Jesus, the Cornerstone, & Hard Tales

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is a really interesting one. A bit dark, yes? A bit troubling. Jesus seems to be condoning divine vengeance.

One thing we need to know to begin is that Jesus is speaking to the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem, a city to which he just arrived. At the end of the parable, Jesus asks the religious hierarchy,

…when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"

They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."

Is Jesus condoning a miserable death even if just in the fictional story?

Well, let’s be clear. Jesus does include violence in his parable. But at the same time, the parable, a fictional story, points to an important truth.

One of my favorite TV shows is the show Breaking Bad. It is an unbelievable show about a brilliant high school chemistry teacher who has underachieved and, he feels, unjustly so. At the beginning of the show, he’s diagnosed with lung cancer. This begins a downward spiral into horrible choices, a meth lab, drug dealing, and eventually a hell of the lead character’s own making. It is really a modern Shakespearean tragedy, a morality tale about breaking bad. And like Shakespearean tragedies, it is not without violence.

Now, Breaking Bad is a fictional show. The violence depicted is fictional. There is no condoning of the violence in the show. It is a realistic part of the story. At the same time, the story is profoundly moral. It is not good that the main character, Walter White, breaks bad. He harms everyone around him and pays for it. The most sympathetic character, the antihero of the story, Jesse Pinkman, turns out to be the most compassionate, most empathetic character. He breaks good and in the end, finds some sense of freedom.

Anyway, like the example of Breaking Bad, Jesus was not afraid to get dark with his moral stories. Jesus was not afraid to point to darkness and not shrink from the reality. Jesus was a realist and did not sugarcoat things.

So, this parable, this fictional tale, yes, it includes violence.  

But there is a truth Jesus is telling with the story.

 

This begs the question, what is the truth Jesus is telling with the story?

First of all, Jesus seems to be predicting his death with the parable. He is the landowner’s son who is killed by the tenants.

We should be clear. The author of Matthew is writing some 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. He is quoting Jesus a few years before that crucifixion. Biblical scholars with a more secular bent wonder if these are words put into Jesus’ mouth. I’ll leave that discussion for another day. I presume Jesus did predict his death in the parable.

Jesus also predicts the consequences for that death. Remember, Jesus is speaking to the religious hierarchy with the parable. He tells them, for your rejection and discarding of me, something will be taken away. The chosen-ness of, the favor given to the religious hierarchy and those they lead, will be taken away and be given to those ready to receive the good news of God’s love and compassion.

Not only that, there will be a divine response to the violence used.

Will God put those wretches to a miserable death? That is the answer the religious hierarchy gives when Jesus asks what the landowner should do.

Jesus does not directly affirm their answer. He responds to their violent answer with another question, quoting Psalm 118:

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'? 

Then Jesus says this: "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 

God’s first and foremost gift to them is taken away, that’s clear. But violent retribution? Will human violence beget godly violence?

Jesus continues: "The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."

The closest Jesus gets to violent retribution is a veiled metaphor about a stone that the rejectors fall upon or a stone that itself falls upon the rejectors. Someone falls on a stone and is broken into pieces. Then a stone is dropped on someone and crushes them. That stone being fallen upon or being dropped down is Christ the cornerstone.

This is not to be read literally, though. Jesus is not literally a stone. No one will be literally broken or crushed by a metaphorical stone.

This is all spiritual in nature. Christ is the stone that makes people spiritually stumble and the rock that makes them fall. 

Why? So God, like a loving parent when their child falls, can pick them up, dust them off, and bring them home to care for their wounds.

Again, we have fictional violence pointing to an important truth. For those who reject the way of love again and again, a more drastic approach must be taken. Tough love, albeit still nonviolent, becomes necessary. 

For Jesus, there is no such thing as godly violence. 

We see this made completely clear with the cross.

Jesus predicts his death in the parable. So we look ahead to the cross for some answers to the big question the parable presents, the question of godly violence.

Does the cross result in a miserable death for all those involved in making it happen? Does the violence of the cross beget Christ-condoned violence? Not at all. 

The cross begets forgiveness, a saving love, a transformed world.

As we see all the time, vengeance and violence is a vicious cycle. Vengeance and violence by nature spin round and round again. It's like Dr. King famously quipped, “If we do an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we will be a blind and toothless nation.” Violence and vengeance ruin us.

This vicious cycle itself must be broken into pieces and crushed.

That is what Christ does on the cross. He breaks the cycle. 

Jesus practices via the cross what he once preached – love your enemy. What does enemy love do? It breaks and crushes the cycle of vengeance and violence.

Christ crushes the cycle of vengeance and violence with “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” 

Jesus crushes the cycle by meeting hate with love, saying “Love your enemy.” He crushes the cycle by meeting violence with nonviolence, saying, “Put your sword away, whoever lives by the sword, dies by it.” He crushes the cycle of violence by meeting government-sanctioned death with God saving life, stating, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Christ, the cornerstone, crushes any final victory for violence through the crucifixion. The reality of the resurrection defeats the dominance of death. The cornerstone constructs a new way, one of nonviolence, compassion, and love.

So what’s the takeaway here?

As we hear news of war in Israel, as the war in Ukraine continues, let us commit ourselves to the way of nonviolence and peace. Let us live the way of nonviolence and peace. Let us remember real lives hang in the balance. Nonviolence must be the answer. Blind, toothless, and departed cannot be the way. The takeaway - let us pray for peace, knowing that is the Christian way.

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