I was not, of course, alive 2,000 years ago. Nevertheless, I can picture the Biblical stories and their characters perfectly.
Lots of good, earnest men and women, devoted to God’s service, cheerfully giving their lives to ministry and mission.
So in, for example, the 12 apostles, we can surely find models for our own humanity and discipleship — holy, sincere, pious, intelligent, indefatigable men — the cream of the crop, now rewarded with an eternal home in Christian tradition and worship.
The problem is that Christianity is messier and earthier than we wish. Through Scripture’s epic sweep of God’s relationship with humankind, we watch countless rogues, villains and undesirables — men and women with shady pasts, mixed motives, and shocking reputations — become the vessels in and through which God’s purposes are worked.
The old adage is corny but true: God does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called.
Sept. 21 — the day this piece was written — provides its very own example. Today is the feast of St. Matthew — the author, tradition holds, of the Gospel bearing his name.
Matthew certainly was an unlikely candidate for sainthood — no spotless soul, but a tax collector called by Jesus. In the New Testament’s world, tax-collectors were no mere irritants, but notorious sinners — dishonest, rapacious, loathed collaborators with Rome or Herod.
But, yet again, Jesus called a sinner into his fellowship, and gave him a role and dignity as one of his disciples.
At the time, these actions provoked criticism and complaint — and it’s not hard to figure out why. It must have been hard even for Jesus’ followers to have listened and learned from Matthew — somebody they knew to be sinful. But somehow or another they overcame their apprehensions and preconceptions.
God works in the unlikeliest of ways and through the unlikeliest of people, constantly challenging and overcoming our ignorance and prejudice.
We need to change. At heart we are closet elitists.
We are painfully aware of those who appear to float above us — people with more money, better minds, brighter careers, flashier cars... Yet we also reassure ourselves by identifying people beneath us — not only the less-well resourced, but also the “unworthy”: those who just don’t make our mark — people who don’t conform to our strange standards of success or morality.
And we forget our savior — a man we so quickly recast in our own image — who ate with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. I’m reminded of the grand inquisitor’s question to the silent Christ in Dostoevsky’s fable: “Why have you come to disturb us?”
Halleluiah for a gospel written by a sinner!
Truly words of good news for all of us who struggle. In St. Matthew, we meet a man whose life changed by meeting Jesus. In his writing we find a promise of newness and fresh beginnings through our relationship with Jesus.
Today, as we celebrate Matthew, let’s open our eyes — with courage and boldness and disbelief suspended — and watch God working in the most surprising of places — and through the unlikeliest of people.