There has been so much written about grace, so many definitions presented, so much airtime given to extolling the many nuanced meanings of this theme in Scripture.
Who hasn’t heard of “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” (or as one mission board used in its promotional material, “Give Regularly as Christ Enables”–what to do with that?!)
Who hasn’t heard a preacher speak about “the unmerited favour of God” (to which needs to be added: “with no strings attached”)?
She carries a pearl
In perfect condition
What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
Grace finds goodness
(‘Grace’ as recorded by U2
Written by Dave Evans Adam Clayton
Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group)
Grace is scandalous.
That is if it is real, genuine grace.
Because grace means ‘gift’ and it is something given to one who may not deserve it, who may not even appreciate it, want it or like it.
Hence the scandal.
Imagine the God who made the worlds stepping into human history in the form of a human baby. Now imagine that this baby is born to a woman out of wedlock. Born in a cattle stall, worshipped by shepherds, yet claimed to be the Saviour. Scandal from the very beginning, grace never meets the expectations of those who are fortunate enough to bear witness to its presence.
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9, ESV)
Take the story of Zacchaeus, for example. Jesus enters the city of Jericho, notices this tax collector in a tree and boldly invites himself for dinner. Why would he do such a thing? Tax collectors were sinners (on the opposite end of the righteousness-scale of those who were teachers of the law, a.k.a. the Pharisees. In fact, when the Pharisee in another of Jesus’s stories prayed in the temple, he said:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
The truth is, Jesus was known for his association with such outcasts. He was spoken severely many times by those who thought he should be more careful in choosing his dining companions: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” he was asked.
And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:30-32, ESV)
Scandalous! Jesus hanging out with the wrong crowd. Jesus partying with the unrighteous. Jesus rescuing prostitutes from judgement. Jesus inviting himself to be the guest of a tax collector.
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
Scandalous grace. Didn’t the Saviour know the impropriety of such an action?
In today’s terms, what might this look like? Going into a bar? Entering a Casino? Partying with friends at a club? How many of your friends would think it improper if they caught you in such situations? Yet this is where we see Jesus on numerous ocassions–in fact, so numerous that I would say this is “the norm” for his ministry.
Tony Campolo (in his book The Kingdom of God is a Party) tells of a time when he was speaking in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Campolo lives on the east coast of the United States so his body was six hours ahead of Hawaiian time. At three o-clock in the morning it felt like nine o-clock to him. Awake and hungry for breakfast, he found himself in a “greasy spoon” café in the small hours of the morning.
As he bit into his doughnut, eight or nine prostitutes walked in. They had just finished for the night. Their talk was loud and crude, and it was difficult to avoid listening in. He heard one tell the others it was her birthday the following day. “What do want from me? A birthday cake?” was the sarcastic reply. “Why be so mean?” she replied, “I was just telling you. I don’t expect anything. I’ve never had a birthday party. I’m not expecting to have one now.” When Campolo heard this he made a decision.
When the women left, he went over to the café owner, a guy called Harry. “Do they always come in here?” “Yes,” said Harry. “Including the one who sat next to me?” “Yes, that’s Agnes. Why do you want to know?” “Because I heard her say it’s her birthday tomorrow and I thought we might throw her a party.” Pause. Then a smile grew across Harry’s lips. “That’d be a great idea.”
Half past two the next morning. Campolo had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Campolo, a preacher. Half past two the next morning. Campolo had brought decorations and Harry had baked a cake. Word had got out and it seemed as if every prostitute in Honolulu was in the café – plus Campolo, a preacher. When Agnes entered with her friends, she was flabbergasted. Her mouth fell open and her knees wobbled. As she sat on a stool, everyone sang “Happy Birthday”. “Blow out the candles,” people shouted, but in the end Harry had to do it for her. Then he handed her a knife. “Cut the cake, Agnes, so we can all have some.” She looked at the cake. Then slowly said, “Is it alright … would you mind … if I wait a little longer … if we didn’t eat it straight away?” “Sure. It’s okay,” said Harry. “Take it home if you want”’ “Can I?” she said, “Can I take it home now? I’ll be back in a few minutes.” And with that she left, carrying her precious cake out the café.
There was a stunned silence. So Tony said, “What do you say we pray?” And they did. Campolo lead a group of prostitutes in prayer at 3:30 in the morning. When they were done, Harry said, “Hey! You never told me you were some kind of preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?” Campolo answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry waited for a moment. Then he kind of sneered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that.” Campolo comments:
Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to join a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning?… But anybody who reads the New Testament will discover a Jesus who loved to party with prostitutes and with all kinds of left-out people. The tax collectors and “sinners” loved him because he partied with them. The lepers of society found in him someone who would eat and drink with them. And while the solemnly pious people could not relate to what he was about, those lonely people who usually didn’t get invited to parties took to him with excitement.
Scandalous grace! I don’t know about you, but I would so love to b a part of that kind of church.
In his interactions with Zacchaeus, Jesus seems totally unconcerned about reputation or even the holiness code of the day. That’s because grace always reaches out its hand to the other and gives of itself generously and fully without any thought of self. You could say the Biblical concepts of grace and love (agape) are synonymous for they are both self-forgetting, others-serving ideas.
You could also view these two ideas in the form of a Venn diagram: grace being one circle overlapping the other circle of love. If this were the case, then the place where these two circles intersect would be Jesus, the perfect embodiment of both ideals.
“. . . but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, ESV)
Extravagant love and scandalous grace meet in the person of Jesus and in the pinnacle of sacrifice, the cross.
In the presence of such a man, we find Zacchaeus overcome by the outpouring of grace:
And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19)
Grace is far more than some ethereal concept by which we are “saved through faith.” Grace is a life. A Grace life is centred on giving. A Grace life is filled with moments of generosity, blessing, forgiveness. In Zacchaeus’s life, grace flowed the moment Jesus set his eyes on him. Jesus didn’t say, “Salvation will come if you give to the poor,” or, “Salvation will be yours after you make ethical restitution.” No. Grace reached out and the tax collector responded with a heart that only can manifest itself in one who has received this gift.
We don’t read anywhere that Zacchaeus even kept his promise to Jesus. Nor do we read that Jesus ever demanded it. All we know is that they beauty of grace caught someone by surprise and his entire outlook on life and vocation changed.
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things
Grace finds beauty
Grace finds goodness
Amazing, fully-forgiving, all-embracing, life-giving, scandalous grace.