daily biblical sermons


THE CORNERSTONE THAT EVEN MANY CHRISTIANS TODAY STILL DO NOT UNDERSTAND
Fr. Steven Scherrer, MM, ThD
Homily of Friday, Second Week of Lent, February 26, 2016
Genesis 37:3-4, 12-13, 17-28, Psalm 104, Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46


Scripture quotations are from the RSV unless otherwise noted.

 

"Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him" (Matthew 21:37-39).


Today's two readings have the same message, the killing of a beloved son. The owner of the vineyard sent his "beloved son" (Mark 12:6) to the tenants to collect his fruit, but they "cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him" (Matthew 21:39). And in the first reading Joseph, the beloved son of his father Jacob, is thrown into a pit by his brothers, who plan to kill him, but at the last minute sold him to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites to be sold as a slave in Egypt. In Egypt, Joseph eventually escaped from slavery and prison and rose to become Prime Minister of the country who would save his brothers during a time of famine by giving them grain and then bringing them to live in Egypt. The very one whom his brothers rejected and sold, by this very act of treachery got himself into a position whereby he was able to save them.


In the Gospel reading today Jesus tells the parable about God's dealings with Israel throughout her history. According to the parable, a vineyard owner sends his servants to receive his share of the fruit at the time of harvest, but the vineyard workers mistreated his servants, and "beat one, killed another, and stoned another" (Matthew 21:35). He kept on sending more servants, and the tenants did the same thing to them. Finally he sent his son to them, and they killed him.


The vineyard is Israel, the owner is God, the servants are the prophets, and the son of the owner is the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. Because Israel kills the Son of God by the hands of the Romans, the kingdom of God will be taken away from Israel and "given to a nation producing the fruits of it" (Matthew 21:43). Jesus also says here that "the very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner" (Matthew 21:42). That is, the son of the vineyard owner, who is the Son of God, is the "stone which the builders rejected [that] has become the head of the corner" (Matthew 21:42).


Jesus is the fulfillment of this parable. He will be rejected by Israel who will use the Romans to crucify him. What happened to Joseph in Egypt is also fulfilled in Christ. As Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery, and this very act enabled him later to save them all, so Jesus' own people had him put to death, and this very act enabled him to save all who would later accept him in faith as their Savior. Also their treachery caused the kingdom of God to be taken away from them - at least for now - and given to the Gentiles, that is, to the whole world, to all who would believe in him.


Jesus here claims to be the very cornerstone which the builders rejected. Without this stone the arch cannot be completed. It is the keystone that holds the whole structure together, as Psalm 117:22 says, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner." This is the very text that Jesus quotes here. He himself is the head of the corner, rejected by the Jews.

 


II

 

When the chief priests arrested Peter and John for curing a cripple and for preaching Christ, they asked the apostles, "By what power or by what name did you do this?" (Acts 4:7). Peter then answered, "Be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:10-12).


The apostles performed this cure by the name and power of Jesus. He is the stone that the chief priests have rejected, and he has become the head of the corner. And he is the only one in whom there is salvation. "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).


But why is it that the Jews did not accept this cornerstone, while many Gentiles did accept it and received the gift of righteousness? Why was it that the Gentiles, who were not pursuing righteousness nor had God's revealed law, ended up attaining righteousness in Christ; while the Jews, who pursued righteousness through the law with great zeal, rejected Christ, the cornerstone, and ended up not attaining righteousness, so much so that the kingdom of God was transferred from the Jews to the Gentiles? Where did the Jews go wrong, and what did the Gentiles do that was so right?


The answer is that the Jews pursued righteousness in the wrong way, thinking that they could make themselves righteous by following God's law, which is both the moral and ceremonial law of Moses, including the Ten Commandments. When Christ came, a new way was finally clearly opened up to the Jews, the way of attaining righteousness through Christ's death in reparation for the sins of the world by means of putting our faith in him. Once we put our faith in Christ, the merits of his death on the cross are counted as ours in reparation for our sins, and our faith in him is reckoned to us as righteousness (Romans 4:3, 5, 23-24).


So our sins are forgiven and gone, our debt of punishment for them is paid, and Christ's righteousness is reckoned to us, filling us with his own splendid righteousness, making us truly righteous, all without doing the works of the moral law of Moses or doing anything or any work at all, only by believing in Jesus Christ. This is what the Gentiles accepted and many Jews rejected, but this was the keystone in God's fulfilled plan of salvation. The Jews failed, because they were seeking righteousness by works; while the Gentiles succeeded, because they accepted the gift of righteousness by faith "apart from works" (Romans 4:6).


St. Paul says all this in Romans 9:30-10:4: "What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, righteousness through faith; but that Israel who pursued the righteousness which is based on law did not succeed in fulfilling that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it through faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; and he who believes in him will not be put to shame.'


"Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified" (Romans 9:30-10:4).


Works then, of course, must follow immediately upon receiving righteousness by faith. By our works we grow in progressive sanctification, that is, we grow in truly integrating and assimilating Christ's gift of righteousness into our life. So faith "apart from works" (Romans 4:6) justifies us, but it does not remain "apart from works" once it has justified us but works hard at living a good life and doing good works.


The key to this whole matter is the death of Christ on the cross. That is what justifies us, because it alone makes just reparation for our sins. It is our faith in Christ that connects us to his reparation-making death and applies it to us, so that our sins are forgiven, our guilt is removed, our debt for our sins is paid, Christ's resplendent righteousness is reckoned to us, and we begin to shine with it. To reject Christ and his death on the cross and try to justify ourselves by our own works is to reject the cornerstone in God's plan for our salvation.


This is the basic gospel message that we are to preach to the world. This is the mission of the Church - to preach this message. This is the message that many today who consider themselves to be Christians still do not understand. Hence the great importance and urgency of clearly preaching this basic gospel message to all who will listen.

 

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