Hospitality: The Great Reversal

Posted on: November 19, 2022, by :

[A reflection on Luke 19:1-10 by David Brooker at the HeartWell Gathering, 30th October 2022]

All is not as it seems in this cute little story of Jesus and Zacchaeus! This Sunday School favourite has, buried within it, a surprising reversal, a reversal that points us to the heart of Jesus’ teaching, to the essence of the gospel. 

Consider Zacchaeus – don’t you find him a fascinating character?  The story-teller leaves us in no doubt – this is a guy that no-one wants to be seen with: he’s a chief tax collector (read crook) and he’s rich (from his ill-begotten gains).  So, if he wants to see Jesus, he has to climb a tree – perhaps because he’s short, but also perhaps because he wouldn’t be welcome mingling with the crowd!  In fact, he’s never felt comfortable mingling with the neighbours because, deep down, he knows he’s a crook, he knows what they think of him, and he knows what they say behind his back.  And when he decides that he wants to check out this Jesus character that he’s heard about he decides to do it from a safe distance – up a tree!

So, there he is, hiding in his tree, when Jesus comes along, and – lo and behold – stops and calls to him to come down from the tree (come out, show yourself), and then to everyone’s surprise (not least Zacchaeus!), Jesus invites himself to Zac’s place for dinner!

Zacchaeus, embarrassed though he would surely be, can hardly refuse – he extends his hospitality to Jesus and the rest, as they say, is history! Zacchaeus is transformed!

Well, that seems to be the gist of the story.  But wait, there’s more!  If we leave the story there we miss the great reversal, we miss the central act of this story, we miss an act of extravagant, generous hospitality.

You see, the most profound act of hospitality in this story is not Zacchaeus cooking dinner for Jesus.  It is Jesus initiating relationship with Zacchaeus!

Jesus’ act of hospitality – his acceptance, embrace, affirmation of Zacchaeus – is the great reversal upon which turns the whole teaching of Jesus.  Jesus’ generous, gracious, life-giving invitation to Zacchaeus (“Stop hiding in that tree Zacchaeus and come walk, talk and eat with me.”) is the gospel in a nutshell.

We get it round the wrong way when we think this story is about Zacchaeus coming to his senses, repenting, making reparation for his sins, and finding forgiveness and acceptance in Jesus.  Jesus offers acceptance and engagement and kindness to Zacchaeus before Zacchaeus does any of those things. The hospitality Jesus offers Zacchaeus is unconditional, is not dependent on what Zacchaeus might have done or might be yet to do.  It is unconditional hospitality: generous, gracious, and life-giving.  And the experience of it is transformational for Zacchaeus.

This is the good news of Jesus.  This is the lens through which all of Jesus’ words and actions are to be filtered: the lens of generous hospitality, endless grace, unconditional love.

Unfortunately, the Church too-often seems to have missed this great reversal in the story of Zacchaeus and uses the story to imply that we have to earn God’s favour by repentance and penance and doing the right thing before we can experience acceptance and forgiveness (i.e.  ‘salvation’).

But this story is a call to unconditional hospitality, to unqualified acceptance.  Imagine how different the world might be if that were the teaching of the Church?!  Imagine how different might be the experience of those who have been marginalised, ostracised, criticised, even demonised by the Church if the Church instead was in the habit of offering unconditional hospitality – as Jesus did?!

It seems so obvious really – that the exercise of genuine hospitality, the practice of kindness, the offering of endless love – the teaching of Jesus – is transformational and life-giving.

May ours be a community that offers such hospitality to all people, at all times.

David Brooker (30th October, 2022)

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