Fanny Crosby wrote it, and the church often sings it: “The vilest offender who truly believes, / That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” They’re hope-filled words that easily roll off the tongue—but do church people today really believe them? Put the face of a real offender in our minds, and then we’re not so sure. Here’s another hymn we love to sing:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
So wrote John Newton, the former slave trader who came to Christ in the mid 1700s. Having come to Christ, he gave up his evil ways, renounced his oppression of other people, and eventually became a minister of the Gospel. A similar thing happened to Levi, also known as Matthew, the tax collector.
Tax collectors in the first century were despised by the Jewish people. They were seen as cheats and traitors for enriching the Roman occupiers by selling out their own countrymen. In fact, the religious leaders of the day said tax collectors could never be “saved.” They had too many sins to repent of in one lifetime. Consequently, the people hated them with a “religious” kind of disgust. Tax collectors may have been wealthy, but they were also isolated from the community of faith and the things of God.
It was shocking, then, that Jesus called Matthew to become one of his disciples. No one saw that coming. Most of Jesus’s students were Torah-observant Jews, but not Matthew. Jesus had compassion on him anyway. Matthew left his tax booth immediately and started following Christ, inspired, no doubt, by his message that even tax collectors could have eternal life. The bigger shock was that Jesus also attended a banquet at Matthew’s house, which would have been scandalous for any rabbi to do.
All through the Gospels, everyone is amazed by the surprising company Jesus keeps. They’re also amazed by the people he serves. But Jesus is willing to disciple anyone who will follow him. And he’s willing to dine with anyone who will host him. When people complain about Jesus for being so kind toward people like Matthew, he says he hasn’t come for the healthy but the sick (v. 31).
He then gives three illustrations about the grace of God that would become such a hallmark of his ministry—the illustration of the bridegroom (a time for joyful relationship, vv. 34-35); the illustration of the garment patch (a time for New Covenant forgiveness, v. 36); and the illustration of the wineskin (a time for overflowing grace, vv. 37-38). The banquet at Levi’s house, then, shows it’s not just our moral lives but our social lives that reveal whether we understand the heart of Jesus.
Most people looked at Levi and saw only an irreligious tax collector. Jesus looked at Levi and saw Matthew, author of the first Gospel. Church history tells us that Matthew was martyred ca. 65 A.D., proclaiming the risen Christ until his death by beheading in Ethiopia.
We learn from this meal that authentic outreach goes way beyond religious pronouncements; it entails winsome interaction. We also learn that open doors lead to open hearts; that’s why strict isolation from “sinners” is not the call of the Christian disciple. The heart of the Lord is compassion, which can only be shared up close.
Who is at your table? If “doing lunch is doing theology” (Conrad Gempf), then what kind of theology do you have? If there’s a place at God’s table for you, shouldn’t there a place at your table for someone else who needs divine grace?
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