Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Luke 20:17-18)
The direct quotation is from Psalm 118:22-23, which at first glance doesn’t seem to be hugely relevant to the preceding parable. Presumably the link in Jesus’ mind is that both the Son of the parable and the Stone of the Psalm are rejected. By citing Psalm 118, Jesus declares that though the tenants think they are obtaining autonomy by rejecting the Son, they are in effect laying the first stone of a brand new building, in which they have neither place nor part. Cutting off the branch, upon which they sit – to mix my metaphors. Jesus is the cornerstone – the crucial stone around which everything else is placed, in order to ensure the structure is built squarely, safe and stable.
But there is perhaps another link between the Son and the Stone. In Hebrew ben means son whilst ‘eben means stone, and so it’s possible that Jesus is making a pun. The rejected son is akin to the rejected stone of Psalm 118.
The Stone had a rich Old Testament background, which Jesus alludes to in order to make clear his claims about his mission and authority. It calls to mind two key Messianic passages:
Daniel 2 speaks about a stone that shatters rival kingdoms:
A stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces […] the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth […] And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold. (Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45)
This stone is mysterious in origin – not cut by a human hand – and destroys any kingdom that dares stand in the way of the Kingdom of God. This is typical Messianic fare; the kind of hope many of Jesus’ listeners would have held. But Jesus’ second reference turns the metaphor back on his hearers. Isaiah speaks of God himself becoming a stone:
And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken (Isaiah 8:14-15)
Coming hot on the heels of Isaiah 5, upon which the parable of the tenants draws heavily, this seems to be a continuation of Isaiah’s prophetic warnings that Israel must produce fruits in keeping with righteousness or face punishment. Here the stone not only crushes the enemies of God, but causes offense and stumbling to those within the houses of Israel: they stumble over him; they fall and are broken; they are snared and taken. No wonder Jesus’ hearers were seething as they realised he was speaking of them.
This little quotation and its allusions tell us a number of things. Rejection by men doesn’t automatically render one useless in the purposes of God. Christ was rejected by the very people who should have recognised him; rejected even to the point of death. And yet he became the cornerstone of a new structure, in which even Gentiles now have a place (Eph 2:19-22). But also, it tells us that Christ (and presumably the structure built around him) is both sanctuary and snare; a place of refuge and a rock of offense (Isaiah 8:14-15).
Opinion on Jesus is often so polarised that we tend to make him one or other of those things. For some, Jesus is the uncompromising revolutionary, who boldly and fearlessly took the unpopular route, no matter who he offended. For others, he’s Jesus meek and mild, who offers comfort to all and not the slightest hint of challenge that might trample upon our sensibilities. But we dare not pit these aspects of Jesus against one another. He is both the stone that will shatter the strong, and the shelter to comfort the weak.
The real question is… into which category do we fall?