Thursday, October 27, 2016

God's Hospitality is Salvation

Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The 19th century artist, William Holman Hunt, may be most remembered for his famous painting which debuted in 1853 at a London exhibition. “Light of the World” portrayed Jesus holding a night lamp and knocking at the door. According to the fable, he first revealed the painting to family and friends. They knew he was proud of his extreme attention to detail, so they inspected the painting carefully. Suddenly, someone spoke up, “Did you forget something?”
“No,” Hunt said, “What?”
“Jesus can’t open the door. The door doesn’t have a handle.”
“No, I didn’t forget. The door represents the heart of the person and the handle is on the inside. Jesus knocks at the door, but only the person can let him in.”
Regardless of whether the story is true or not, the painting makes a very clear point. When we invite Jesus into our hearts, we make Him an honoured guest. Letting Him in requires repentance. Making Him an honoured guest requires hospitality. For a Christian, repentance and spiritual hospitality are interwoven. Consider this narrative from today’s gospel.

Here we have a man, Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, who stood at the fringe of society. Being a collaborator of the hated colonial masters and who profited from his treachery at the expense of his countrymen, Zacchaeus was certainly an unwelcomed guest at any social gathering.  Yet, hearing the news of Jesus’ arrival in his hometown, this much-maligned man pushes his way through the crowds, hoisting up his garments in the most undignified manner to climb a sycamore tree like an adolescent, just to catch a glimpse of the Lord. But his efforts at demeaning and humbling himself would be rewarded by this surprising turn of events. Our Lord notices Zacchaeus and invites Himself for dinner. This is a breach of decorum because Jesus does not wait to be invited to the tax collector’s house.  Instead, He takes the initiative and invites himself; it is the shepherd seeking the one lost sheep.

The interplay between Zacchaeus, Jesus, and the crowd revolved around one issue: the worth of the sinner. The crowd rejected the sinner. They had no place for him in their society. But Jesus saw beyond the reticence of the crowd and the bravado of the tax man. The shepherd was willing to leave the 99 in order to seek out the lost. He had come for the sick and the sinner, not the healthy or righteous. Zacchaeus had been denied hospitality by his own brethren. He had little value in the eyes of his fellowmen, but he was of great worth in the eyes of the Lord. The Lord seeks to include the excluded in the Kingdom which he had come to establish. Here is the irony of the Divine Comedy, an irony of cosmic proportions: Zacchaeus had gone up a tree seeking Jesus, but it was Jesus who came down to the level of sinners and the marginalised, to seek Zacchaeus. As Jesus declared at the very end of today’s passage, “for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.” The one marginalised, the “sinner”, is the one, who gave hospitality to Jesus, and is therefore, offered the hospitality of God.

The scene takes an ominous turn as the story states that the crowd “all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house, they said.’” They took offense with the Lord’s decision to seek the hospitality of this public sinner as this seems to serve as an endorsement and approval of his sinful ways. This may indeed be a valid objection if it was true. Many today, would like to speak of the fact that Jesus was a friend of sinners. As precious as this truth is, it needs to be safeguarded against self-serving manipulation. It is all too easy to twist this out of context – “Jesus ate with sinners” becomes “Jesus loved a good party,” which then becomes “Jesus was never judgmental,” which finally becomes “Jesus never disproved of sinful lifestyles and even applauded it.”  If we are to celebrate that the Lord is a glorious friend of sinners – and we should – we must pay careful attention to the ways in which Jesus actually was a friend of sinners.

By going to Zacchaeus’ house, Jesus was neither endorsing Zacchaeus’ sin of financially oppressing the good citizens of Jericho, nor was He saying that it didn’t matter -  Jesus was simply showing  love. What the Lord does is that He shifts the hostility of the crowd from Zacchaeus to Himself. The Lamb of God takes upon Himself the sins of the world. Conversion is the ultimate goal of Jesus’ welcoming and hospitality offered to the sinner, not just a blanket acceptance. And it was in this way, that Jesus was a friend to sinners. Jesus came to them on their turf, in order that He may draw them out from their unknowing slavery to sin. The Lord was a friend of sinners not because he winked at sin, ignored sin, or made light jest of immorality. Jesus was a friend of sinners in that He came to save sinners and welcomed them to the life-giving and life-transforming hospitality of God’s Kingdom. 

That is why the hospitality offered by the Lord to Zacchaeus went beyond the courtesy of treating him as a person worth of respect. The hospitality which the Lord offered Him was the Divine Hospitality of God – Salvation. If sin is the cause of estrangement, alienation and separation, then the grace of salvation is the cause of reconciliation. That is why Zacchaeus, so overwhelmed with immeasurable gratitude, promises to give half of his possessions to the poor and offered to repay four times the amount that he had taken from those he had defrauded. And so at the end of this story, Jesus pronounces this judgment, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham.”  This is what happens when the hospitality of man meets the hospitality of God. 

This gospel story, therefore, speaks to us not only of the hospitality of Zacchaeus but that of Christ and of God. Hospitality forms the basic narrative of the whole Bible and the basis of Jesus’ ministry. He came as an outcast figure in a world that did not recognise or receive Him. But, Jesus’ itinerant ministry placed Him in dependence on the hospitality of others. In his capacity as guest, Jesus bounds himself to the lost, shares table fellowship with tax collector, “sinner,” and Pharisee alike. The One who comes as a visitor and guest in fact becomes host and offers the hospitality of salvation in which human beings and, potentially the entire world, can become truly human, be at home, and know the salvation in the depths of their hearts.

This story of Zacchaeus and Jesus is also our story too. How often have we excluded the stranger, the lonely, the migrant or the alienated one? How often have we resented the presence of a newcomer, see him as a rival or as someone who would reduce my chances of getting a car park in the compound or my favourite seat in the pew? How often do we treat the other with suspicion and even keep them at a safe distance? If this community is to be an effective and powerful sign of Christ’s redemption and God’s hospitality, it’s time to open our doors. Reach out and don’t wait for others to reach out to you.

In our lives, Jesus does not break down the doors of our hearts. He does not compel us to respond to Him, though He continues to knock on the door. You and I are called to open the door, for we alone can do it. We must welcome Him into our homes, at our tables, in our work, in our friendships and even in our play and relaxation. And, the greatest surprise is that the Lord welcomes us with open arms at every mass. It is here in the Eucharist, that the sick are healed, the sinner is led to conversion and forgiven, and incredibly the outsider is ‘invited’ not only to the table, but also to a communion with the divine, Jesus Christ. The most undeserving of people are given a place at the table – to be heard, healed, forgiven, restored, taught, fed and to become beneficiaries of divine hospitality offered freely and undeservingly to us.

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