Where I Am Welcome…
Growing up, every year during Holy Week, despite our poverty, my dad would splurge to rent a VCR and the VHS version of “Jesus of Nazareth” by Franco Zeffereli, and we would watch it as a family beginning on Holy Thursday and usually finishing up on Holy Saturday. (I realize some of you reading this are too young to remember the days of VCR’s and VHS video tapes…much less the necessity of “renting” one…) To this day I still try to watch the movie at some point during Holy Week, both to keep the tradition alive, and also because it is still my favorite theatrical version of the events surrounding the life and times of Jesus Christ. I also like to watch pieces of it occasionally throughout the year, and while watching it recently, something Jesus said during his first encounter with Matthew struck me.
Shortly after Jesus’s first meeting with Peter, where Peter and his crew haul in a remarkable catch with their nets bursting at the seams, Jesus and the others go to Peter’s home to celebrate. Matthew hears the commotion and rumors of a great catch and decides to visit Peter to collect back taxes from him. Matthew comes into Peter’s house, and after reminding him that he owes back taxes that he can now pay due to his recent large catch of fish, Matthew is also curious about this “Jesus” he has heard so much about, and who is currently speaking to a large group that has gathered in Peter’s courtyard. Peter roars at Matthew, “NOT IN MY HOUSE!” in a clear attempt to force the “sinner” Matthew (whom he had just recently called “that bloodsucking tax collector Matthew”) from his home. Jesus says to Matthew, “You seem to be most unwelcome here. I don’t know your name, but I know what it is that you do.” Matthew says, “My name is Levi, or Matthew – I’m known by both names.” Peter comments snidely, “…and by others…” Matthew remarks to Jesus, “I guess you and I will have to meet somewhere BOTH of us are welcome!” Jesus responds by asking him, “Is your own house far?” to which, Matthew responds, “No, not very – why do you ask?” Jesus responds, “I should like to have supper with you tonight.” Peter, quite bewildered by what is transpiring, inquires of Jesus, “YOU would have dinner in the house of a SINNER?!?!” to which Christ replies, “I would enter any house where I am welcome.”
The events that transpire thereafter are so poignant and so well remembered I need not go into them here. Suffice it to say, Matthew and Peter are reconciled and both choose to follow Christ, and all present hear the profound parable of The Prodigal Son. Watching these events unfold, and the forgiveness and love that pours out of Jesus to all around him, and spills over into his disciples, who in turn pour it out on the world, reminds me of why it is that I still choose to follow Christ and call myself a Christian. It is not the church that I belong to or the doctrines that I profess, nor is it the traditions and rituals or the feasts and fasts – it is truly Jesus and all that He said and did and who He is. I am a Christian because I believe that Jesus is who he says he is, and I believe what he taught – that the heart of the Law is mercy and that God does not desire the death of anyone, but that all should return to the Father’s house.
Life has a way of making even the most devout believer amongst us doubt the love of God, and sadly, the Church and Christians themselves are often the reason that people stop believing in the goodness and love of God. The Church and her people can get lost in themselves and become like the Pharisees of old, suggesting that if one spends time with people lost in riotous living, one will become corrupted, and thus these religious folks often choose to fill their time with feasts and fasts, services and projects, religious studies and clubs, etc. None of these things in and of themselves are bad things, but when we stop going out into the world, living amongst our neighbors and spending time with those we meet and who surround us, regardless of whether they are members of a church or not, we lose sight of what it is that Jesus came to do, and what we are called to as well. Jesus was always eating and drinking with “sinners” – people whom Jewish society had cast out in order to keep themselves “pure”, and yet, in the end, it was the sinners and tax collectors who returned to God and tried to save Jesus, and it was the “righteous” teachers and preachers who had him crucified. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but this is something to think on for certain.
I am a chief among sinners and not worthy to judge anyone – only of being judged myself. I do not presume to know the heart of anyone. I only know that I can no longer live with the hypocrisy in my own heart – one that craves comfort and flees fear – the fear of what others will think if I say such things and act according to what I know to be true in my heart. I know for certain that Jesus would go wherever He was welcome, and I believe we must also be willing to do so as well. This means we cannot overlook those who are, by frequent “Christian” standards, less than acceptable; the sinners – the users, the alcoholics, the prostitutes, the fornicators, the homeless, the “gays”, the tokers, the crazy, the less than perfect and overall the “lost.” We must be willing to befriend anyone who befriends us, whether we agree with every aspect of their lives or not, for you see…they are human, just like us. They are the “other”, or in more Biblical terms, the “least of these my brethren.” Fallen and frail, and more than anything, in need of love love that will change their lives…and your own. God is perfect love, and we must be nothing short of the same. If we truly believe that we have been transformed by the power of the Resurrection of Jesus, and are no longer dead men walking, but resurrected men and women, filled with God and life and the Holy Spirit, then we have no other option than to love all of creation, fallen or not, and to go to the same lengths our own savior went – to death if necessary – to save those who are dwelling in a deep darkness and in need of Light and the love of God.
Christmas is the season of light, of hope, of the Incarnation of God as man. God chose to come into this fallen and sick world…something I would never be able to do knowing what I know about the terror and the tragedy of this fallen life…and yet He knew fully and did it willingly to save and to rescue His own children. God didn’t send His only Son to “pay for our sins” in some twisted and terroristic way; He sent him on a rescue mission, to bring us back. His creation chose poorly and was lost…and God in His infinite love and mercy sent His only Son to save us…to remind us of who and Who’s we are, and of what true love looks like, and to overcome death once and for all.
I’m so grateful to my dad for splurging and always renting that video version of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and the tradition of making us watch it each year, and sowing in my brother and I the the love of God and His Church. Above all, I’m so grateful to God for being willing to go where He is welcome, no matter the sin to which His creatures have sunk, even going so far as to dwell in the darkened and grieving heart of one who is lost and aching for mercy and compassion, having mercy and rescuing us from our mistakes.
God most high…give us enough light for the next step, or, if not, then give us the hope that drives out all fear.
May your New Year be beautiful and bright, filled with promise and light, beauty and wonder at it all, and all of the good things of God!