For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Two of the most well-known followers of Christ in the New Testament were Matthew and Paul. They share a common pre-conversion history of infamous professions and lifestyles. Professions that oppressed people and lifestyles that distanced themselves from personal suffering. Both were considered enemies yet both experienced Christ’s welcome regardless of their previous histories.
Matthew, a tax collector, worked for the Roman emperor as a contractor to collect exorbitant taxes that burdened the people of Israel.
Growing up he surely heard the whispers of his neighbors as collectors walked past. Behind closed doors among family, the disdain and disgust were surely communicated. Tax collectors were synonymous with traitors and sinners. You wonder what that must have been like for Matthew, holding one of the most despised professions in your community. How might it feel to continuously cheat your neighbors and the people you grew up with? And while you intentionally burdened your own people, you lived a life of ease, paying off Roman officials and padding your own pocket.
Luke 19:8 tells us that the tax collector Zacchaeus confessed to taking four-times what he should have from others. I wonder how much Matthew took. I wonder what kind of shame and guilt plagued his mind and spirit as he walked to his collection booth each day. It must have been lonely. He had money, but did he have any real friends?
And while Matthew’s community despised him, Jesus extended an invitation to him in the middle of this deplorable work. Matthew was literally sitting at his collection booth when Jesus looked straight through him and said, “Follow me.”
Matthew must have been longing for an invite. Any invite.
But from a fellow Jew? From Jesus himself? Unbelievable. This was his chance to start over.
And in Matthew 9:9 it appears that Matthew was more than ready to be welcomed.
Once Jesus spoke, “He rose and followed him.”
Christ’s welcome of forgiveness and hope for a new life brought in traitors like Matthew.
It also brought in persecutors like Saul (Paul).
Saul (Paul) seemed to be the most unlikely to receive any kind of invitation from Jesus. Followers of “The Way” hid from this proud Pharisee as he went from town to town killing or imprisoning anyone who claimed to be a discipleof the recently crucified Jesus of Nazareth. Saul thought it his job to cleanse the Jews of this disruptive teacher’s reputation. No believable story or testimony was to go unpunished. He was present (and pleased) at the stoning of Stephen, even holding the cloaks of those who killed him. Yet, while Saul was on his way to Damascus (seeking to gather more followers to imprison), Jesus gives him a blinding invitation and a gracious word through Ananias, who called him brother (Acts 9:17).
While everyone else refused to engage these enemies, Jesus offered to change their lives. As we look back on this radical welcome, we see what only Jesus could know at that time, that Matthew and Paul would go on to spread the gospel to Ethiopia, Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia. Their previous histories—sordid as they were—didn’t disqualify them from significant Kingdom work. It never put them outside the bounds of grace. Nothing they had done could separate them from the welcome and love of Christ. This was true for them and is certainly still true for us today.
- Can you relate to Matthew or Paul—having a past that made you feel outside the grace of God?
- What’s the most surprising thing about God’s welcome to these two men?
- What’s the most surprising thing about Christ’s personal welcome to you?
- Is there anyone you intentionally hold at a distance because of their choices or history?
- Take some time to pray and ask God how you might extend Christ-like welcome to them.