Friday, March 5, 2010

The Stone Rejected By The Builders Has Become The Cornerstone.

Friday of the Second Week of Lent

Reading I
Genesis 37:3-4, 12-13a, 17b-28a

Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons,
for he was the child of his old age;
and he had made him a long tunic.
When his brothers saw that their father
loved him best of all his sons,
they hated him so much that
they would not even greet him.

One day, when his brothers had gone
to pasture their father’s flocks at Shechem,
Israel said to Joseph,
“Your brothers, you know,
are tending our flocks at Shechem.
Get ready; I will send you to them.”

So Joseph went after his brothers
and caught up with them in Dothan.
They noticed him from a distance,
and before he came up to them,
they plotted to kill him.
They said to one another:
“Here comes that master dreamer!
Come on, let us kill him
and throw him into one of the cisterns here;
we could say that a wild beast devoured him.
We shall then see what comes of his dreams.”

When Reuben heard this,
he tried to save him from their hands, saying,
“We must not take his life.
Instead of shedding blood,” he continued,
“just throw him into that cistern there in the desert;
but do not kill him outright.”
His purpose was to rescue him from their hands
and return him to his father.
So when Joseph came up to them,
they stripped him of the long tunic he had on;
then they took him and threw him into the cistern,
which was empty and dry.

They then sat down to their meal.
Looking up, they saw a caravan
of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead,
their camels laden with gum, balm and resin
to be taken down to Egypt.
Judah said to his brothers:
“What is to be gained by killing our brother
and concealing his blood?
Rather, let us sell him to these Ishmaelites,
instead of doing away with him ourselves.
After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.”
His brothers agreed.
They sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites
for twenty pieces of silver.
There is a strong parallel between the stories of Joseph and Jesus made in today’s readings.

In both cases the words quoted from Psalm 118 apply: “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”

Joseph is the favorite of Isaac’s 12 sons, who would later become the patriarchs of God’s people. His brothers became jealous of him and grew to hate him. They hated him even more for the dreams he told. In one of these he said he had a vision of the family bringing in the harvest. In the dream, all his brother’s sheaves bowed down before Joseph’s sheaf. This, of course, did happen later when the brothers came to Egypt during a time of famine in search of food. Unknown to them at first, Joseph was the grand vizier of Egypt in whose presence they paid homage.

In today’s reading, when Joseph, at the instructions of the father, went to visit his brothers in the fields, they conceived a plot to kill him. However, one of the brothers, Reuben, intervened and suggested instead that Joseph be thrown down a dry well, hoping to give him back to their father later. Reuben was the eldest son but later fell out of favor, and Judah subsequently took over leadership of the family.

The other brothers agreed to Reuben’s suggestion because they did not want to have the blood of their own brother on their hands. Perhaps they remembered what happened to Cain.

Eventually Joseph is either sold to Ishmaelites on their way to do business in Egypt or discovered in the well by Midianites and sold for 20 pieces of silver to traders on their way to Egypt. In later times, this sum was the value of a male of Joseph’s age who had been dedicated to the Lord (see Leviticus 27:5). The father is later told that his son has died from an attack by animals and is given back, as proof, the famous multi-colored coat stained with (goat’s) blood.

Joseph should have ended up in obscurity as a slave in Egypt but, thanks to his ability to interpret dreams, he was to win the favor of the Pharaoh and become the chief minister in Egypt and ultimately the saviour of his own people from famine - a famine which Joseph had foretold and helped to prepare for.

The story prepares us for the coming of Jesus, who is clearly the son in the parable which features in today’s Gospel. Jesus, too, was a man of ‘dreams’, with a vision of life which was rejected by many close to him. He, too, was sold into the hands of enemies only, precisely because of that, to become the saviour of his own people. Both Joseph and Jesus are, in the words of Psalm 118, the “stone rejected by the builders that became the cornerstone.”
+++ +++ +++ +++
Psalm 105
Remember the marvels the Lord has done.
When the LORD called down a famine on the land
and ruined the crop that sustained them,
He sent a man before them,
Joseph, sold as a slave.
Remember the marvels the Lord has done.
They had weighed him down with fetters,
and he was bound with chains,
Till his prediction came to pass
and the word of the LORD proved him true.
Remember the marvels the Lord has done.
The king sent and released him,
the ruler of the peoples set him free.
He made him lord of his house
and ruler of all his possessions.
Remember the marvels the Lord has done.
+++ +++ +++ +++

Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46
Jesus said to the chief priests
and the elders of the people:
“Hear another parable.
There was a landowner
who planted a vineyard,
put a hedge around it,
dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenants
and went on a journey.
When vintage time drew near,
he sent his servants to the tenants
to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants a
nd one they beat,
another they killed,
and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants,
more numerous than the first ones,
but they treated them in the same way.
Finally, he sent his son to them,
thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’
But when the tenants saw the son,
they said to one another,
‘This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him
and acquire his inheritance.’
They seized him,
threw him out of the vineyard,
and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard
do to those tenants when he comes?”
They answered him,
He will put those wretched men
to a wretched death
and lease his vineyard to other tenants
who will give him the produce at the proper times.”

Jesus said to them,
Did you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
by the Lord has this been done,
and it is wonderful in our eyes?

Therefore, I say to you,
the Kingdom of God
will be taken away from you
and given to a people
that will produce its fruit.”
When the chief priests
and the Pharisees heard his parables,
they knew that he was speaking about them.
And although they were attempting to arrest him,
they feared the crowds,
for they regarded him as a prophet.
We have here a parable spoken to the unbelieving chief priests and elders of the people.

It is the history of the Israelite people told in parable form. In fact, it is more of an allegory than a parable as the persons and incidents described point to real people and real events. Some scholars feel that what we have here is really an early Church document rather than something directly from Jesus. What seems more likely is that a parable spoken by Jesus has been modified in the light of later events.

The owner of the vineyard is clearly God. The vineyard is the house of Israel, where God’s people are to be found. The tenants of the vineyard are the people of God. The servants sent to collect the harvest are abused in various ways - beaten, killed, stoned.

The servants represent the prophets and other messengers sent by God to his people, many of whom were rejected, not listened to and even abused. Finally, the owner decides to send his son. “They will respect my son.” On the contrary, they saw that, if they got rid of the son, they could take over the whole vineyard for themselves. They could carry on without the owner.

So they seized the son, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. A clear reference to Jesus being crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem.

And what will the king do then? Jesus asks. The leaders condemn themselves by answering the question: “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death” as happened when the city of Jerusalem was totally destroyed in 70 AD.

Instead, the vineyard is let out to new tenants - those Jews and Gentiles, the new people of God, who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. The stone rejected by the builders becomes the cornerstone. “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.” (This is one of only two instances where Matthew uses the term ‘Kingdom of God’ rather than ‘Kingdom of Heaven’.) The Gentiles had for long been rejected as unbelievers and outsiders. Now, it is on them, together with those Jews who accepted Jesus, that the Kingdom will be built.

The Gospel ends by commenting that Jesus’ hearers understood his message perfectly but, because of Jesus’ popularity with the people, they could do nothing in retaliation for the moment.

Again and again it has happened in world history that fighters for truth and justice have been rejected, jailed, tortured and eventually found themselves the saviours of their people. Pavel in Czechoslovakia, Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther King in the US, Gandhi in India.

Let us make sure that we are listening to the right people, the people who have the message of truth, love and justice and that we follow them. Jesus our Savior still speaks through his followers.


Sarah in the tent said...

The conversation among Joseph's brothers about how to get rid of Joseph is similar to the way we approach euthanasia today: we opt for a death by thirst and starvation, hoping to avoid the guilt of spilling innocent blood. Is God convinced? Is anyone?

It's interesting how the bloody coat was supposed to be the sign of Joseph's death while, in the empty tomb, Christ's blood-stained burial cloths were the sign of His resurrection. The swaddling clothes were also part of the sign to the shepherds.

Fr. John L. Sullivan said...

A very interesting insight, Sarah. The story of Joseph and his brothers parallels the story of Jesus and his disciples at many levels. The contrast between Joseph's bloody tunic as a sign of his death, on the one hand, and Jesus' bloody burial shrouds as a sign of his rising on the other is (at least from a literary viewpoint) ironic. The notion that the people of this generation "opt for death by thirst and starvation hoping to avoid the guilt of spilling innocent blood" is also ironic. To answer your question: God knows "the evil that lurks in the hearts of men", and he also knows the weakness of human nature, which allows him to exercise justice in the form of mercy. Are those who practice euthanasia convinced of their good intentions, or are they aware of the wrongfulness of their actions? Back to the previous question for the answer to this one: only God can judge their consciences, and God's judgement is exercised in compassion and forgiveness.