The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
— Psalm 118:22-23, NRSV
Many years ago, I built a privacy fence behind our house, across the back end of our property. Careful prep work was needed if I wanted the fence to be straight and the construction to go smoothly. So I carefully lined up the post holes, made sure each post was perfectly vertical, and sighted along each post as it went in, to make sure they were aligned. It took time. But that fence still stands and has never given us a problem. I’m pretty sure it’ll outlast the guy who built it.
That’s the closest I come in my own experience to the biblical image of a cornerstone. When building a stone wall, everything depends on the foundation. If it’s not straight and true, the wall will not be plumb, and the higher the wall, the bigger the problem. And if the foundation stone that goes at the corner isn’t right, the walls will not be properly aligned, making the entire structure unstable.
That may sound a bit quaint in our day of identical, mass-manufactured building materials. But imagine the ancients building a wall or temple: the choice of the stone that would establish the first corner was crucial.
The passage quoted above comes near the end of Psalm 118. That psalm, in turn, is the last of a group of psalms that would be recited by the faithful during the pilgrimage feasts, including Passover. Collectively, Psalms 113 to 118 are known as the Hallel, the Hebrew word for “praise,” because that is the consistent theme of all six psalms: praise to the God who helps the needy, who rescued his people from Egypt, who cared for them in the desert, who is full of compassion and steadfast love. Some believe that Jesus and the disciples may have sung the Hallel at the end of their final Passover meal in the upper room (cf. Matt 26:30).
Psalm 118, in particular, is a song of victory (vs. 15) turned into a liturgy. As you read it, you can imagine God’s people going joyfully to the temple to celebrate the God who saves. It begins with call and response (vss. 2-4), asks for the gates to be opened (vss. 19-20), and speaks of a festive procession to the altar (vs. 27). The psalm begins and ends on the same note: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever” (vs. 1, 29).
In the psalm, the “stone that the builders rejected” is probably Israel herself. Israel had been surrounded by hostile nations, but ultimately triumphed by taking refuge in God. Thus, even though the nations rejected her, in the psalm she anticipates being the centerpiece of the world that God is building. By extension, the image of the cornerstone would later be applied to the Messiah.
In the New Testament, Jesus applied the image of the cornerstone to himself, in a way that angered his opponents. As he was teaching in the temple (quite possibly from Solomon’s Colonnade), the chief priests and teachers of the law questioned his authority (Luke 20:1-8). As part of his response, he turned to the people and told them a parable (vss. 9-19) about evil tenant farmers who were working a vineyard but essentially refused to pay their rent. The owner sent three servants, one at a time, to collect what was rightfully due, but each was beaten and sent away empty-handed. Finally, the owner sent his son — but the farmers killed him outright, hoping to take possession of the land themselves.
“So, what do you think the owner will do to those tenant farmers?” Jesus asked. “He’ll destroy them and give the vineyard to others, that’s what.”
Horrified, the people blurted out, “Heaven forbid!”
But then Jesus fixed them with a stare and quoted Psalm 118: “Then what does this mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?” The chief priests and teachers of the law knew Jesus was speaking against them; they were the wicked farmers, the ones who would reject and kill the son. And they knew he was making himself out to be both the son of the parable and the cornerstone of the prophecy. They wanted to arrest Jesus, but didn’t, because they were afraid of what the people might say or do.
As we’ll see in subsequent posts, all of this is the backdrop to what happens next in the book of Acts, as Peter and John are arrested and then make their case before the Sanhedrin. Peter will quote Psalm 118 to them as well, and will do it in such a way that there can be no question as to who is rejecting whom.
But today, Palm Sunday, I picture Jesus riding into Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds, the excitement of the disciples, and the annoyance of the Jewish leadership. No one but Jesus knew the fate that awaited him, nor the destruction that would eventually come to the temple itself.
And no one knew that Jesus himself would be the cornerstone of all that would be built from the rubble.