Grace is a tricky thing. It doesn’t always look right.
Just consider the kind of folk who fill the annals of salvation history in the bible: Abraham lied (twice) to save his own skin, giving his wife to other men, saying Sarah was his sister and not his wife. He later committed adultery and conceived a child with Hagar, Sarah’s maid servant. Jacob lied to Isaac, his elderly, blind father, to steal the family legacy and birthright from his brother Esau. Simeon and Levi convinced the men of an entire village to be circumcised so they could slaughter them in retaliation for the rape of their sister. Aaron followed the heart of the people and built them a golden idol to worship. He told them that this gloriously resplendent cow was the true god who had saved them out of Egypt. David committed adultery and murder. Namaan was a general in the Syrian army and had killed thousands of Israelites in battle. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire, the mortal enemy of God’s people. Peter tried to keep Jesus from the cross and denied knowing Him three times. Paul participated in the stoning of Stephen. He imprisoned and abused hundreds of Christians.
It doesn’t look right. They’re all a bunch of notorious sinners.
The actions of any one of these individuals would scandalize the socks right of the church today. Who would give their wife away to another man? What kind of jerk would deceive their blind father to get the family inheritance? Murderers, cowards, adulterers… these are not the kinds of folk you’d want to rub elbows with at church. Yet, it is through these notorious sinners that God continued to bring forth His kingdom into this world. That’s Amazing Grace!
Today Matthew tells us that he was “that” kind of person, too. He was a tax collector. Presumably, Matthew fit the stereotype of the day that said tax collectors were a bunch of corrupt and greedy jerks. However, that didn’t stop Jesus from walking up to Matthew’s booth and saying “follow me.” Despite Matthew’ reputation, Jesus decides He’s going to build His church through the likes of Matthew. That’s Amazing Grace!
But it didn’t look right.
It also didn’t look right when a bunch of Matthew’s friends later show up at the house where Jesus is eating with His disciples. Perhaps they’d heard about Matthew’s career change and wanted to learn more. Perhaps they genuinely wanted to confess their sin and receive forgiveness. Perhaps some believed Jesus was the Messiah. We will never really know what their motive was, but Jesus welcomes them all. That’s Amazing Grace.
But it didn’t look right.
Of course, we’re very accustomed of thinking about Jesus as the friend of sinners. We may not right away see the scandal in all this. We’ve grown up singing that old hymn “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.” But to the Pharisees, all this was new and strange and scandalous. Like new wine being poured into old wineskins, it burst their understanding what seemed good and right and godly.
Who would ever think that at a table filled with tax collectors and notorious sinners, you’d find God at work? We can call it Amazing Grace–the dictionary definition of “grace” says that grace is an undeserved gift or unmerited favor–but when we actually see grace in action, I’m not sure we always see it for what it really is, just like the Pharisees. We read Matthew 9:9-17 and common sense tells us that all these people with a bad reputation showing up at Jesus’ table are going to give Jesus a bad reputation, too. That’s how the world works. Birds of a feather flock together. You hang out with the dogs you’re going to get fleas.
Common sense tells us that this sort of people are not the kind you want at your table. These are not the kind of folk you want to join your church. Don’t feel too bad if you agree . That’s normal. Grace is a real struggle. Grace doesn’t always look or feel right. It just doesn’t!
But Matthew wants us to see is that Jesus had no trouble at all with grace. That’s what makes His grace truly amazing. It’s so freely given.
I’d like to make one final comment about todays reading:
Sometimes this passage and others like it, are used by the secular world and liberal Christians to accuse faithful churches of being too hard on sin. Especially, in our current context where a culture war is being fought over homosexual and transgender issues. Many would imagine Jesus partying it up with a LGTBQ crowd and would say that Jesus would have no problem with the crowd, and would accept them and not expect any change.
I’m sure Jesus would enjoy a chance to fellowship with them. That would be typical of His brand of Amazing Grace. But Jesus would most definitely not endorse the sin. He calls all sinners to repentance. In today’s reading, He compares sinners to the sick who need a doctor. So also, Jesus says sinners need a Savior. Sinners need healing. The LGTBQ crowd today needs the same.
It’s in this way that the grace that Jesus gives will look strange to both sides: Christians will struggle to extend grace to people whose lifestyles are so out of step with God’s Word. Conversely, the LGTBQ crowd will be leery of a “grace” that calls them to repentance and salvation from their sinful lifestyle choices.
As I said earlier, grace is a tricky thing. It doesn’t always look right.
As true God and true man, Jesus will make giving grace look so pretty. He does it so well. But when we sinful human beings do it, it won’t look so pretty all the time. However, when we find it difficult to give grace, never forget that Jesus continues to eat with sinners every week. He calls sinful Christians like you and me up to the altar and there He distributes His body and blood to feed and nourish and heal us. May His example in this meal give us every reason to go out into the world and graciously share what has been given to us.