October 8, 2017
Private Club Membership
Most people do not know this about me, but I used to play golf. I would never say I was real serious about it, but I most definitely played and enjoyed doing so. More than playing, I loved watching the Master’s Tournament every year. There just seemed to be something about watching the drama unfold on that second Sunday of April and although there wasn’t much drama on the course on the final day of the 1997 Masters Tournament, Frank Urban “Fuzzy” Zoeller certainly provided all the drama and more than we needed when he finished his final round. As he walked off the course, he turned to the press corps and made a racist remark regarding Tiger Woods, who was certain of winning his first Major Championship. Only 21 years old at the time, that win at Augusta secured Tiger’s place in history as the youngest Master’s winner ever… a record that might one day be broken. That win also secured Tiger another record, one that will never be broken. You see, on that particular Sunday, Tiger became the first non-white winner of the Master’s Tournament.
It was that last record that prompted the racist comment from Fuzzy, who was already a full member of that extremely exclusive club thanks to his 1979 win. His membership in that club allowed him to know about the club’s traditions like the reigning champion’s right to choose the food at the Masters Champions Dinner the following year. So, after finishing tied for 34th place with a score of 78, Zoeller, referring to that following year’s Dinner, “He’s doing quite well, pretty impressive. That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well. He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it.”
Zoeller then smiled, snapped his fingers, and walked away before turning and adding, “or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”
Some have been known to say that “It is a grim fact that [those] admitted to the Country Club typically becomes the loudest voice in making the case to keep out the next group seeking admission. After all, once you make it to the inside of a Members Only club, you want to savor your status. You see it as a key achievement, a notch in your belt, a feather in your cap, a sign that you are now really Somebody.
Then when certain types of people start to somehow get admitted into your Club, particularly such-and-such a group, then suddenly it’s as though your special status starts to feel diminished, watered down, less of a distinction than it had been. In this way it seems, the very purpose of having a club is to have barriers and walls around you to keep out . . . riff-raff and other undesirables. If you don’t have standards to bar certain people from admission, [like people who don’t know what kind of food is acceptable to the other Members], then what’s the sense of having a club to begin with?
This is human nature, I’m afraid. And it’s also the reason that when a religion starts to see itself as a club, it’s pretty much game over in terms of reflecting and incarnating the loving heart of God.”
So, what does Exclusive Club Membership have to do with Jesus, the Chief Priests and the Religious Leaders… I say EVERYTHING.
Proper Historical Context
In today’s passage we read a story found in the latter part of Matthew’s Gospel, where is Jesus again speaking with the Chief Priests and Religious Leaders. The reason he is speaking with them in the first place is because they continue questioning Jesus’ authority. Remember, they wanted desperately to “catch” him so that they could prosecute him. It is as though they are saying, “How dare he try to teach outsiders about the inner workings of our Exclusive Club.” This isn’t the first time they tested Jesus and just like those other times, Jesus uses the power of a Parable to make his point.
Did you know that this Parable is one of only three that appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, what we call the synoptic gospels? “Curiously, some of Jesus’ best-known parables (like the Good Samaritan) occur in one gospel alone. Only the parables of The Sower, The Mustard Seed, and The Tenants get repeated in all three New Testament Gospels.
So why this parable? Especially considering it is one of the lesser known parables. Why would the Gospel writers confer such importance to this parable?
Maybe it is because this Parable shows us how Jesus is shifting the focus from Israel alone, a small exclusive club, to the entire world. Maybe with this Parable Jesus is teaching yet again that the Kingdom of God is not a Kingdom built on rejection. Maybe with this Parable Jesus is teaching that this Kingdom is a Kingdom that is rightly Ordered. A Kingdom belonging to God and entrusted to, never owned by, God’s beloved.
Rejection & Right Ordering
This entire parable is not as much about leadership as it is about rejection. All throughout this Parable the Tenants reject, reject, reject. They reject everyone the far away Owner sends. First, it’s the Owner’s servants then the Owner’s own son. Harm, assault, even kill, but no matter what reject all who dare come to the vineyard.
The Tenants in this Parable appear to be experts at rejecting everyone. Outsiders and insiders who they deem unworthy of being in that place or being a part of their club. The thing is, their rejection doesn’t start when those first people show up, it actually begins with the Owner. The Tenants first reject their previously made arrangement with the Owner. Their agreement to tend to and care for the Owner’s Vineyard. Make no mistake, when they reject this previously made agreement, they are rejecting the Owner. This mindset of rejection sets up all the other ways the Tenants reject the servants and the son.
There is something altogether different about rejecting and wanting to kill his son because “In coming to reclaim what rightly belongs to his Father, the Son sets out to restore the world to its divinely created order. This restores wholeness to this broken situation, and it also provides a glimpse into what Jesus calls “the Kingdom of Heaven.” This glimpse is what God’s creation is supposed to look like.
But the restoration of God’s creation to what it is supposed to be is so difficult. That kind of restoration work always seems to meet opposition from those with a vested interest in the world’s brokenness. That kind of restoration work always seems to meet opposition from those who believe they are already a part of the “in crowd.” This is restoration work because the Owner first made an agreement with these Tenants, and the Tenants made the decision to reject or destroy that agreement. It is the Owner who now is looking for the agreement to be restored, but the Owner is now fully aware that the restoration will require an expanded search. It will require the opening of doors to those who have been kept out by the Tenants.
If we look closely at this passage then we will see that Jesus acknowledges this very thing. In his words he acknowledges that the Tenants were first chosen by the Owner and by making this acknowledgement he is honoring history itself and God’s choosing of Israel. In this Parable the Tenants are hired by the Owner to protect and maintain the vineyard. As much as we would like to point the finger at them and call them names, the truth of the matter is that they are not robbers tearing down the fence to steal. They were actually chosen to be there.
And this makes their failure all the more tragic because they have broken the Owner’s trust. They have improperly laid claim to that which does not rightfully belong to them. In this way, Jesus’ very point seems to be that the Chief Priests and the Religious Leaders have mistaken their leadership over Israel for ownership of Israel. Where the Chief Priests and Religious Leaders were charged with pointing Israel toward God had turned into them pointing her to themselves. This is why this Parable is not an indictment against Israel, or against the institution… it is an indictment against the ways God’s appointed leaders have rejected God and rejected society. And this is why this is a Parable about putting things in their proper order and caring for what has been entrusted to you instead of exercising dominion over it.
The tragedy lies not only in their selfish rebellion but in the blindness that rebellion produces. The Parable shows how the temple leaders have been entrusted by God and how they have rebelled against God, but can’t even see their own rebellion. What they know is that God has appointed them as leaders, and this Jesus has attacked their authority. What they know is that they have been admitted to the Club, and now Jesus is saying others are worthy of being admitted too and this threatens their position of power and as a result they cannot see--or have lost sight of--what God’s will for the world really is. This is why in their eyes Jesus’ ministry must be a scandal.
"The issue is not fundamentally one of leadership as much as it is one of rendering to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21). For anyone called by God to a particular ministry--namely everyone--there is the temptation to claim ownership of that ministry, to confuse service with entitlement. For us, the moment a sense of entitlement creeps into 'our' ministry is the moment we have closed ourselves off to what Jesus is doing in the world. In that scenario we no longer serve Jesus; we protect ourselves from him. In our blindness we proclaim, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance” (21: 38).'”
The tenants who turn on the vineyard’s owner were clearly the religious leaders of the day, and the moment you make that connection, it’s not difficult to see why these folks were so upset over what Jesus said. Jesus was clearly saying that the vineyard tenants claim of ownership and sense of entitlement were on the wrong side of history. Their approach to the Kingdom was off.
Here’s the thing, it takes faith to accept that. The problem with the Chief Priests and Religious Leaders of Israel in Jesus’ day is that they had long since given up on true faith. For all intents and purposes, they decided they could run God’s kingdom without God. And all throughout history, when God had tried to redirect them through the prophets, they ignored, battered, and sometimes killed those prophets. Their narrow-mindedness was so complete “they had concluded that unless someone said things that affirmed what they were already doing and believing, then that person could not represent God. ” It was this same narrow-mindedness that allowed them to so easily reject anyone who did not sing the party line.
And most importantly, whenever we religious types reach that point concerning our God, we need to recognize that we are not where God wants us. We have reached a point where we are attempting to exercise dominion and ownership over things only entrusted to our care. Ownership and control is not our job, nor has it ever been our calling.
Amy and I were watching an interview with the famed comedian Billy Crystal yesterday afternoon and something he said about the condition of our world struck me. When asked what he is concerned about the most, Crystal said, “you know I am 70 years old and I have four grandchildren, 14, 11, 8 & 4, and I look at them and I wonder what kind of world are we leaving for them.” The thing is, I have heard this very same question from many friends and clients over the years, but especially over the past couple of weeks. It is a haunting question and it is one I worry about too. It seems this question haunted Jesus too. Why else would he try so desperately to teach the Chief Priest and Religious Leaders about how deadly rejection would be to their lives? Why else would Jesus try so hard to teach them that God is Love and that we are all God’s Beloved?
It’s past time for those claiming to be the Church to live up to Jesus’ teaching. It’s past time for those claiming to be the Church to stop treating it like its an exclusive membership club where only the insiders know what people like to eat. It’s past time for those claiming to be the Church to begin truly caring for God’s creation instead of claiming ownership and operating with a sense of entitlement.
If the Church can claim this rightly ordered life, then we will do as the Lord’s Prayer directs… God’s will be done on EARTH as it is in Heaven. This is the kind of world we should be leaving each and every generation that follows.
 "Golfer says comments about Woods 'misconstrued'". CNN. April 21, 1997. Retrieved May 22, 2013.
 Driggers, Ira Brent, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=145