Additional texts: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14)
The Pharisees were often confused by Jesus’ parables, but this one got through pretty clearly to them. The image of the prophets being killed by Israel’s previous leaders and that’s God will punish Israel’s leaders was insulting enough to them, but the statement that the vineyard would be given to others, or that the Kingdom of God would be opened to the Gentiles, was more than the Pharisees could stand. As the text says, “they wanted to lay hands on him.”
This particular “laying on of hands” is not the same as the laying on of hands we do at healing services and ordinations. There is obviously a more sinister purpose in mind, and it comes to fruition a bit later in Luke’s Gospel on Good Friday.
The last straw for the Pharisees came as Jesus mentioned the cornerstone. It’s just one short statement compared to the rest of the Gospel reading, but it is a very important Old Testament link with powerful imagery concerning salvation.
One of the greatest difficulties we face today as Christians is that we are biblically illiterate compared to the people of Jesus’ time, and compared to Muslims today.
Children in 1st-century Israel had the first five books of the Old Testament memorized by age 10. Many Christians today can’t even name the first five books of the Old Testament.
Muslim children today in the Middle East and elsewhere are taught in school to memorize the Koran at an early age. Christian children today in the United States who even mention the Bible, or Jesus, in school often face suspension or other punishment.
When we hear the words of Jesus in the Gospels we often think Jesus has just given his listeners some new and wonderful message. But Jesus’ listeners recognized him foremost as a rabbi who really knew his Bible.
It amazes me that some people will say they believe Jesus was a great moral teacher, but that they don’t believe in the Bible, while almost everything that Jesus is recorded as saying comes initially from the Old Testament. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah from the about 750 B.C., who was also referencing Psalm 118 from around 1,000 B.C.
I’d like to share the context Jesus provided in his statement, through those particular Old Testament. In Psalm 118 (20-23), we read:
“This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
In Isaiah, Chapter 8 (13-15), the prophet says:
“The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare. Many of them will stumble; they will fall and be broken, they will be snared and captured.”
And later, in Chapter 28 (15-17), Isaiah says:
You boast, “We have entered into a covenant with death, with the grave we have made an agreement. When an overwhelming scourge sweeps by, it cannot touch us, for we have made a lie our refuge and falsehood our hiding place.”
So this is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed. I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place.”
So you can see why the Pharisees were a bit miffed. They knew the penalty for rejecting God’s cornerstone because they also knew the scriptures. For Jesus to be declaring himself as the cornerstone that is being rejected must have had steam shooting out of their ears. Not only was Jesus claiming to be the foundation of all human salvation, he was also telling the Pharisees that they wouldn’t be getting any of it.
The cornerstone in biblical times was the first and most important stone laid in the foundation or the top and key supporting stone in an arch. In either case, it was the most important part of the structure.
Jesus is the key element of our lives, the only thing holding us together. The single most important aspect of our foundation. But do we treat him — or even recognize him — as that?
Do we focus our lives on Jesus, or on the other things that distract us from him?
Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision, and heard him discussing with angels the need for a prophet. The Lord asked, “Whom shall we send; who will go for us?” And Isaiah replied, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” (Isaiah 6:8)
He made the Lord the cornerstone of his life, and built his life around the Lord. Isaiah tells us in our reading today, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
When we turn ourselves over to God, he changes our lives, our outlook, our character. As a result, our old selves are no longer a part of us. And our old sinful ways are not things we should look back at fondly and hope to return to. If we are focused on becoming a disciple of Jesus, our old ways are distractions to us.
Paul realized that, and tells us that everything he had gained in his life outside of God’s will, things that he had lost once he became a follower of Christ, he now regards as rubbish.
Paul was a Pharisee in very high standing, a shining young star who was very likely to become a member of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s ruling body of 71 top religious leaders. Along with the fame and reverence that being a Pharisee brought, the lifestyle was one of wealth and ease.
When Paul began to follow Jesus, realizing that Jesus was Israel’s promised Messiah, his life changed. He no longer was considered a rising star, and was forced to live in squalor, barely making enough money repairing tents and sails to feed himself, living in caves or exposed to the elements and enduring beatings, whippings, and even stoning from the people he preached to. That’s quite a status drop.
I need to clarify a word that Paul uses. Our translation uses the word “rubbish.” If our blender stops working, we consider it rubbish and throw it away; but to some people who are mechanically inclined, a few tweaks here and there, and they’ve got a fine working blender for free — one man’s trash being another man’s treasure.
But Paul uses a Greek word (óêýâáëïí) [Noun Neuter Plural Accusative] that means dung, excrement, or rotted food that is thrown away. We think of a “loss” as involving something of value that we no longer have. But the term Paul uses shows that the things he spent his life chasing after, the things he once thought were so important, were lower in value than raw sewage.
That’s a graphic image that Paul deliberately chose for impact — one that his readers in Philippi understood immediately — but that we have softened in modern translations so as not to offend our delicate sensitivities.
Paul is not rejecting his beliefs or heritage as an orthodox Jew. The rest of Paul’s letters and the story of his ministry in the Book of Acts clearly shows how much he valued being a Jew. But he understood that following Jesus made him a completed Jew, not a lesser one.
His standards weren’t lowered; they were raised. God took what was good in Paul’s relationship with him and made it better. He does the same with all of us. I’m reminded of the words of Jim Elliot, a missionary who said, “He is no fool to give what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
It means making Jesus the cornerstone of our lives.
One example in recent history of someone who undeniably made Jesus the cornerstone of her life is Mother Teresa.
In his book What Jesus Would Say…, Lee Strobel describes what Jesus might say to 10 key figures in our society, one of whom is Mother Teresa.
I want to contrast her life with Paul’s for a moment.
Mother Teresa was a 18-year-old Yugoslavian girl named Agnes Bojaxhiu (boy-AX-ee-oo) when she left home to become a nun. Over the next 20 years, she taught middle-class high school students, and was often described by her colleagues as “average.”
She felt God calling her in 1946 to serve India’s poor. She started with nothing — no shelter or finances. She picked up a woman dying in the gutter who been partially eaten by rats and ants and brought her to the hospital, badgering the reluctant doctors until they finally treated the woman.
Since then, hundreds of thousands have been rescued, and facilities for orphans, lepers, and AIDS patients have been created worldwide. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, and since then had become a household name and the living image of Christian servanthood.
Mother Teresa was not a rising star in the church hierarchy; she had no inclination toward a power position in the Vatican. Unlike Paul, she was just a humble, average nun whom God chose to have a miraculous impact on the world.
She was humble even in death. Many people don’t recall when she died, since there wasn’t a lot of media coverage about it. You’d think the death of someone like Mother Teresa would have been the lead news story and generated countless TV specials about her life.
As someone who has worked with the media for more than 20 years, I can tell you that’s what would have normally happened. Normally. However, God called Mother Teresa home on a very abnormal news day. She died Sept. 5, 1997.
Her death was reported the following day, on Sept. 6, the day of Princess Diana’s funeral. Television, radio, magazines and newspapers were saturated with continuous coverage of Diana Spencer’s life, with hardly a word about Mother Teresa able to break through to the surface. Even in death, she was able to avoid the spotlight.
Often people think that to be as devoted to Christ as Mother Teresa was, we need to sell all our stuff and move to India. But Jesus doesn’t want more Mother Teresas; he already has one. He does want each of us, however, to serve in the roles he has provided for us as his followers.
When asked how we should serve others, whether we should fly to India to join her, Mother Teresa has responded, “I know you think you should make a trip to Calcutta, but I strongly advise you to save your airfare and spend it on the poor in your own country. It’s easy to love people far away. It’s not always easy to love those who live right next to us. There are thousands of people dying for a piece of bread, but there are thousands more dying for a bit of love or a bit of acknowledgement.
“The truth is that the worst disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis; it’s being unwanted, it’s being left out, it’s being forgotten. The greatest scourge is to be so suffocated with things that we forget the next person.”
We’re not all called to be missionaries overseas; but we are all called to be missionaries wherever we are.
Lots of people do good things for the poor, and Christians don’t have a monopoly in that area. But there was something special about Mother Teresa that made her more than just a social worker who prays.
Lee Strobel points out that there are some characteristics she had that distinguish Christ’s servants from others. Sort of a check list we can use as followers of Christ to see if those qualities are true for us also.
The first is to be a distributor, not a manufacturer. Some people manufacture compassion for the needy from their own needs or motivation. Maybe they feel guilty about being wealthy, or they just pity the poor, or feel they need to give something back to society, or a psychological need to put others before themselves in order to feel better about themselves.
Whatever the source is, eventually it will run out. We need to be distributors, connecting with Jesus in prayer each morning, filling ourselves with his word, love, and guidance from the Bible, and then spending the rest of the day as conduits through which God’s love can spread to others.
Second, we need to serve God, not ourselves. Sometimes we let volunteering become self-promotion. One writer described the volunteerism trend of the 1990s this way:
“There’s so much to gain personally from volunteering. You feel good. You see and learn things you otherwise wouldn’t have. You test your abilities. You often find yourself rubbing shoulders with pillars of the community who can help your business or career. Volunteering can be yet another path to upward mobility.”
Rubbish. That’s pure ego, not servanthood. It’s following me, not following Christ. Serving others should bring us closer to God.
Third, respect the people you serve; don’t pity them. If we pity the people we serve, that attitude seeps through our actions and the person in need feels devalued. Each person is created in God’s image, and each person has value to God. They’re not case numbers or patients to God. They are worthy of all the respect and dignity we expect for ourselves.
The fourth characteristic is a willingness to sacrifice, not just a willingness to serve. There’s a difference. When service to others begins to interfere with other events in our lives, we tend to reduce our service. Jesus set a higher standard for us as his disciples. Service to others is often inconvenient. True servanthood will require sacrifice. He commanded us to love each other as he has loved us (John 15:12).
The fifth characteristic is a willingness to follow God’s agenda instead of our own. It’s an amazing source of comfort and strength when you are sure that you are doing what God wants you to be doing with your life.
The sixth is that we have spiritual gifts, not just abilities. We are all hardwired by God with different spiritual gifts. If you haven’t already done so, take a spiritual gift assessment. Some of have spiritual gifts of mercy, or compassion, or teaching, or pastoring, or evangelism, or any of about two dozen other spiritual gifts.
Often, we have multiple gifts that overlap and reinforce our natural God-given strengths in those areas. God gives us those gifts for a reason — to share them with others.
Seven, we need to rely on God, not organizations. There’s a story about Mother Teresa telling her superiors that she had five pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage. Her superiors told her that she couldn’t build an orphanage, or anything else for that matter, with just five pennies. “I know,” she replied. “But with God and five pennies, I can do anything.”
Organizations like Father Joe’s Village, Episcopal Community Services, or Catholic Charities do wonderful things for people. But we need to rely on Jesus, not organizations, because quite often, Jesus does what our organization leaders determine is impossible.
And last, we need to keep an eye on eternity, instead of just looking at today. Mother Teresa’s approach to preaching salvation of Christ was, as she put it, to “preach Christ without preaching — not by words but by putting his love and our love into living action.”
She lived the command of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel (5:16): “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
By doing these things, we keep Christ as the cornerstone in our life. When we make ourselves the cornerstone, even our good deeds for others end up tainted, and the recipients of our efforts don’t see Christ in us. But when we make Jesus the center of our lives, people will see him in everything we do. Just as everyone who looks at a building sees its cornerstone.
God bless you all.