow, they completely forgot their identity and relationship to the owner, and pridefully began to see themselves as owners instead of tenants.
How did the owner respond to the tenants’ evil actions? He could have evicted the wicked tenants right away, or even destroyed them. However, he patiently tried to reach out to them again by sending a second group of servants, even more than the first time (36). Maybe the second group of servants was trained to be humbler and more diplomatic than the first. This shows that this is an owner who actually cares more about his relationship with his tenants than his own profits. But this had no effect on the tenants; they treated these servants just like the first group. These servants can be taken to represent all the prophets that God sent to Israel throughout their history, to warn them when they went astray.
At this point, we may think the owner would react strongly and decisively to punish the wicked tenants. But incredibly, he tries one last gambit to win back the hearts of his servants; he decides to send his own son to them. The owner must have known what a huge risk he was taking, from his experience with how wicked the tenants were. Still he had hope for them, saying, “They will respect my son” (37). This kind of patient, self-sacrificing love is beyond understanding. This is the very expression of the love of God.
How did the tenants respond to this love? By this point they were too far gone. Nobody starts out intending to be evil, but when we start denying our conscience, step by step we become capable of anything. The tenants conspired together against the owner, saying, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance. So, they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (38-39). At this point, Jesus’ parable shifts from history to prophecy. He is foretelling what will happen in just a few days. The religious leaders would condemn Jesus to death as a criminal. They would crucify him and throw him outside the city, expressing their complete rejection of Jesus and his message.
Once again, Jesus concluded his parable by asking his hearers to pass judgment. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (40) The religious leaders answered, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time” (41). The tenants killing the owner’s son was obviously the last straw. There was nothing to be done except to bring judgment on the wicked tenants. Ironically, in answering Jesus’ question, the religious leaders pronounced God’s judgment on themselves. As Jesus prophesied, Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70. And the nation was scattered.
The events that this parable points to seem to be purely tragic. But here Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22,23 to show how these terrible events would actually fulfill God’s plan for salvation. Look at verse 42. “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes”?’” In addition to being tenants, the Jewish religious leaders could also be viewed as builders. God called them to build their nation on the worship of the Lord to be a spiritual temple for the whole world. But over the course of time, they became more interested in building their own glory and wealth. So when God sent them the Messiah to be the most glorious, final, crowning piece in their building, he didn’t fit in to their blueprint. Then they rejected him, throwing him away like a useless stone.
But it was their big mistake. Even though he was rejected, God made Jesus the cornerstone, which is the most important stone in the entire building. As Peter said in Acts Chapter 2 at the end of his Pentecost message to the religious leaders, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (Ac 2:36)
Jesus knew that the time for God’s judgment on the Jewish religious leaders was near. He concluded by saying in verse 43, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” This infuriated the religious leaders even more and they became determined to find a way to arrest him (45-46). But Jesus’ words came true nonetheless. God never fails. God used their wickedness to bring about his gospel of salvation through Jesus’ death as the Lamb of God, and from that time, the stewardship of God’s word and God’s ministry came to us Gentiles.
Now we are in the position of the tenants. Could we become guilty of the same sin as the wicked tenants in the parable? Yes, we could. Especially in the time of success and blessing, we easily forget about God and live as though we are the owners. It is easy for us to take the gifts God has given us and use them for our own glory and advancement instead of God’s. But we are not owners. We are only stewards of all that God has given us. As stewards, we should keep our purpose of life clear to offer fruit to God. When we do so, we can maintain God’s blessing and live happily in his vineyard.
Third, “Come to the wedding banquet” (22:1-14).
We can treat this last parable briefly, mainly showing how it reinforces the points we’ve already seen. This parable particularly highlights the wide-open nature of the invitation to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son (1-2). This was the most joyful occasion in the entire kingdom. To be invited to this banquet was a very special privilege; it was honor from the king. As the wedding day approached, the king sent his servants to cordially remind the invited guests to come.
Surprisingly, they refused to come. Needless to say, in those days, it was unacceptable to refuse an invitation from one’s king. But this king was very gracious and patient. He sent some more servants, and this time he advertised how exquisite his menu was, saying “My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready.” Imagine a menu with all kinds of gourmet beef: filet mignon, Brazilian Angus, Italian beef, top sirloin steak…after describing all of this, the king pleaded: “Come to the wedding banquet” (4). But the invited guests paid no attention and went off about their own business. Some of them even seized the king’s servants, mistreated them, and even killed them. These are worse than the tenants in the previous parable. The tenants were expected to work and produce fruit for the owner, but all these people had to do was accept an invitation to a great banquet! The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
After these tragic events, it seemed that the king would cancel his banquet. But he did not. Rather, he extended his invitation to those who never expected to be invited. He sent his servants to the street corners to invite anyone they found. All kinds of people came, including the good and the bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
Spiritually, the wedding banquet represents the joyful union of Christ and his church. Those who were originally invited but refused to come when it was time are the Jews who received the word of God through the Old Testament prophets. The guests from the street anticipate the entrance of the Gentiles into the kingdom of God without regard to their human goodness or worldly position. The king’s invitation is the open and free invitation of the gospel. There is just one more element in this parable: though the invitation was freely given, the king did notice and kick out a guest who was not wearing wedding clothes. These wedding clothes represent the righteousness of God that comes through faith in Christ (Ro 1:17; 13:14). So this kicked-out guest might represent someone who attends church, but never put his trust personally in Christ’s righteousness.
Thank God for his open and free invitation to us in Jesus, “Come to the wedding banquet!” Though we come from many different walks of life, we are equally invited to Christ’s wedding banquet. The only admission requirement is to not trust in ourselves, but to be clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Let’s pray that we may not become too absorbed in worldly affairs to appreciate the spiritual feast that is ready for us.
Jesus concluded this parable by saying: “For many are invited, but few are chosen” (14). Actually, this saying applies to all of the parables we’ve looked at today. All three of them involve some kind of unexpected reversal of who is blessed. The son who talked like a good son was not really the good one. The tenants who were originally entrusted with the vineyard were not able to bear the fruit the owner looked for. And the guests who were originally invited to the wedding banquet ended up being replaced with apparently random people from all over the place. But this is how God reveals his glory and wisdom.
The greatest reversal of all is Jesus himself, the rejected stone who was made the cornerstone. When we meditate on this, it is really marvelous in our eyes. Our unshakable confidence is that Jesus is the cornerstone of our salvation, which no one can remove or replace. And when we come to Jesus with all our sins and failures, he forgives us, changes us and uses us in his great redemptive work. We are greatly comforted to know that God can make rejected stones into cornerstones, and so we never have to fear what people may say or do. So Peter tells us in 1 Peter 2:4-5, “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” May God bless you as a living stone in the holy temple he is building.