Hosting the Host

February 06, 2022
Luke 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus is probably quite familiar to many of us. Maybe you even sang a song about him when you were a child in Sunday school.  Zacchaeus is a rich man, a status that for Jesus in Luke’s gospel is a bad thing. Jesus declares a Woe to those who are rich, a rich ruler goes away sad because he does not want to abandon his wealth. But on the other hand, Zacchaeus’ wealth has  not gained him friends or prestige because he acquired it by working with the Roman Empire to collect taxes from his fellow Jews. Taxation was one of the hallmarks of Roman oppression, and Zacchaeus is a collaborator, ostracized from his community. As a marginalized man, he is exactly the kind of person Jesus desires to care for. Thus, this story holds in tension what many of us probably feel at times—a critique of the systemic with a personalist concern for the individual.

Jesus sees him and calls down to him, requesting hospitality. Jewish custom dictated that wandering travelers should be offered at least the basics of water and rest in imitation of the patriarch Abraham, something that the Pharisee Jesus visits in chapter 7 does not do–he is instead given scandalous hospitality by a woman. In Genesis 18, Abraham is visited by 3 divine messengers, coming to announce the birth of his son. Abraham and Sarah, not knowing their visitors’ divine origin, give them a lavish welcome with choice meat and cakes. So to be like Abraham was to offer a lavish hospitality because it might turn out your guests were sent by God. The Greeks called this kind of divine hospitality theoxenia.

And that’s what Zacchaeus does. He obliges Jesus’ request and then spontaneously offers to divest of his own wealth and make reparations. It’s almost as if his generosity is part of his hospitality to Jesus, and his divestment a kind of repentance because Jesus then declares that salvation has come to this house today. It’s one of the things I love most about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: Salvation is right here, right now. Shepherds hear of the birth of a Savior, today. Jesus declares the arrival of the Jubilee, today. The man on the cross will be in Paradise today.

Because this story is so familiar, it’s easy to miss out on some more subtle elements. Zacchaeus is clearly a host, Jesus a guest. But by declaring Zacchaeus saved and then affirming his belonging in the family of Abraham, Jesus is also simultaneously a kind of host, extending welcome to Zacchaeus, an outgrowth of his larger mission in Luke’s gospel to seek out the lost children of Abraham. It’s as if Jesus came to Zacchaeus as a stranger in need of hospitality so that he could extend to Zacchaeus the saving hospitality of God. But the kind of hospitality Jesus needs from Zacchaeus is as lavish as the kingdom of God—justice for the poor, reparations for those Zacchaeus’ ill-gained wealth has harmed. There is a mutual hospitality relationship that defines this entire Zacchaeus narrative and through which his salvation comes. While Zacchaeus appears to be the host, it is evident that he is in desperate need to be received as a guest in the kingdom of God. Meanwhile, the itinerant guest Jesus reveals he is the true host of God’s deeper welcome. Salvation, it seems, happens in the dynamic of guest and host.

This dynamic shows up in other places. In addition to the Gospel of Luke, in the Hebrew Bible God is frequently depicted as the true host of all creation. In Leviticus 25, God declares that the land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land belongs to God; God says, “with me you are but aliens and tenants.” Psalm 24 reorients us to the reality that the Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness therein. God enacts covenants with Israel, covenants which, at their heart, are about bringing an estranged people into the family of God. Covenants enact God’s saving hospitality by bringing others into God’s abundance and way of living, who then are called to participate in that salvation by becoming hosts themselves, welcoming others with the same abundance that God demonstrates, extending God’s unending invitation to join this family. The people of God are perpetually guests who engage in the work of God by becoming hosts. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that this is particularly so for Christians:

That we have been called in to the promise God bestowed on Israel, as Gentiles, is an extraordinary gesture of hospitality by our God. That means, as a people called out of the world to be for the world a witness to such a God, we have an obligation to welcome the stranger, and the stranger, of course, first and foremost is God, and then from having to learn what it means to be hospitable to God, we learn how to be hospitable to our neighbor, who bears the description of stranger, and hope that through that hospitality, we become friends.

What the New Testament adds to this is the mystical reality that Hauerwas names, that the Divine comes to us through Jesus as a guest. “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me,” Jesus declares in Matthew 25. In Luke 24, when the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus encounter a stranger and sit down to eat with him, their lives are literally turned around back to Jerusalem and the calling Jesus has left them when Christ is revealed in the breaking of bread. When we share hospitality with a stranger, we welcome Jesus, just like Zacchaeus. With what kind of hospitality will we invite him in?

But there is also a sense in which we are called to be guests like Jesus, who depend on the hospitality of others. At the Last Supper, Jesus reveals that the new covenant—God’s latest act of hospitality—is inaugurated in his death and now pivots those who would follow him into a pattern of life that looks like his—wandering as strangers, looking to offer God’s welcome to those who would welcome them. This is what the book of Acts is all about. As Ched Myers says, the history of Christian missionary work would have looked a lot different had Christians engaged the world as guests instead of conquerors.

To be a guest is to be in a position of vulnerability and dependence on others, even submission. For many of us with inherited privilege due to gender, class, or race, our well-intentioned tendency is to think of ourselves in a host role. We think we have something to offer, maybe money or material things, maybe it is space or access, knowledge. We are accustomed to being in charge, our opinion or culture given preference. We are tasked with learning to be guests on this land of the Piscataway and Nacotchtank peoples, to forgo aspects of “hosting” that reinforce our own perceptions of superiority, and perhaps to just show up with an awareness that we need to receive more than we need to give.

In my own life, as a white man living in a Black neighborhood for the last 10 years and having committed to making our home a so-called house of hospitality, I’ve been humbled by the welcome given by my neighbors to me, to us. On the night we closed on our home almost 6 years ago, we had come to the house to celebrate. A little while later, we were startled to find our next door neighbor—whom we had not even met—knocking at the door with a smile and a bottle of wine for us. Since then, he has shared food, tools, and friendship with us in ways we could never have expected. We have tried to learn how to live well in our community by mirroring the kind of hospitality we have been shown.

Yet we are also called to be hosts who welcome the stranger as Christ, who engage in the kind of hospitality Zacchaeus exhibits, hospitality that makes us a little uncomfortable. Over the years, we have hosted many people in our home for weeks, months, and even years. Asylum seekers, single moms, even a family of 4 who became a family of 5 when the mom gave birth to their third child in what is now our bedroom. This evening, we will receive the hospitality of our current housemate from China, as we celebrate the Chinese Spring Festival with our annual feast of his homemade dumplings. Setting aside a room in our house as a Christ Room has made it easier for us to say “Yes” to whomever comes our way—the room is not ours, but for which ever form or disguise Jesus appears to us in. It’s not something that everyone will be called to do; participation in the kingdom of God is rarely prescriptive. It’s rather more like a jazz tune, calling us to improvise, be creative. But I do think welcoming the stranger is meant to be a tangible, embodied act, not solely an idea we agree with or even ask our government to enact. The concerted effort to erase education about the Holocaust, as well as the Republican National Convention’s assertion that the January 6 attempted coup was a legitimate political action, should remind us that hospitality has been, and may very well be again soon, an act of resistance to the powers.

I’m reminded of this town in Belgium called Gael, featured on an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast in 2016. Residents there host people with various kinds of mental illness sometimes for decades, providing a family instead of an institution in which people are loved, not merely treated. What if returning citizens from incarceration had this kind of support from the church?

This kind of hospitality is an occasion for encountering the risen Jesus. Understanding that hospitality to strangers is inherently theoxenic gives a sacramental quality to the host role. Immigrants, refugees, the homeless—they are not causes to support or even opportunities to “help;” they are nothing less than the face of Jesus in his most distressing disguises. To reject the stranger at our door is to reject Jesus and to reject the very welcome his death has made possible in the New Covenant. Hear these words from the incredible St. Brigid, patron saint of Ireland whose feast day was February 1.

We saw a stranger yesterday. 

We put food in the eating place, 

drink in the drinking place, 

music in the listening place, 

and, with the sacred name of the triune God, 

he blessed us and our house, 

our cattle and our dear ones. 

As the lark says in her song, 

“Often, often, often, goes Christ in the stranger’s guise.”

To receive the stranger in our midst with the radical hospitality of Zacchaeus is to open up the possibility of encountering God’s salvation today. Right here, Right now.