Salvation is a gift for the undeserving

Father John A. Kiley

Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val was ordained in 1888. A dozen years later, at age 38, Pope St. Pius X created him cardinal and secretary of state for the Vatican. Working closely with the saintly pontiff, Cardinal Merry del Val led the fight against Modernism, largely ridding the 20th century Church of that error. (Some might see a recurrence of Modernism in today’s Church.) When Pope St. Pius died in 1914, Merry del Val was a likely candidate to be his successor. There is talk that the Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna, Giacomo della Chiesa, who took the name Benedict XV, was elected by only one vote. Merry del Val, bravely or meanly, asked that the ballots be checked. When no flaw was discovered, the Bologna archbishop was acclaimed as Pope. Each Cardinal then pledged his personal obedience. When it came time for Merry del Val to do so, the new Pope Benedict supposedly whispered, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” (Ps 118:22) Without taking a breath, Merry del Val nobly responded with the next verse: “By the Lord has this been done and it is wonderful in our eyes.”
There certainly is much mystery concerning selections and rejections within God’s providence. As Isaiah observed in this coming Sunday’s first reading, God the Father had cultivated the Jewish nation as his privileged vineyard. And God was a good vintner: “…he spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines; within it he built a watchtower, and hewed out a wine press.” (5:2) Then God was sadly disappointed: “…what it yielded was wild grapes (5:4).” So God had made his choice but the elect did not respond. And this rejection pained God: “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry! ” (5:7)
Jesus for his part pondered in his time the same mystery of rejection of God’s plan by those who should have known better. Using the same vineyard imagery as Isaiah, Jesus offered a parable about the rebuff he was personally experiencing from the Jews of his day: “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.” (Mt.21:40). So God’s benevolent providence is again rejected by the very ones who had been cultivated to accept it. Were there flaws in God’s plan?
This is where the psalmist’s words quoted antiphonally by Cardinal Merry del Val and Benedict XV as well as by Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel passage begin to make sense: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes?” (Ps. 118:22)
The refusal of some Jews and especially the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day to accept Christ as Messiah and Lord forced the early Christian community to turn to the Gentile world as an unlikely and even undeserving audience for the preaching of God’s Word and as beneficiaries of God’s redeeming grace. The Jews were God’s chosen people and consequently had some claim to His Kingdom. But the Gentile world was totally unbelieving, bereft of all grace and seemingly beyond redemption. For the Gentile world to accept the Good News of Salvation scorned by the Jews was a tremendous miracle of grace, a coup for Divine Providence!
Jesus Christ is “the stone rejected” by the Jews who should have used him as the cornerstone in a new Kingdom of God. But instead, this Jesus has become the unlikely cornerstone of a Universal Church, the Catholic Christian Church, preached today to all the nations of the earth who were formerly the unbelieving and unworthy Gentile world. And, yes, “by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes!”
Jesus has used the sad infidelity of his Chosen People to emphasize that salvation is completely a grace, a gift bestowed freely even on the undeserving. “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.” Redemption is God’s work and he keeps all mankind guessing toward what direction his Providence might next swing. It is indeed “...wonderful in our eyes...” and an occasion to hope that once again an unbelieving world might be reconstructed with Christ as the cornerstone.