Have you not read this scripture: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;” (Mark 12:10)
As Mark’s Gospel approaches its climax – the crucifixion of Jesus – Jesus begins to press his message and elevate the tension. This parable of the vineyard points to people who have been entrusted to manage a vineyard for a landowner but who have run off or killed every messenger sent to collect fair rent for the land. Eventually, the landowner sends his son to collect the rent, assuming they will respect him and see that the owner is not giving up. But instead, they kill the son and assume that since the rightful heir is gone, they will keep the land for themselves. All for free!
Jesus tells this story for an audience made up of religious leaders in Jerusalem. It is a parable but also a pointed one. There can be little doubt that when the religious leaders hear Jesus tell this story, they know they are the brunt of the joke. This story is about them and their care of Israel and its people. Rather than doing what God wanted and doing so with gratitude, they have become entitled and hoarded everything for themselves. When God sent prophets to Israel to help reform it, the prophets were often rejected or even killed. And now, when God has sent the Son (Jesus) to them, the result will be the same. Jesus will be killed.
But Jesus doesn’t tell the story to forecast his defeat. Rather, he tells the story to point to his success. The verse above is the end result of the story. They can reject Jesus if they want. But even rejected, he is the cornerstone of God’s project. Everything that God is building rests on the foundation laid by Jesus.
This is a story of scarcity vs. abundance. Rather than seeing the providence of the owner and rejoicing at the bounty of the land, the tenants decide to hoard everything. They see no way to become as well-to-do as they want to become without cheating and keeping that which is not theirs. In the process they side with division, animosity and even death to keep everything.
The story has two sides to it:
The first, grounded in Luther’s understanding of the Law, is that human beings who are left to their own devices end up siding with death. In the process, they end up dying. Failure to trust in the goodness and providence of God always leads to a worldview that is grounded in fear and leads to death.
The second, grounded in Luther’s understanding of the Gospel, is that the failure of humanity to trust does not limit God’s commitment to pursue life anyway. Even the death of Jesus will only demonstrate how focused God is on continuing the work of building God’s kingdom. While human efforts to thwart God’s work even result in Christ’s crucifixion, God’s efforts to continue to build the Kingdom of God mean that the risen Christ is the cornerstone of the work.
In the end, this story has an ominous side to it. The failure of humanity to honor and participate in God’s work is our undoing. But it also has real good news in it as well. God’s commitment, love and ability to work for life far outstrip our capacity to work for death. In the end, in Christ, love wins.