“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
October 30th 2016
A reading from the Gospel of Luke Chapter 19:1-10:
Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name was Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector and he was quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and he couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so that he could see Jesus when he came by.
When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant, “What business does Jesus have getting cozy with this crook?”
Zacchaeus stood there, a little stunned. He stammered, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”
Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to your house! Here is Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”
Let us pray: Gracious God, we ask for your Spirit to show up this day, that we might find your healing grace in unexpected places. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
When was the last time that you hosted a dinner party, with little notice? When were you last surprised when someone invited themselves over for dinner at the last minute? Better yet, when was the last time you invited yourself to dinner? I can’t decide if “inviting yourself over a friend’s house” is a social faux pas that we often learn the hard way in middle school, or a sign of true friendship – I guess it all depends on context….
In my life spontaneous social gatherings have been choked out by my calendar. In our cell phone age it is rare that someone shows up at my door unannounced. Even when someone initiates a spontaneous gathering, most days, I am booked.
Perhaps in Jesus’ day dropping over to visit was more of a common occurrence, but I guarantee that Zacchaeus didn’t see it coming. In fact he was probably, way out of practice hosting people for dinner because of a recent job change. Perhaps he used to host a group of neighbors for dinner but they started slowing declining his invitations once he got this new gig with the “Roman Empire Tax Collection Agency.” Perhaps to in order spite his neighbors and friends who were ostracizing him for collecting funds for the evil empire, he started taking a bigger cut than he used to take. And then he got a thrill out of climbing the ladder finally feeling some financial security. His social circle shrank significantly with each promotion. Suddenly, he landed the gig as the “Chief Tax Collector of Jericho” and the rest is history.
It made perfect sense for the Jewish people to hold a grudge against tax collectors. These crooks represented the Roman Empire and they were tools to oppress the Jewish people.
But what if what if Zacchaeus’ story is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface. The more traditional reading of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus has shaped & formed generations. Therefore I am hesitant to mess with it. But in the end I couldn’t help myself.
In the more traditional storyline, Zacchaeus is a man of small stature, and a tax collector. He shows up that day, desperate to see Jesus. So desperate, in fact, that when the crowd boxes him out, he climbs a sycamore tree. As Jesus approaches he makes eye contact with Zacchaeus. A simple gesture that is actually quite meaningful for a man who has been ostracized. The crowd gathered that day knows Zacchaeus’ professional dealings. So when Jesus invites Zacchaeus to dine with him, at Zacchaeus’ home, the crowd is totally confused. Some grumble amongst themselves, “What business does Jesus have dining in the house of a crook!?”
And here is the crux of the story. Zacchaeus climbs down from the tree, stands in front of Jesus and the crowd and declares publicly that he will indeed “give half of his income to the poor, even four times what he owns if he cheated anyone!” This is a miraculous transformation! Jesus proclaims for all to hear, “Salvation has come to your house this day!”
And don’t get me wrong this is a good story. This is a story of a person seeing their own sin, the way that their idols create suffering & pain in their own life and in their community life. And it is a story about the courage it takes to atone for those sins, the courage it takes for to reorient towards right relationship with God and with others. This is a story of the grace of God that comes to us even when we are still stuck, we’re still knowingly or unknowingly making a mess of our lives. Of course we all want to practice this kind of transformation in our own lives. And so, this is a good story, but it is not the only one!
The second story is a story about Zach. Zach is also a tax collector. He is also ostracized by the crowd that day, blockaded when he attempts to find his place. Zach is also short and so he climbs a tree to see Jesus. And when Jesus sees Zach up in that sycamore tree, Jesus invites himself over for dinner. Salvation also comes to Zach’s house that day, but, in this version of the story there is a twist.
In the original Greek the verbs that describe Zach’s conversion are not in the future tense “I will give half of my income to the poor.” Instead, Zach’s declarations to the crowd are almost defensive – they are in the present tense. He says “I already give half of my income to the poor!” “If I am caught cheating, I pay four times the damages!” Zach has already converted even before Jesus arrives in town.
What does this mean? How does Salvation come to Zacchaeus’ house that day if he was already converted? What if this story is about conversion but we have been missing out on who actually gets converted this whole time?
What if “salvation” comes in the way that Jesus calls out and reverses the crowd’s judgement of Zacchaeus. Imagine their bitterness & pain as one of their old friends has now been co-opted by the oppressive Roman Empire and to top it off he is stealing from his own friends & neighbors! Zacchaeus cares more about his financial success than his own community! Of course he is going to be the scapegoat for all of the pain they feel under an oppressive government.
And yet perhaps, salvation comes as some folk in the crowd that day can now see the truth of Zacchaeus’ new way of being in the world. The miracle is that those gathered can now be inspired by his transformation, they can now examine their own lives and ways that they might transform like Zacchaeus. It’s as if Jesus says, “let’s rethink, reimagine, what if salvation is here now, even in the surprising places?!” The beauty of this second story is that Zach, the crowd and the reader (even 2,000 years later) all find grace in unexpected places. This is a story that reminds us that God shows up uninvited, despite our judgment, stereotypes, expectations, past behaviors, or shame cycles.
That day when Jesus comes to town, Zacchaeus is haunted by his past. He is afraid that he could never atone for his sins, that no one will ever truly see him. He is stuck in the shame and loneliness of his old life. When Zacchaeus climbs up the sycamore tree that day he is desperate for something new.
And then Jesus comes along and unexpectedly invites himself into Zacchaeus’ life. Jesus’ unexpected invitation conveys to him, “I see you, the old you & the new you.” Jesus says, “I’m coming dinner, you belong with me!” This encounter with Jesus gave Zacchaeus the opportunity to publicly declare that he has become a new person! That the judgements of the crowds would no longer define him!
And the beauty of this second reading is that there grace in unexpected places for the crowd gathered that day as well!
Nadia Bolz Weber is a Lutheran Pastor and author of “Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong Places.” In that book she tells a story about a time when she met a prospective new member. For some reason she is unsure of this man’s motivations to join her community and he strikes a nerve in her. Bolz Weber subconsciously (and at times consciously) treats him with less warmth than she would the average newer member in her community. Nadia even confesses that one time she even left him off of an email purposefully for an upcoming church event. A few months after this man started coming to Nadia’s church he passed away suddenly and she ended up officiating at his memorial service. Of course this made her feel guilty & she confesses to a friend how awful she feels about how she treated this man, how she never really got to know him. Her friend assures her that God forgives her and that God’s mercy is a free gift even for a pastor! At the end of the memorial service for this man a family member introduces herself warmly to Nadia and she says “I wanted to thank you for having a church where Larry felt so welcome. He spoke so highly of you and your congregation, and I know that having you as his pastor meant a lot for him in his final months.”
Nadia goes on to write, “I will never know Larry. I’ll never know what it is like to love him, to see him, to know what the source of his tenderness towards his wife was or from where he drew his strength in his final days. That is all lost to me. But for some reason our congregation was a place of comfort for him. Sometimes God needs stuff done, even though I can be a real jerk. There is absolutely no justice in the fact that Larry loved me and our church. But if I got what I deserved in this life, I’d be screwed, so instead I receive grace for what it is, a gift.” (p 19 Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong Places).
Those gathered in the crowd are convinced (like Nadia Bolz Weber, like you and me) that they know who is “in” and who is “out.” They think they see clearly. Some in gathered that day think that they deserve their place in the crowd. Perhaps they even think that they deserve a visit from Jesus. Some hold the weight of bitterness against Rome, against people like Zacchaeus.
And how do they find unexpected grace? Some probably reject Zacchaeus’ new narrative because it feels too uncomfortable. It necessitates giving up power and illusion of control. Perhaps the folks who have been most victimized by the Romans simply cannot let go of that pain just yet. Who’s to say that Zach has really changed? What if he goes out and does the same thing again?
Perhaps others are able to let go of some of their bitterness, & judgmental righteousness. Perhaps they are freed from the responsibility of judging everyone (including themselves!) by a rigid system of right and wrong. Perhaps other tax collectors gathered were inspired by Zacchaeus’ proclamation and they too might begin to practice their trade with more integrity. Perhaps the one that the crowd hated, was the one who Jesus brought to the fore, in order to save them from their own righteousness, their own bitterness, their own pain.
So in closing, how can we practice being open to uninvited grace in our lives? How can we be like those in the crowd who recognize that our own judgments and bitterness cause us just as much harm as they cause others?! Now, it is a human impulse to categorize, to organize in circles of “us versus them” politically, socially, even theologically! And so how can we prepare for God to continually surprise us by showing up in the “wrong” person in the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time. How can we welcome the people in our lives who make us uncomfortable – for any reason – in order to see a truth about God or a truth about ourselves that we couldn’t see without their help?
And at the end of the day, yes even in in this very tense election season, how can we let go of bitterness? How can we release the weight of judgment that we feel when we disagree with someone strongly? Can we stand up for what we believe in and also see “the other” as a human, broken, flawed & beautiful – just like we are! Can we be the kind of person who tries to withhold judgment, & inevitably when we do judge, can we reorient as often as we can?
How can we practice radical welcome & boundary breaking relationships in our own church community? Nadia Bolz Weber has a beautiful reflection entitled “Children of God” about the transformative power of practicing radical welcome…
(Nadia Bolz Weber & The SALT project : “Children of God”)
And so let us welcome the unexpected one, the one who could help save us, from our personal cycles of sin, our bitterness & pain, from our judgment & lack of humility.
And let us welcome God, even when our lives are messy & unprepared. When we don’t have time to pretend to be a perfect hostess. Because the truth is that God shows up anyway. God is the kind of God who invites herself over to dinner at the last minute. The kind of God who drops by to unexpectedly distill grace in our lives. God invites himself into the spaces that no one wants to go into – the places inside of your life & in our society that we often avoid. And in those unexpected & holy places may we find healing and wholeness this day we pray. And now our closing prayer will be a poem by Steve Garnaas Holmes Entitled “What God Looks Like”
Reader #1 (stands on the same welcome mat) Like two old friends,
Reader #2 (stands on the same welcome mat) God and the sinner.
Reader #3: (stands on the same welcome mat) Here’s the scandal:
Reader #1: The Beloved actually, really wants to be with you.
Reader #2: Imagine that.
Reader #3: The Loving One sees you in your awkwardness,
Reader #1: Uncomfortably hanging on in your ridiculous perch,
Reader #2: Knows all about the gossip, and still can think of nothing more desirable
Reader #3: Than being with you.
Reader #1: At your place. On your terms.
Reader #2: It’s this simple.
Reader #3: The Holy One wants to be with you.
Reader #1: No condescension.
Reader #2: It’s no job requirement.
Reader #3: God likes being with you.
Reader #1: God likes being with you.
Reader #2: God likes being with you.
Steve Garnaas Holmes (unfoldinglight.net)