Day 185: Matthew 21:42

Haven’t you ever read what the Scriptures say?  “The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all.  This was done by the Lord; what a wonderful sight it is!”

This scripture is pretty universally understood to mean that Jesus is the foundation of a new religious order; the leader of the new people that God is going to use to bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth.

However, when I went to the source of this scripture that Jesus quotes here I was very surprised.  Jesus is quoting Psalm 118.  In the tradition of the church this psalm is called, “A Prayer of Thanks for Victory.”  Jesus must have taken great comfort in this joyful, hopeful psalm, which seems to be written just for him at this difficult time in his life.  Except that it was written about 1000 years earlier.

The psalm begins with praise for the goodness and eternal love of God for his people.  Throughout this ministry Jesus tried to change the image from God from a hard, angry, cruel, unforgiving taskmaster to a kind and loving father. He tried to instill in people a positive view of God and an appreciation for this goodness.

Give thanks to the Lord, because he is good, and his love is eternal.  Let the people of Israel say, “His love is eternal.”  Let the priests of God say, “His love is eternal.” Let all who worship him say, “His love is eternal.”

Having recognized and given thanks for the love of God, the psalmist provides a testimony about how God has saved him from his enemies.  And through the words of this psalm Jesus expresses his own faith that God will rescue him from his enemies.

In my distress I called to the Lord; he answered me and set me free.  The Lord is with me, I will not be afraid; what can anyone do to me?  It is the Lord who helps me, and I will see my enemies defeated.  It is better to trust in the Lord than to depend on people.  It is better to trust in the Lord than to depend on human leaders.  Many enemies were around me; but I destroyed them by the power of the Lord! They were around me on every side; but I destroyed them by the power of the Lord!  They swarmed around me like bees, but they burned out as quickly as a brush fire; by the power of the Lord I destroyed them. I was fiercely attacked and was being defeated, but the Lord helped me.  The Lord makes me powerful and strong; he has saved me.

Now the psalmist praises God and gives thanks for the victory God has provided.  Jesus acknowledges the suffering he must endure, but looks forward to the vindication of the resurrection.

Listen to the glad shouts of victory in the tents of God’s people: “The Lord’s mighty power has done it! His power has brought us victory—his mighty power in battle!” I will not die; instead, I will live and proclaim what the Lord has done.  He has punished me severely, but he has not let me die.

Now the psalm refers to the Temple gate metaphorically as the “gate of the Lord.”  It is the source of today’s scripture about the stone rejected by the builders.  I think Jesus himself is the new gate, the cornerstone of the new temple which will not be a physical building.  It will be the gateway to the spiritual realm where we meet with God.

Open to me the gates of the Temple; I will go in and give thanks to the Lord!  This is the gate of the Lord; only the righteous can come in. I praise you, Lord, because you heard me, because you have given me victory.  The stone which the builders rejected as worthless turned out to be the most important of all.  This was done by the Lord; what a wonderful sight it is! This is the day of the Lord’s victory; let us be happy, let us celebrate!

The next section seems to refer almost directly to Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday – 1000 years before the actual event.  Those are the actual words that were used by the people as Jesus entered Jerusalem – “God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Matthew 21:9).  Also, it’s hard to miss that reference to branches.

Save us, Lord, save us!  Give us success, O Lord!  May God bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  From the Temple of the Lord we bless you.  The Lord is God; he has been good to us.  With branches in your hands, start the festival and march around the altar.

And the psalm ends with thanksgiving and praise for the love of God.

You are my God, and I give you thanks; I will proclaim your greatness.  Give thanks to the Lord, because he is good, and his love is eternal.

Looking back, it’s pretty amazing, especially the Palm Sunday part.  I mean, Jesus could “decide” to enter on a donkey to “fulfill” Zechariah’s prophecy, but he couldn’t control the peoples’ response.  The people used the same words and carried branches, just like Psalm 118 describes.  The Bible doesn’t say that Jesus passed out the branches or told them what to say.  The entire Psalm 118 seems to be written for Jesus at this point in his life.

I wonder if the chief priests and the elders who were so antagonistic to Jesus were familiar with this psalm?  If I had been one of those chief priests and I was familiar with the teachings of Jesus, his arrival in Jerusalem, and the words of Psalm 118, I think would have been pretty concerned.  I think I might have given him the benefit of the doubt.  But maybe the religious leaders didn’t spend much time reading the Psalms.  They probably spent all of their time reading the Law in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  They probably thought the Book of Psalms was a waste of time, so they wouldn’t have either known this psalm by heart or taken the time to look it up.  The entire reference to Psalm 118 probably all went right over their heads.  It seems that there was a lot that was going right over their heads, including the teachings of Jesus, will of God, the futility of killing their enemies, the future of the ill-fated Temple and the unholy decadence of their way of life.

What does this scripture say to you?

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