Gospel Reading: Luke 19:1-10
At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town. Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,”Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And he came down quickly and received him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.”And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
When meditating on this story from Luke’s gospel, it’s helpful to place oneself in the perspective of the three different participants: Jesus, the townspeople, and of course, Zacchaeus. To give some context: tax collectors were seen as Roman collaborators and traitors to their own people, the Jews. Zacchaeus made himself financially and politically secure at the expense of losing his Jewish identity and heritage. His town despised him and he was shunned on every level. As a turncoat, he most likely would have been barred from participating in the feasts of Israel as no one could have invited him over for a meal (and vice versa), as they would have been pronounced “unclean” by Jewish custom by eating with him. It was absolutely a radical move for Jesus to invite himself to be a guest in Zacchaeus’s home. By doing so in such a public manner, he put the entire town in a major cognitive dissidence: On one hand, here is a beloved prophet of Israel visiting their town, and on the other, he makes himself “unclean” by breaking the barriers of excommunication of an unpatriotic traitor. As evidenced by his teaching and actions, the gospel that Jesus proclaims is one of radical inclusion and the Kingdom of God has no boundaries.
The crowd was unable to celebrate Zacchaeus’s restoration to community, not because they were evil, but for the very reason that they were good. They were simply being loyal to who they were: good Jewish people. “Good” people are seen to be loyal to their country, religion, and family. Jesus continuously broke these conventions and could easily be accused of being unpatriotic, lacking family values, and being spiritually promiscuous. The call to following Jesus is the invitation to step out beyond our own tribalism on every level. As long as one remains exclusively in his or her “group,” he or she will never grow past the tenets of the tribe’s echo chamber. The call of Jesus challenges us to leave the neighborhood of our patriotism, religious affiliation, and family loyalties, and go outward to what’s unfamiliar and uncomfortable: “following Jesus outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:13). Through most of its history, Christianity has chosen to stay in the confines of its group ideology, culture, and it’s alignment with state powers. Thus, G. K. Chesterton’s statement still rings true today: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Some religion experts estimate that tens of thousands of people have been leaving their churches in the United States over the last few years. Some would maintain that these people aren’t leaving Christianity, because there was so little Christianity to be found in their churches in first the place.
It’s a great irony that it was Zacchaeus’s choices for self-enrichment that led him to being excommunicated, but it was his very status as an outsider that led Jesus to demonstrate the inclusionary grace of God to him. What is that mysterious “something” that makes us “climb a sycamore tree” to see beyond all that we’ve ever known? What exactly is it that transforms us; that causes our hearts to be open at just the right moment for the love of God to flood through our veins and change us? What causes our imaginations to awaken and see that we’re connected to everyone, and we have a sacred responsibility to generosity and restitution as Zacchaeus did? Rumi, in his poem, “The Worm’s Awakening,” wrote:
This is how a human being can change:
there’s a worm addicted to eating grape leaves.
Suddenly he wakes up, call it grace, or whatever: something wakes him,
and he’s no longer a worm.
He’s the entire vineyard, and the orchard too, the fruit, the trunks,
a growing wisdom and joy
that doesn’t need to devour.
Jesus inviting Zacchaeus to eat with him seems like a recapitulation to the ancient Jewish story in Genesis when the three mysterious angels visited Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). When Abraham “invited” the Three to dine with him in his home, it was really God inviting Abraham to the table–into the community that God is. This sitting and listening to the whispering of the Holy Trinity is also our invitation to sit in silence via listening prayer. And this sitting and listening to the voice of Love Supreme is exactly to what we are invited at the heart of each present moment. As we awaken to this love, we become compelled to naturally demonstrate the most sacred of all traditions: hospitality to everyone we encounter. How often I’ve found myself with the attitude of the crowd. How often I’ve found my circumstances to be like Zacchaeus’s: an outsider looking in. And sometimes I’m surprised by my reaction of hospitality toward others as if I had a well within me that I didn’t know existed. Regardless of which posture I find myself, the grace of God invites me to always be hospitable to my own soul: for it’s in making friends with myself (at the deepest shadows of my own failures, insecurities, and shame) that I become an authentic human being through which the hospitality of compassion can flow outward to every living thing.
An Offensive Mercy
by David Morrison
Lord, how often your mercy offends me
You choose the foolish to confound the wise
You choose the least to be greatest
You choose the last to be first
But everything in me strives to be considered sophisticated.
I want to be the honored and the one given precedence.
How your kingdom subverts the world I think I’ve built.
Your reality sifts my illusions and delusions
even of what I think time and space are.
The wisdom of your mercy offends
my self-prescribed piety
that wants to decide who is deserving of your mercy
Lord, never stop offending me with your mercy
That your wisdom will become my thinking
That your generosity will become my discernment
That your inclusive heart will become my mercy:
So that I may be counted among the least, the last and the foolish.