This week I came across a news article by British writer and activist Priya Basil entitled: Make yourselves at home: the meaning of hospitality in a divided world.
The article begins with these very powerful words:
“We all begin as guests, every single one of us. Helpless little creatures whose every need must be attended to. Creatures who, for a long time, can give nothing or very little back, yet who – in the usual run of things – nevertheless insinuate ourselves deep into the lives of our carers and take up permanent residence in their hearts.”
It is quite a profound thought that the experience of unconditional hospitality goes right back to our experience in the womb where a space is created for us within our mother’s bodies and then our experience of hospitality shown to us as we are born into this world.
The writer of the article goes on to suggest that becoming a mature adult in this world requires that we all make a general shift from being a dependent guest to having the capacity to become a competent host. Somehow, the act and practice of hospitality touches something of the very core of our humanity.
The article explores the power of unconditional hospitality and suggests that the act of welcoming and feeding strangers can help to transcend borders and break down barriers between people.
In the article the writer (who comes from a Sikh background) makes reference to her own family experience of hospitality with their Muslim neighbours. Hosting each other for meals in each others homes became a way in which religious and cultural barriers were broken down between them and for genuine friendship and caring to grow between them as neighbours. Sharing meals in each others homes turned them from strangers into friends.
Perhaps the reason the article caught my eye is that Jesus knew very well the transforming power of hospitality in his own life and ministry. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is pictured eating meals with people. IN Luke’s Gospel alone – which we have been focusing on this year – there are 10 scenes in which Jesus is pictured eating meals with people, and that's apart from a number of parables which are set in the context of a hosted meal. And what is most striking is that Jesus practiced sharing meals with an open table – which was quite unheard of in most Jewish religious circles where table fellowship helped to define who was in and who was out, who was acceptable and who was unacceptable. But all were welcome at the table of Christ... saint and sinner alike.
Jesus ate meals with the hated tax-collectors (collaborators with the oppressive Roman Empire), he ate meals with prostitutes, those considered by others as morally unclean and unacceptable. I don’t think we take on board just how radical that practice was. Just imagine if a minister today here in Northern Ireland began to regularly host meals with prostitutes, what an uproar it would cause in the local newspapers. He ate meals with lepers, (in Matthew and Mark’s Gospel he is spoken of visiting the home of Simon the Leper). He ate meals at a wedding banquet. He ate meals with his betrayer and deserters. At the last supper, Judas is present with Jesus at the table, along with Peter who denies him and all the disciples who desert him. He eats meals with his religious rivals the Pharisees, as we see him dining with the self-righteous Simon the Pharisee. He ate meals with uninvited guests, the women of ill-repute who gate crashed Simon the Pharisees home as washed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair.
Jesus practiced a radical and open hospitality where all were welcome and no-one was turned away.
And that brings us to our Gospel passage today:
The story of Zacchaeus revolves around an act of hospitality as Zachaeus welcomes Jesus into his home. Or is it the other way around, where Jesus invites himself over to the home of Zacchaeus. What is interesting, is that while this act of hospitality happens in Zacchaeus’s home, the impression that one is given is that it is not Zachaeus who is the host, but rather Jesus himself. It is Jesus who creates a space for Zacchaeus more than Zacchaeus who creates a space for Jesus.
While it is Zacchaeus who seems to be seeking Jesus at the beginning of the passage, it turns out that it is Jesus who is doing the real seeking. It is Jesus who is seeking this lost and shunned little man called Zacchaeus.
And like the article that I read this week suggests, this moment of hospitality, as Zacchaeus makes a place for Jesus in his home, and more significantly as Jesus makes a place for Zaccaehus in his presence and in his heart, it is a transforming moment. It is a moment that breaks open Zacchaeus’s heart as we begin to see the flood-gates of God’s grace and mercy flowing through him:
What might this story tell us about communion?
1. Although it is we who bring gifts of bread and wine / grape-juice to remember Jesus, it is Jesus who is the host of the meal. It is Jesus who invites us into his presence.
2. Secondly, the story communicates to us that there is a place for each of us at the table of Christ. There is a place for you. No matter how unworthy you feel, and perhaps also, no matter how unworthy someone else may have made you feel. There is a place for you at the table of Christ. As Christ calls Zacchaeus by his name, so Christ welcomes us as he calls us by name.
At the table of Jesus, there is a place for you.
I must admit that I am incredibly grateful to be part of a church / denomination where the table of communion is open to all. It was the same in the Methodist tradition that I grew up in. I am often intrigued by Church traditions which place conditions on who can come to communion. To me it seems that it undermines the spirit in which Christ.
At the table of Jesus, there is a place for you.
3. Thirdly, when we truly receive the unconditional hospitality of Christ and become his guests at his it has a transforming effect upon us. It opens our hearts to the need of others. It breaks through the defenses of our hearts and allows the generosity of God’s spirit to flow through us.
The other significance of Zacchaeus’s name is that it means “pure”. Zachaeus is regarded as impure by others, a notorious sinner. But Jesus sees beneath the impurity that others see. Jesus sees Zachaeus’ original purity as a child of God, made in God’s image. In Jesus presence, Zachaeus is able to become what he truly is deep inside. He is enabled to touch the pruty within that he had lost sight of and that purity expressed as love within begins to flow outwards as generosity to others.
At the table of Christ, as we are welcomed by Christ’s unconditional hosptiality, we are invited into the purity of Christ’s transforming presence that enables us to touch the original purity within us too.
4. Fourthly...The Zacchaeus story calls this experience by the word: Salvation. Salvation is not just about getting to heaven one day. Salvation is about allowing the movement of God’s grace and mercy to move within us here and now. According to this story, salvation is a very practical and down to earth matter that even affects our attitude towards our money.
Salvation, the opening of Zacchaeus’s heart comes not because of his worthiness. Not because of his effort to achieve salvation. Salvation comes to his home as a result of Christ’s gift of unconditional hospitality.
At the table of Christ, as we receive Christ’s unconditional hospitality, we become recipients of God’s salvation, the movement of God’s grace and mercy within us and through us that will inevitably open our hearts with grace, love and mercy towards others.