By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10
Origen: “the practice of hospitality does not simply mean that we should entertain those who come to us. It means also that we should go out and invite others to come in.”
Meals are the primary object around which hospitality centers.
In the ancient world, meals were ceremonies – events in which role or status is affirmed.
Those at table together generally shared a common set of ideas and values and frequently a common social position as well. What, where and with whom one eats were critical questions.
Again this is related to holiness – the idea of being set apart – and purity.
In the ancient Roman world, when meals were held that included those of varying social rank, they were frequently relegated to a different room to eat different food. Thus Pliny the Younger writes (see p. 381).
A pastor serving a poor, rural Appalachian congregation was visiting with members who requested that he remain and eat supper with them. What they served him was refried beans. By their own admission, they’d been refried three times. They were swimming in grease and, as the pastor looked down into his bowl, he saw several little fruit flies swimming in there as well. He wanted, desperately, to decline their offer of hospitality. But then he recalled the bible verse from Luke, chapter 10 in which Jesus sends out the 70 to minister in his name and he instructs them to “eat what is set before them.”[i] Remembering that scripture, the pastor ate those beans. Shortly thereafter, he visited his doctor and shared with the doctor his concerns about what he’d consumed. The doctor gave him some comfort by reassuring him that, if those beans were really as greasy as he’d described, than all that excess grease and fat probably allowed the flies and anything else to just glide right through. That pastor knew and understood the value of hospitality in our Christian tradition.
This morning’s gospel story is a story about hospitality and how the simple gift of hospitality can bring dramatic change to our lives and our communities. In the ancient Mediterranean world, meals were the primary event around which hospitality centered. Our bible is filled with stories about meals. Genesis chapter 18 records the story of three mysterious travelers who cross paths with the ancient patriarch Abraham. When Abraham sees them, he runs out of his tent, chases them down, bows before them, and implores them to receive his hospitality. He invites them to rest and draws water that they may wash their feet. Then a tremendous meal is prepared and set before the visitors: bread, curds, milk and a calf that has been slaughtered and prepared. After eating, these three mysterious travelers proclaim a promise, confer a blessing upon Abraham and his wife, Sarah, saying: “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” It is a story illustrating the cycle of blessings that are unleashed through the practice of hospitality.
In ancient Mediterranean culture, meals functioned as ceremonies that affirmed the roles and relationships between the diners. Hospitality was one of the most significant values in the ancient Mediterranean world. It was related to honor; another highly important value. So people were very cautious about table fellowship. More often than not, hosts did not observe an open table because one’s dinner guests reinforced or affirmed the reputation of the host. Those who ate together generally shared a common set of ideas and values, as well as a common social position.
Jesus, however, preferred an open table approach. After all, “exclusive fellowship required an exclusive table, while inclusive fellowship required an inclusive one.”[ii] Jesus, who came to serve the least, the last, and the lost, sets an undiscriminating table; a practice that many around him found quite offensive. And in this morning’s story of Zacchaeus, Jesus does it again.
Now, it’s important to know just a bit about ancient tax collectors so we can understand why Jesus’ choice of dining with Zacchaeus is so shocking and controversial.
Rome was, of course, a vast empire fueled by an expansionism that required a large military. So Rome turned the screws on her own people – mostly peasants – to fund this enormous army through taxation. Here’s how it worked:
Roman government officials contracted with local businessmen to collect the various taxes, tolls, fees and tariffs and those amounts had to be paid in advance. So, only those who already had some wealth in place could even afford this venture. Generally, those local businessmen – the “chief” tax collectors – would hire other guys to go out and do the collecting. It was assumed that the collectors would take a little something extra for their trouble and it was assumed that the local businessmen – the chief collectors – would also bill a little something extra for themselves.
And so, given the notorious reputation of chief tax collectors, we shouldn’t be surprised that the crowd that day would hardly have opened up a spot in the “front row,” so to speak, to accommodate Zacchaeus’ vertical disability. But Zacchaeus is determined and so he runs ahead and climbs a tree, hoping that in doing so, he can catch a glimpse of Jesus. Now, if Zacchaeus was lucky, everyone had already turned their attention toward Jesus because in that culture, any honorable adult male would never have run or climbed a tree. It was considered childish, humiliating behavior. As it turns out, Jesus comes to a stop just under the tree and looks up and invites Zacchaeus to come down out of that tree so he can host Jesus in his home for dinner. The crowd is aghast. There must have surely been good, religious professionals in the crowd that day. Why wouldn’t Jesus, a well-respected rabbi, have honored one of them with his presence?
But here is where the story gets interesting; and here is something new I discovered just this very week. As the crowd grumbles and mumbles, slandering Zacchaeus beneath their breath, Zacchaeus responds. He says, “Look half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.” Now that may be a little different from your bible translation because most of our bibles translate that Zacchaeus will give to the poor and that he will pay back to any who have been defrauded through this dubious Roman tax plan. Yet, the verb form used is somewhat ambiguous. It is not future tense. It is a present tense verb that can express either that someone is currently doing something; or that they are about to do something.
Now, you may consider this hair-splitting and wonder why I’ve taken up sermon time to talk about verb tenses. But here’s the thing: one translation communicates that Zacchaeus truly was quite the scoundrel in sorry need of some significant confession and repentance; while the other translation communicates that Zacchaeus has been inappropriately judged and censored by the crowd around him. So, our judgment of Zacchaeus becomes a bit of a slippery slope. Well, except that – for the most part – we need not even wrestle with this dilemma at all because our bible translators have removed all doubt.
And that’s where this morning’s lesson truly lies. How easy it is for us to judge those we do not know; those we hold at arm’s length. So long as any demographic remains “those people,” we can rest in moral certitude expressed through phrases like, “If they really wanted to work, they would.” Or, “they’d be able to pay their rent if they weren’t so irresponsible with their money.” Or, “no wonder their son is on drugs; they never took the time discipline him.” And so on and so on.
Our judgments will always be assumptions if we are separated from one another. But, if we sit down to table together, we can get to know one another and avoid that trap of long-distance assumptions.
Friends, meals were the primary event around which hospitality centered; but the true objective of hospitality is to embody the unfiltered, unbiased welcome of Jesus. Adele Calhoun writes, “Because we have been welcomed into the love of Christ… [w]e can incarnate the welcoming heart of God for the world.”[iii]
Church, over the next few months, Trinity will launch some new initiatives designed to help us build relationships with our neighbors and eating meals together is a critical component of building those relationships. Sometimes we want to quickly drop off a casserole and be on our way. But, while offering people food may fill their stomachs, it does nothing to build community. It is only when we take time to sit and break bread together that we express true hospitality and a build authentic community.
In the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus honors Zacchaeus by allowing him to offer Jesus food and hospitality, by crossing the threshold and entering his home, by sitting down at his table. Lauren Winner in the book Mudhouse Sabbath reminds us that “offering hospitality to others… offers us up to new levels of vulnerability and even to the possibility of being taken advantage of.”[iv] When we practice true hospitality it is more than an invitation into our home or to sit at our table. When we practice true hospitality, we invite people into our lives and open our hearts. For those who are “recovering perfectionists,” Winner further comments: “we are not meant to rearrange our lives for our guests – we are meant to invite our guests to enter into our lives as they are. It is this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining… into [true] hospitality.”[v] In the practice of hospitality, we do more than give, we open ourselves up to receive, knowing that we do not hold a monopoly on the incarnating of Jesus. In fact, we may be surprised to see Christ great us in the very person to whom we opened our lives and our table. Parker Palmer wrote of a French village during WWII whose citizens risked their lives to welcome and shelter Jews. When a pastor there was asked why they responded as they did, he replied, “I could not bear to be separated from Jesus.” Like Abraham, in that story of the three mysterious travelers, we too may discover that those to whom we show hospitality bring a blessing to us as well.
For Trinity to be a growing church it must be a Christ-centered community where we place as much emphasis on community as on Christ for that is how we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
So here’s what I hope we’ll all think about – and act on – this morning: We can begin to practice, right now, for Trinity’s upcoming community-building events by fine-tuning our expressions of hospitality in a myriad of contexts. Here are just a few ideas:
An open table can sometimes be a little scary because we live in a world where we are increasingly being taught to fear strangers; to fear “the other.” Our world runs rampant with divisions, prejudices, xenophobia, and isolationism. But what a privilege it is that we can incarnate the hospitality of Christ because we carry the presence of his Spirit within us. We all need to remember that, since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension; we – his disciples – are now Jesus’ only option for setting an open table that was always his preference.
[i] See Luke 10:7
[ii] Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh; Fortress Press; 2003; p. 382.
[iii] Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun; InterVarsity Press; 2005; p. 139
[iv] Mudhouse Sabbath: an Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline (the study addition) by Lauren Winner; Paraclete Press; 2005; p. 56.
[v] Ibid; p. 63.
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