It’s wonderful how our Lord Jesus Christ teaches. Very often he says something very puzzling, rather than just spoon feeding us information. He wants us to think, mull over his words and figure out what principles are behind his message. We have an example of that in today’s reading from Luke 20. Having just quoted Psalm 118 – “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v.17) he goes on to say, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” (v.18). What did Jesus mean by that?
First, consider the context. Jesus has just spoken a parable against the religious leaders of his day. He does that in a lot of his parables, using parables to illustrate the problems with the scribes and Pharisees and chief priests. The parable here in Luke 20 is the one about the wicked tenants who have been given authority in the vineyard but end up killing the heir who is sent by the owner. It’s of course a parable about how the religious leaders put Jesus to death. But the important point here is the scene of the parable. The scribes and Pharisees, and the Jewish nation in general, had been given the task of looking after God’s vineyard but had messed it up. So, Jesus ends the parable by saying “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (v.16), leaving us to puzzle over who are the “others”? Well, once again, consider the wider context. Remember the parable of the banquet back in chapter 14. There, those who were initially invited (the Jews) made light of it, and so the invitation was sent out to the highways and hedges – outside the border of Israel – the call that went out to the Gentiles. The same thing is going on here in the parable. One group of tenants (the Jews) are going to be replaced by another group (the Gentiles).
That warning is a prelude to what Jesus is going to talk about in the next chapter – the Olivet Prophecy. There Jesus outlines the end of the Jewish world which took place in AD 70 when the Romans came, destroyed the temple and city, killed many Jews and led others away captive. Notice what Jesus says in that context – “Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). The Jews have had their chance, but the times of the Jews has come to an end. Now it’s the turn of the Gentiles. The rest of the Olivet prophecy then goes on to outline events to do with the end of the Gentile world, which will also end in judgment. What Jesus is doing here is showing the parallel between the Jewish and Gentile worlds, or their “times”. The Jews were given authority as God’s tenants in his vineyard and they failed and were judged for it. The gospel went out to the Gentiles and they took over from the Jews. Have they fared any better? According to the Olivet Prophecy, no they did not, and their world is going to end too. We are living right now at the end of the Gentile world.
All of this helps explain Jesus’ enigmatic words about the stone. He describes the stone in two ways. First, “everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces”. That’s talking about the end of the Jewish world. Then, “when it falls on anyone, it will crush him”, and that’s talking about the end of the Gentile world. Can you hear the echo with Daniel 2 when the stone strikes the image on the feet? That’s one of the main prophecies about the end of the Gentile world. But what about the language regarding falling on the stone? What’s that talking about?
To answer that question, think about another passage where Jews and Gentiles are mentioned together. To the Corinthians Paul wrote, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22-23). Christ crucified was a stumbling block to the Jews. They expected their Messiah to conquer the Romans and bring back the kingdom to Israel, not die on a cross. Jesus Christ and him crucified was the stone upon which the Jews fell and their nation, instead of being restored as the kingdom of Israel, was broken to pieces, just as Jesus said. The Gentiles, on the other hand, seek wisdom, and when we think of Nebuchadnezzar’s image, we see the wisdom of man. The head of gold, the thinking part of the image, is representative of Babylon, and the first half of Daniel 2 is all about the wisdom of the Babylonians contrasted with the wisdom of God.
In the first century the Jews kept on asking Jesus for a sign, but he said no sign would be given to them except the sign of the prophet Jonah. In today’s world the irony is that the great sign of the times is the resurrection of the nation of Israel – they themselves have become the sign! They’ve come out of the belly of the whale, as it were, and are there in the land as a signpost to the latter-day Ninevites of the world that Christ is coming. And where has the wisdom of the Gentiles got them? The world, represented by the image, is trying its best to manage the vineyard of the God’s planet but not doing very well. Pandemics, climate change and terrorism, to name a few problems, are leading up to the time of “distress of nations in perplexity” (Luke 21:25). Soon the stone will fall on the image and crush it.
We must learn the lesson in our personal corner of God’s vineyard. Are we just looking for signs, getting excited about Bible prophecy but doing nothing about it? Or is the signpost of Israel motivating us to be good stewards as we wait to welcome the Lord of the vineyard. Are we teaching our children the wisdom of the world or the wisdom of God as we seek to prepare our families for his coming? Let’s not be a Jew, stumbling at the death of Christ and failing to take up our cross and follow him. But let’s not be a Gentile either, trying to sort our own way through life using human wisdom. Let’s be sons and daughters of the living God, measuring ourselves against the cornerstone of the temple, ready to be part of God’s house and the tenants of God’s vineyard in the age to come.
Simi Hills, CA