21 Pentecost, Proper 26 – October 30, 2022
Crowds follow Jesus nearly everywhere he goes, now. They parade behind him and in front of him, crushing in close or watching from a safe distance. They are curious and want to hear, touch, or maybe just see what happens when others interact with this man people say has come from God. Do you every wonder what essence does he emanate? What do they sense in him, what do they want from him? What and who is Jesus, really?
Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector in Jericho. His name means “pure” or “righteous,” but no one would have chosen words like those to describe Zacchaeus. He belonged to a despised group of Jewish citizens who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes from their own people. They were notorious for extortion, greed and deceit. And he was, in fact, a “chief tax collector,” one who employed tax collectors under him to collect revenues throughout his district. The position had brought him great wealth, but it had also cost him the respect and affection of his neighbors. The average person on the street would have despised Zacchaeus.
And then Jesus comes along and sees Zacchaeus, really sees him. Notice the carefully chosen words in this story – “looked up”, “come down” “stood there”. It took Jesus to “look up” to Zacchaeus and ask him to “come down” in order for Zacchaeus to “stand”. Jesus physically looked up to a person of short stature who was used to other people looking down on him. Hearing Jesus’ call to come down, Zacchaeus complied and eventually stood there asserting or announcing the practices of charity and of reparations.
Now, the crowd would expect Jesus to also denounce Zacchaeus and perhaps tell him to repent and be just. Jesus, instead, shocks everyone saying: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” The crowd grumbles because Jesus refused their offer of hospitality and received it from their impure enemy. Guests do not usually select their host. Jesus crosses all boundaries, all the limits we set.
Hospitality, the welcoming of strangers, is actually not about entertaining. It is about saving lives, because our journeys are challenging, and we need each other. The word hospitality has the same root as hospital, hospice, and hotel, places of safe lodging and healing. Before those types of places existed, monasteries were some of the first shelters along dangerous roads where anyone would be welcomed for safe, healing lodging.
The radical hospitality that Jesus spoke of and demonstrated is a hospitality that respects the dignity of every human being. It requires listening to others without judgment and extending compassion to all. It means seeing Christ in everyone we meet, and giving them the opportunity to see Christ in us by reaching out to them, extending ourselves to them.
Hospitality is being present to others as they are. True hosts are often those with whom we can be honest. Shelter can be the safety to share our stories honestly. It may be with food that the best gift is listening well.
Hospitality is not restricted to place, person, or provision. Each of us can offer welcome. We can do it on the street, in the coffee shop, in a studio apartment, or in a house. We do it with whatever we have. Hospitality is about inviting people into our hearts.
God is both host and guest. On life’s challenging journey, we need companions and generosity. God is in the strangers on the path. Who is with us on the path? Will we exclude or welcome? Self-sufficiency and isolation are deceptive. We may not wish to be with our brother who squandered his inheritance or Zacchaeus who colluded with Rome. Yet God invites them and us to a banquet where there is a place for everyone at the table. God has welcomed us, and we in turn welcome fellow strangers to the table.
Such a radical welcome does not mean condoning another’s words or behavior; nor does it mean agreeing with their views. Radical hospitality is not synonymous with unconditional approval. It does imply a genuine welcome, a welcome that is real even though it may be (for the time being) quite minimal. And it does require respect for the other as a person created in the image of God and loved by God.
Something happens to those whom we welcome in this way. They may find a new sense of dignity and worth. Perhaps they will see themselves in a new way. They may, like Zacchaeus, be completely transformed. As novelist Alistair MacLeod writes, “We are all better when we’re loved” There is power in genuine, radical hospitality, and this power is much needed in the Church and in the world.
Have you ever held a person hostage to a version of himself he’s striving to outgrow? Have you ever refused a person the permission to change, knowing that if she changes, you’ll have to change, too? Has God ever asked you to stand your ground and tell a new story about yourself — one your listeners have high stakes in resisting? When did your faith last call you to face with humility the people you have wounded?
Remember I said that Zacchaeus means “pure” or “righteous”, which seems ironic. Or is it? At the heart of Martin Luther’s Reformation was the recognition that he had been worshiping the wrong God. He was taught to see and fear a God of holiness and justice, a God who expected righteousness and punished those who could not meet that standard. Jesus, from this point of view, was the one who stood in and took the beating we deserved.
Luther, agonizing over God’s righteousness, finally realized that righteousness isn’t the standard God sets for us, but rather is the gift God gave to us. Righteousness isn’t a requirement, it’s a promise. The God Luther expected was all about justice; the God he met in Jesus was all about love. Jesus, it turns out, didn’t die to make God forgiving but died to show us how forgiving God already is. Little wonder that Luther would later describe meeting this unexpected God by saying it was like having the gates of heaven opened to him.
Zacchaeus met Jesus and was changed. The gates of heaven were opened to him. No one is outside the reach of God’s saving embrace. No one.
Thanks be to God for God’s amazing grace! Amen.