As a child, I learned a song about Zaccheus. I won’t sing it for you, but the words went like this:
“Zaccheus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…”
The fascination of the story for children, of course, is that this small but important man clamored up a tree to get a better look at the popular preacher who had come to town. He wanted to see Jesus, though he wasn’t planning on being seen by him.
Of course, there is more to know about Zaccheus than just his small stature and his extraordinary efforts to see Jesus. First of all, he was a tax collector. In provinces of the Roman Empire, residents were required to pay a number of taxes – poll taxes, road and bridge tolls, taxes on merchandise, and property taxes. Together they represented a considerable financial burden imposed by the Roman occupiers. The task of collecting these taxes was usually given to a wealthy and powerful person, who divided the area into districts and appointed a chief collector for each district. The chief tax collectors employed local people, to go from house to house and from business to business, to collect the actual fees. The system allowed for extra taxes to be collected above the amount to be sent to the government, and corruption infected the system at every level. Tax collectors were despised by the people, not only because of the financial oppression they inflicted and because of the way they used the system for personal profit, but because of the ceremonial impurity of their contact with their Gentile overseers and the element of treason inherent in working for foreigners against one’s own people. Not surprisingly, tax collectors like Zaccheus were social outcasts among their fellow Jews.i
Zaccheus was even more deeply implicated in the corrupt system because of his status as a chief tax collector. Although the story tells us nothing of his private life, it is impossible to imagine how he could have been a “righteous” person while participating in and profiting from a program that robbed and oppressed his fellow citizens.ii
And yet he possessed some admirable qualities. His desire to see Jesus was so intense that he was willing to risk ridicule and embarrassment to achieve his goal. Apparently he had heard and believed that Jesus really was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Lk 7:34). We don’t know whether he was secretly weighed down by the personal, social and religious costs of his position and wealth; perhaps he was even looking for a way out. What we do know is that he offered hospitality to Jesus, welcomed him to his home and table, and as a result of the encounter, went well beyond the law’s requirement for restitution, demonstrating real repentance.iii
Jesus was also extending hospitality – in a very radical way – by his recognition of this social outcast and by his willingness to share a meal with him. It’s difficult for us to appreciate how shocking this act of inclusion really was, but the reaction of the crowd is clear and unanimous: “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” (Lk 19:7). How could a prophet and teacher like Jesus willingly fraternize with the “enemy”? In Jesus’ time, to eat with some one was a sign of acceptance and solidarity. Even today, sharing a meal with someone has social implications; it creates and expresses a sense of community. In order to appreciate the radical nature of Jesus’ action, we might have to try to imagine him sitting down to lunch with members of Al Queda or with the president of Iran. Jesus’ wide arc of inclusion was deeply disturbing to those who listened to his words and observed his actions.
Jesus’ followers soon gained a similar reputation for radical inclusion. Like Jesus, the early church was often criticized for its inclusive table fellowship. Their radical hospitality blurred social lines and at times seemed to condone the behavior of sinners. But neither Jesus nor his followers were condoning unethical behavior by extending hospitality. They were simply recognizing and acting upon the conviction that God’s welcome extends to all. There is no one beyond the reach of God’s seeking love.
In his biography of Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement (a movement that seeks to identify with the poor and serve their needs), Harvard psychologist Robert Coles describes an incident that demonstrates the kind of inclusion that was typical of Jesus. Coles describes driving to New York to meet Dorothy Day for the first time at the Catholic Worker house on the lower east side of Manhattan. As he entered the house, he noticed Dorothy Day across the room, speaking with a disheveled woman who was clearly intoxicated. Each time she asked a question, the woman erupted with a torrent of nonsensical words, becoming more and more agitated with each exchange. Coles reports that Dorothy would wait until she had settled a bit, then make another attempt to get the information she needed – but the result was always the same. Finally, noticing Robert Coles standing across the room, she excused herself from the conversation and walked over to him. She smiled and asked, “Are you waiting to speak with one of us?”
“Are you waiting to speak with one of us?” She made no distinction between herself and the drunken woman, and was completely open to the possibility that the visitor might wish to speak with either one of them. The brief incident says a lot about how Dorothy Day saw people, and how she treated them.
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. True Christian hospitality requires a giving of ourselves, an opening up of who we are, a willingness to stretch our sometimes-narrow lives to step outside of our comfort zones. If we truly try to follow Jesus, our outlook on the world – especially its strangers, its poor, its homeless, its helpless, its needy, even its enemies – will be forever changed. Whenever we let into our hearts someone previously unknown, outside, or “other,” we are changed. Our hearts can indeed be stretched to embrace and welcome all people.
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.
It is unreasonable to think that any one of us is able to connect with every person we meet. That’s one reason why we have religious communities like the one gathered here this morning. Each of us will find certain persons with whom we resonate and each of us will find persons with whom we can make no meaningful or useful contact. The community can welcome a wide assortment of individuals because it contains so many different personalities and styles. But all of us can extend hospitality to others, all of us can offer welcome and respect the stranger among us, all of us can work to widen the circle of those we are willing to recognize and embrace as fellow children of 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 Zaccheus, be completely transformed. As Cape Breton novelist Alistair MacLeod writes, “We are all better when we’re loved.”ivThere is power in genuine, radical hospitality, and this power is much needed in the Church and in the world.
Jesus’ action raises questions for us. Who are the people we think of as being beyond the reach of God’s love? Who have we written off, turned away from, discounted, or ignored? Who are the ones we would find it difficult to welcome into our homes or seat at our tables? The sick? The poor? The dirty and disheveled? Those who disagree with us? Those who oppose us? Those who wish us harm? Who are they whom we recognize that we cannot yet embrace?
When we read a story like this one, we realize that we can no longer be spectators at the banquet: Are we at table with Jesus, tax collectors, and sinners – or are we among the critics? Let us ask God to widen our hearts so that our hospitality may reflect God’s hospitality, and our welcome reveal God’s welcome.
No one is outside the reach of God’s saving embrace. No one.
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