…the ‘stone’ the builders rejected
March 25, 2018
Scripture: Matthew 21:1-23, 42
Usually on Palm Sunday we focus on the absolute joy and wild abandon with which the crowds gathered and celebrated Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem. We note the wording of their acclamations, the calls for him to save them as the long-promised Messiah, Son of David…we smile at the images of the pathway strewn before him with branches hurriedly torn from roadside trees in order to lay a carpet of welcoming palm leaves before him. Truly it was a spectacle, and truly it represented the best news for many of those gathered in a long time. Yes, usually we celebrate Palm Sunday as a wonderful affirmation of the Lordship and Kingship of Jesus.
However I fear we do our faith story a disservice if we do not also view the events at least somewhat within the shadow of the coming cross of Calvary. For we know the events of the week to come even if those gathered there that day did not. And surely Jesus himself was well aware of the consequences of his arrival in the Holy City, the seat of Jewish religious authority and a far-flung but strictly policed holding of the Roman Empire. Jesus knew that his arrival would cause a showdown between his ministry and message and the prevailing power brokers in the city…and he most likely knew the end of his Jerusalem journey would end with him hanging on a cross. And yet he rode on into the city, seemingly unafraid of what lay before him and seemingly unable to be dissuaded from the move despite his disciple’s objections and warnings the night before.
And at first the day seemed to follow script as the crowds swelled and the disciples proudly walked along beside the one they believed was going to work a sea-change in power and authority in short order. But within a very short time indeed Jesus proved to all that his visit to Jerusalem was not what any of them had expected or hoped for. For as Matthew tells us, upon his arrival at the Temple, Jesus threw the whole city into turmoil by going inside the Temple Courtyard and overturning all the tables of the money-changers, scattering not only tables and coins, but the hopes and dreams of his closest followers as well. And Matthew goes on to tell us that the next day was no better as Jesus came face to face with the Temple and religious authorities and began laying the groundwork for the confrontation to come when he quoted Psalm 118 regarding his claim to be in fact the ‘stone which the builders had rejected’.
And usually we tend to just move on from there, right through Holy Week, right on past the last supper and foot-washing to the betrayal and arrest, and on to the crucifixion. And I think we go through the week in this hurry-scurry fashion every year because we know the end of the story, and because we would rather get back to the good news story of Easter than dwell in the abject despair and confusion of the week between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. We go right on by, and if we pause at all it is to look and let ourselves be reminded that it was a ‘tough go’ for Jesus…but I fear we seldom ask why.
Why did Jesus do what he did, why did the people who first carpeted the road with palm branches then shortly thereafter echo priestly calls for his crucifixion? What was it about Jesus that stirred such strong emotions so quickly? What really happened between Palm Sunday and Easter morning? How did we get to the point where Jesus felt the need to quote the ‘stone’ psalm to the religious authorities? Why did he feel the need to tell them that in rejecting him they were in essence rejecting the most significant one to come before them since perhaps Abraham himself? Why did he feel the need to tell them that in rejecting him they were rejecting the first and primary foundation corner stone upon which the faith they so carefully guarded was supposed to be built?
I think there may be clues to understanding the events of Holy Week within this concept of rejected stones, clues that may also shed light on why the events of Holy Week still hold life-changing power and authority today. For the things Jesus was asking of his followers and of the authorities had to do with the foundation blocks of their own lives, the things they had already put in place to undergird their faith and life understanding. Jesus came directly challenging these foundation stones belonging to those in power and authority…he came to tell them that the things they valued, and the way in which they administered their authority was based on wrong thinking…he came to tell them that the ‘stones’ which made up the foundation of all they held dear…the stones which gave them comfort and assurance…were in fact false idols and unrelated to the ways of God…unrelated and unacceptable and wrongly placed as the structure upon which they built up and dispersed their power and authority. Jesus came to tell them that the stones in the foundation of their faith life were ‘comfort stones’ rather than holy stones. And in proclaiming this as a central core of his ministry Jesus set himself apart as a far more radical and rebellious leader than any of them had thought…and the consequences of this challenge of his were pretty much baked-in before he even set a foot towards Jerusalem. But what has this to do with us today? What has this to do with our habit of glossing on by Holy Week as we eagerly wait for Easter morning? What is it about Holy Week that we may not want to understand?
To answer that I think we need to understand the function and purpose of foundation corner stones, as well as what the stones Jesus was challenging in the faith foundation of the Authorities actually were, and see if we have any of these stones in our own lives that might be similar. For I think that the challenges Jesus threw down before those who would reject and eventually put him to death are challenges we might still struggle with as well…perhaps we too have a few of these ‘comfort stones’ within our own foundations.
The corner stone of the Temple was the first and primary stone to be laid in the foundation. And in the case of the Temple in Jerusalem, built on Mount Moriah, there was a significant amount of excavation required first in order to get down to bedrock upon which the first course of the foundation could be placed. And at the lowest point of the Temple site, on the southeast corner was laid the cornerstone Jesus was referring to. This stone had to be perfectly cut and aligned such that every stone laid down after it would be facing in the right direction in a perfect right angle and at the perfect elevation. As an absolute engineering marvel this stone also had to be flawless, without crack or seam so that it could handle all of the sideways and downwards pressure the Temple above would eventually exert upon it. In short everything else depended upon it; most importantly the integrity of the whole Temple structure above it…any flaw or failure in this stone would have had catastrophic results.
In rejecting the central place of Jesus and his role as this perfect and un-moveable stone, the faith structure of the religious authorities of Jesus’ day was thereby flawed and suspect…only Jesus would be able to take upon himself the responsibility for the proper alignment of all of the promises and hopes he claimed to have brought into possibility…only Jesus would be able to endure all of the pressures upon him and the weight of all that was to be placed upon his shoulders during the coming week…only Jesus could have done what God had asked of him. And yet…the Authorities rejected him outright…why?
Because they valued the stones they had…more than the one stone Jesus represented…a stone that called their own stones into question…a stone that threatened their very understanding of truth, goodness, and holiness. Which of course begs the question as to what exactly might these ‘stones’ have been that were so much more important than Jesus? What were the ‘stones’ in Jesus day upon which people depended? I think that an argument can be made that at least for those in charge, the ‘stones’ relied upon might be similar to our own. ‘Stones’ or underlying life understandings , goals, or desires such as stability and control, or a sense that life and society was best when it was fairly constant with no big changes in the forecast, or a certain security of wealth and comfort ensuring the lifestyle they were most comfortable with. These are normal hopes and expectations which many of us share and which do not seem at all like the type of things Jesus would challenge. And perhaps he wouldn’t have if everyone enjoyed the same level of wealth, opportunity, and access to justice and security as did the Chief Priests and other Authorities. However that was not the case.
For Jesus was confronting a very class-stratified social order with a very few highly privileged at the top, and so many less fortunate on the bottom. The ones Jesus reached out to and most closely resonated with were the lowest tier of society, the poor, the unhealthy, the ridiculed, the ones without much hope for change in their situation…those who had little hope of realizing their dreams beyond the very basics of survival…those who possessed very few if any of these ‘comfort stones’.
So when Jesus came on the scene and challenged the dominant sources of power and authority of his day he was in fact directly challenging the injustice and inequality that was embedded within their very way of life. And this is why it was so hard for them to hear or to accept what Jesus was saying to them. They were in no way interested in surrendering any of the ‘comfort stones’ they had come to rely upon. They were not interested in a greater level of justice or in a greater level of equality if it meant a reduction in their own power, authority, or comfort.
They did not want to lose the control they felt they had over their own lives, their own way of living, their own security built into their position of power and privilege. Jesus’ message was too hard and asked far more than they were willing to relinquish. They obviously did not feel that leveling out opportunity and resources across all strata of society was their responsibility. They preferred to remain on the mountains of privilege and to ignore the cries of those in the valleys of oppression and neglect. Jesus’ message was just not welcome in the houses and hallways of power and privilege.
And I wonder…how different is it really today? How would we receive a seeming crazed and radical preacher who claimed we pretty much had it all wrong? In fact, haven’t we heard from some such as these before? Surely those in Jesus’ day had, in fact there were many who came before him claiming to be the ‘Messiah’. Seriously, how would we react to someone who challenged our own ‘comfort stones’ in the name of equality, justice, or even fairness? Would we even listen…or would we say instead that, ‘nothing is ever fair’? How would we react to someone questioning our own foundation stones?
What are those things we take for granted, those things we do not even question as necessary in and for our lives that may fall into the category of things not available to the vast majority of the poor or oppressed within our own society? And are they really things Jesus would criticize us for having? Probably not if the poorest among you had access to these riches as well…probably not if you had them, rather than them having you…which is a question well worth considering in its own right another time.
So…I am not all that sure how we would greet Jesus if he came to us today. I am not sure how we might react to radical calls to upend the social order and redistribute the blessings we so depend upon. I don’t know how much mind we might pay him if he challenged us as profoundly as he did those in Jerusalem. For somehow, over the past two thousand years we have convinced ourselves that Jesus came not to disturb our comfort, but rather simply to teach us a complicated system whereby we could insure ourselves of eternal comfort stones in some far away land after our earthly death. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that what we have and how we structure our lives is good and right, aside from the fact that there is so much of what Jesus came to defeat still out there, making countless people’s lives an abject misery.
Somehow we have let our faith become a way to insure our own comfort rather than letting it be a stone-sharing promise of hope for those who have so little. Somehow the majority control of the faith was maintained even after Jesus was put to death for his message. Somehow we have managed to silence the real meaning of that resurrection, ignoring the calls of Jesus for justice and freedom for the oppressed, making it instead into a system that allows us to carry on without ever troubling ourselves over the fact that so many still have nowhere near a shadow of the stones we ourselves have.
So…the real question we need to ask again is, how would we deal with Jesus if he came to us today…if he showed up and asked us to look closely at what we have, what we plan to do with it, and what we might be willing to let go of in order to be able to shoulder his yoke, his burden? Would we be willing to relinquish control to this one we had just met? Would we just accept all of the things he asked of us…would we believe he was truly from God if he said our understanding of the faith and what it required of us was completely upside down? If he told us ‘other stones of his’ were more important than the ones we so depend upon would we be willing to set ours aside, pick his up, and treasure them as our own?
If he asked us to pick up a stone upon which was written, ‘…all lives matter to God, and especially those who suffer due to the color of their skin when it comes to equal justice before the law within our criminal justice system, or when it comes to equal treatment before police authority’, would we do so gladly and willingly? Or if he asked us to walk beside children who were marching and carry their stones which insisted that ‘true and open dialog around all of the issues related to gun violence become an issue that responsible adults both within our towns, and in our government truly agree to seek answers to’, would we be willing to join those who sit down both to listen and to share?
Or if he asked us to carry stones indicating that we ‘stand in full solidarity with women young and old who still suffer deeply and unjustly from a cultural and systemic bias against them…helping and encouraging them to have their voices and their stories heard’…would we do so with conviction that this unholy treatment of our sisters, daughters, and mothers must be turned around such that all voices of all God’s children might be not only heard but listened to as well, hopefully bringing about much needed change?
Would we follow a man named Jesus if we did not really know him yet? Would we follow him and tell our friends about him if what he was saying seemed to threaten our understanding, our world-view, our security, our savings, or even possibly our retirement plans? Would we listen to him if all he seemed to talk about was the poor and oppressed…those so often shut out of polite conversation and shut out of meaningful and righteous engagement on the part of those who claim to be his followers? Would we follow after him if he kept harping over and over again on his insistence we spend our time and attention on learning how to love each one of our neighbors better?
…Or would we reject this ‘corner stone’ yet again?
The crowd that day on the road into Jerusalem had no idea what they were in for…do we?