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.'”
The tension has been building, building. If this were simply the story of a nice guy – with kindness for the sick and friendship with the forgotten – things could have been different. Jesus might have flown under the radar. We have instead a story sliding toward violence.
As the conflict stretched to the snapping point between respected religious leaders and this rogue rabbi, we might imagine any number of ways to ease the tension. At this precise juncture Jesus opts for nothing of the sort. Just the opposite; he ups the torque. No longer roaming the desert or the villages of Galilee, Jesus is now approaching the sacred center – geographically in Jerusalem and chronologically with the upcoming Passover.
Without an awareness of what’s at stake here, we might misread Jesus’s reference to Psalm 118 simply as an inspirational quote about making cornerstones from castoff junk. You know the motivational posters in middle managers’ offices… “POTENTIAL: Your Marvelous is Ready to Be Seen.” In other words: a bland, innocuous statement about what might be possible for anyone anywhere with a dose of resourcefulness!
Though Jesus continues to speak in parables and metaphor, the references are becoming more explicit. The “builders” are those who construct and manage the prevailing religious, political, and social systems. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them” (verse 45).
Throughout his public life, Jesus defied the architecture of these systems, welcoming people whom the dominant structures rejected and excluded. As we’ve seen in recent readings, these rejects included prostitutes, foreigners, slackers, and lawbreakers. Jesus might now be expected to clarify: “Okay, I’ve been hanging out with this unsavory bunch for strategic reasons – to bring them around for help making my point – but make no mistake, I’m not one of them!” Instead he brings a new clarity: “This is exactly who I am.”
The news isn’t that Jesus has finally managed to wedge himself into the old conventional architecture, finally accepted as the expected Christ. The news instead is an unexpected wrecking ball crashing the very structures that craftsmen take pains to conserve. To put an even finer point on it, not only the buildings but the builders themselves: “Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed” (verse 44). Sound harsh? Earlier Jesus announced that nothing less is required for salvation: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
Ironically, this is the way of love. It is the way of true life. It is the way of nonviolence and peace, which Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us is not simply the absence of conflict but a new arrangement of reality expressed in the “beloved community.” It is the way of good news for the poor – over which conservators of the old order will stumble and flail – often violently. In each of three “synoptic” gospels in which this cornerstone reference appears, it immediately follows the dark parable of vineyard tenants killing the son of the vineyard owner.
The new comes – a marvel! But as we see the gospel story unfolding, the old will not go quietly. Should we be surprised when it sometimes does not go gently around even our peaceable work in vulnerable urban communities?