The momentum of grace compels us to share it with others; the only scandal is our failure to do so.
Manchester City’s temperamental striker, Mario Ballotelli, once famously lifted up his football shirt to reveal another one below saying: ‘why always me?’ Those who know anything about Ballotelli can give an easy answer to that: some people just bring it on themselves. Nevertheless, it is a natural human refrain. Why are some people singled out for more than their fair share of success or suffering in life? It is a question many Christians have offered up in prayer at one time or another. An even deeper question we might pose of God is: on what basis does he make his choices? Why did he privilege Abel over Cain; Jacob over Esau; Sarah over Hagar? With the sparse material available to us it is not possible to say. Why did he choose Israel over the other nations? Why do some people find faith almost accidentally and while others who quest after truth fail to? We quickly appreciate the limits of human understanding when it comes to second guessing God. It’s been termed ‘the scandal of grace’; the idea that God chooses one person over another without obvious reason.
The calling of Matthew the tax collector is a prime example of this. As a tax collector, Matthew would have been seen as a venal stooge of the Romans, collecting money from the hapless, indigenous Jewish population in order to fund an unpopular occupation. The usual assumptions about money men lining their own pockets would have been held, leaving Matthew and his like exposed and judged without trial. The idea that Jesus might call him to be one of his disciples went against their sense of natural justice: nobody’s perfect, but surely you should have enough goodness in you to earn the favour of God? And this is the scandal of grace: you don’t. As no-one is remotely good enough to earn the favour of an unimaginably holy God, it’s splitting hairs on our part to suggest we are.
In today’s feverish, post-crash culture of blame, the cheap and easy correlation to make would be Jesus calling as a disciple a wealthy hedge fund manager who got rich by making decisions that others bore the risk of. We lump people together by the professions they inhabit, meaning some people unfairly stigmatise all bankers for the failings of a few. We also conveniently ignore the way in which our integrity has been chipped away at by the dubious choices we have sometimes made and suppressed the memory of. Matthew may have had a shady job, but few of those who judged him were in a position to do so, either.
The beauty of grace is its accessibility. Nothing in our past disqualifies us from experiencing it and everything about its favour encourages us to share it. This is the point about God’s calling. Those who know the love of God are asked to share it with others, not to bury it for no-one to see, like the man with one talent in the parable. It is sometimes implied that Christians have no right to share their experience of God with others and we have too easily acquiesced in this insidious assertion. The idea that we should experience the love of God but keep it to ourselves is, ultimately, selfish and uncourageous. This is not to advocate the imposition of faith on those who do not want to know, but a plea to be open to the permission that others may give us to share it. God scandalously reveals his grace to one person purely so that one person may share it with another, and they with another, and so on until many people can bask in God’s goodness. The Gospel is relational and it builds up friendships in the process.
Matthew was no exception to this rule. The unexpected and joyful sense of being chosen by an emerging Jewish figure like Jesus would have filled him with encouragement and a new feeling of belonging to the community. As a disciple, he held a special responsibility to preserve and share the Gospel of Jesus. Furthermore, the experience of grace was to transform him as a person.
We speak a lot today of God’s acceptance of us as we are. In a society where self-image is so low, in part through dishonest media stories about celebrity culture, the idea that God himself embraces us unconditionally, in our boredom and in our ordinariness, is a message of profound value. However, we may have become too complacent in accepting the Gospel without acting on its implications. God accepts us with a view to transforming us into the image of Christ. This may be a bumpy, life-long journey, but it is not one we can sit out. We have a personal responsibility to co-operate with the Holy Spirit in forging a new character marked by love, joy and peace rather than anger, jealousy and spite.
My hunch is that the greatest challenge facing the Church today is a renewal of the priority of personal discipleship. There is supposed to be a radical distinctiveness about Christians. Even saying that makes us wince now. We find our own place in faith where we feel comfortable, like the groove we make in a sofa, and resist being asked to stand up and move on. We are also scared of being branded hypocrites by others for failing to live up to what we believe, so do not aspire to the challenge God has laid in front of us.
If you think I am being unreasonable, answer this question as honestly as you can in the privacy of your heart: is the average church so different to the community in which it lives? How many times have you despaired that we bicker and quarrel and defend our own corner reflexively like everyone else does? We tolerate these failings in ourselves too readily. Without a sense that we have been touched by the presence of God, why should anyone want to join us on this journey? These are hard issues to grasp and I do not find them easy or comfortable to think about either, but they are part of our shared calling. The only real scandal about grace is the way we squander its generosity.
For all this, in the calling of Matthew by Jesus there is rich inspiration. For one thing, there is a Gospel for the rich after all. Many of us are plagued by guilt over our patterns of wealth and ownership but Matthew and others who followed Jesus, like Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna, showed how essential their wealth was in supporting him. And in the inclusion of Matthew, we see a Church being shaped which fits all sorts. There is no identikit Christian, for grace is extended to everyone. In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul celebrates the sheer ordinariness of the people of God as evidence of his wisdom. A sure sign of God’s grace at work in us is our acceptance of people from every conceivable background into fellowship. One of the defining marks of today’s culture, fostered by our online connections, is the creation of small and niche communities where people tend to look the same. The glory of the global Church, in which we share, is the way it encompasses every kind. There is no scandal when the question ‘why me?’ turns into ‘why us?’ because we share in God’s grace together.
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