The Unexpected Guest

Jericho was situated in the valley with an estimated twelve thousand priests and Levites living there.  Twice the population of Medina, NY.  With narrow streets and the potential for much of the community coming out see this rabbi, about whom they had heard amazing things, this gathering could have drawn thousands of people together in a very tight space.

Imagine, we are in the midst of this crowd with Zacchaeus.  There are people on every side of us, all pushing to get closer to this teacher, this miracle worker who challenges religious leaders and offers hope-filled stories everywhere he goes – in the synagogue and on the seashore –  walking from place to place and sitting at the dinner table.

The noise of the crowd is deafening, the heat and odor of so many people in such close proximity overwhelming.  Our chances of hearing or seeing much, minimal at best.

Those who have experienced exiting a packed football stadium after a long game on a hot Fall Sunday afternoon may have the most vivid picture of the steamy, someone stepping on your feet, often pushing you in a direction you don’t want to go, crowd which moves forward in a hurry to get to one particular place without much consideration of the individuals within it.

Standing in the crowd at Rich Stadium we just want to find the exit and our vehicle.  Standing in the crowd in Jericho, we just want a glimpse of Jesus, a chance to see for ourselves what all the fuss is about.

The crowd can be a distraction, causing us to focus on staying safe, to think about what others are doing and saying, about how small we feel in the middle of this multitude of people.  It can be overpowering and cause us to drop back, to stop trying to hear what Jesus has to say.  To begin to believe we aren’t important enough for a face-to-face encounter to matter anyway.

Zacchaeus thinks about those things.  He considers his physical size, his shortcomings, his status as one deemed unworthy by the religious community surrounding him, soley because of his profession.  However, he doesn’t drop back.  He runs ahead and climbs a Sycamore tree.

Middle Eastern adults do not run in public if they wish to avoid public shame. Powerful, rich men do not climb trees at public parades.  Zacchaeus knew this only too well. So in deciding to run ahead of the crowd he was making a decision that to catch a glimpse of Jesus was more important than appearances of dignity.  He chooses a tree which was easy to climb and provided cover thickly clustered broad leaves, maybe hoping to stay hidden. These trees were only allowed some distance from town a location where Zacchaeus may have hoped the crowd would be thinner[1].

He sets aside the distractions and focuses on getting to a place he can see and maybe hear what Jesus has to say.

Crowds in our lives can be distractions as well.  We might be caught up in a large group of people trying to get to hear someone promoted as an inspirational speaker or trying to enter a major sporting event.  We might get caught up in the crowd waiting to get the best seats at a special concert.  More commonly, I expect, we are caught up in the hectic everyday schedule of work, home, school, sports, organizations, shopping, recreation, care giving, and other demands on our time and energy.  Pushed around by a crowd of times and dates that distract us from finding a place to glimpse Jesus, from having an opportunity to hear what He has to say.

We may feel overwhelmed, small, unworthy for a face-to-face with Jesus and begin to think it doesn’t matter to us or to the Lord.

We get pushed to decide if we will fall back or run forward to find a Sycamore tree, away from the distractions and providing a safe place from which to look for Jesus as he walks by.

Into the safe quiet, observe from a distance, sanctuary of the leaf covered branches, comes a voice.  Jesus stops at the foot of the tree and invites himself to the home of Zacchaeus.  He doesn’t ask who is hiding in the tree.  He doesn’t inquire as to his worthiness or preparedness to receive him.

Jesus already knew Zacchaeus, who he was, what he hoped to find in seeing Jesus in person, what actions he would take once he encountered the Lord.

As we hear in Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it

With complete knowledge of who this tax collector was and what he had done with his life, Jesus simply looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

Not, I would like to stay, not may I stay, but I must stay.  It is important for us to be together, for you to welcome me into your home, the parts of your life others know nothing about.

So Zacchaeus hurried down and was happy to welcome Jesus.  He didn’t start making excuses about the house being clean, the pantry empty, or a “to do” list too long to ignore.  He joyfully welcomed this unexpected guest likely pulling together a wonderful meal in his honor.  Rescheduling or dismissing any activities that would crowd out this special time.

We know there were still people following Jesus who witness this exchange between someone hidden in a tree and Jesus.  Once they see who is in the tree, they begin to openly discuss what has occurred, grumbling about Jesus heading off to be the “guest of one who is a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  Many see this as an act of repentance, of declaring in the company of witnesses what an encounter with someone who knows who you are and loves you anyway changes how we do business.  Some note that the verbs used in the Greek indicate it is in fact a statement of how Zacchaeus already relates to people as he collects their taxes.  A statement of self-defense, of what Jesus saw in him that the crowd of “religious” types couldn’t see.

Salvation enters the home of Zacchaeus regardless of how we view this story.  Jesus came to save the lost so Salvation entered the home in the person of Jesus.  Salvation enters the home because Zaccaheus is a son of Abraham, loved by God.  Salvation enters the home because a face-to-face encounter with God’s grace changes everything.

In every meal story, Jesus is a guest.  He has no home, no stocked pantry or staff to prepare the feast.  He is the feast, offered to all who hurriedly climb down the tree and welcome him in.  He seeks all, regardless of their qualifications according to the crowd outside, he invites himself to a time together with nourishment of body and spirit.

That didn’t stop with his death and resurrection.

We can welcome him to our tables anytime we want to.

Like Zacchaeus we need to move away from the distractions that crowd around us making it difficult to see where Jesus is and where he is leading.

We need to find a place of quiet on a regular basis where we can focus on seeing and hearing our Lord.  For some, a sycamore tree sounds like a terrific place for prayer and study, for others the kitchen table and a cup of coffee sound better.  It doesn’t matter where –  in the cab of your tractor, the lunch room where you work, the rocking chair in the baby’s room.  It matters that you go forward, out of the things that keep you from seeing Jesus, and set aside scheduled time to connect with God.

Zacchaeus didn’t stop there.  When he connected, he responded, immediately welcoming Jesus to join him..  He also reflected the love to others:  depending on the translation, either by repenting and repairing relationships where he had acted wrongly or by lifting the facts to those who judged him which reflected the reality it is God alone who knows our hearts and if Jesus is welcome in our home.

Jesus offers hospitality to Zacchaeus and to us by seeing who we are in Him.  We accept that hospitality by focusing on seeing and listening to His words and relationships with others and by extending hospitality to others, remembering to see each person as God sees them, not as our culture and tradition teach us to see them.

Salvation entered the house of Zacchaeus that day, not because the crowd thought it should, but because Jesus offered and Zacchaeus accepted.

Psalm 139 concludes:

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked[c] way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.[d]

Jesus knew the heart of Zacchaeus before he reached the bottom of that Sycamore tree.  Zacchaeus welcomed a relationship with him that leads to the way everlasting, and declared his commitment to serving others in a “Kingdom of God”, rather than a “Kingdom of Man” way.

As we offer hospitality to those around us.  This story offers us a model of how to welcome one another and how to create an environment of hospitality that inspires people to seek God and to value and encourage one another.

Many of you had responsibilities at the Fair this week.  You cooked, served, hosted people at exhibits, cleaned up, and enjoyed conversations with each other and the ones who stopped by.  Your demeanor, willingness to help and engage people you knew, as well as strangers, is a witness to God’s love and grace in your life.  People see Jesus in you as they see genuine care and desire to do all things with excellence and compassion.  When we truly have an interest in each other’s welfare, God’s abiding love is reflected and those having trouble seeing Jesus get a glimpse and in some instances a face-to-face encounter.

From providing EMS, to serving great food at a fair price from a Beef Booth, to 4-H exhibits and showing animals, how you interacted with one another and those you served at the Fair reflected your faith louder than any words you could share.

Hosting not only expresses God’s love, but opens us to receive a stranger or guest God sends our way to reveal something from God to us.  Henri Nouwen says in his book “Reaching Out,” Our vocation is to convert the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully experienced.

Hospitality is a strength of this congregation.  As we extend it to a wider part of our community, that strength with increase in ways that help us connect to those God is calling us to welcome, as we frequently welcome Jesus to our table, learning more and more about hosting from a Kingdom of God point of view.  Responding to Jesus’ gracious love and acceptance and extending it to all we encounter.


[1] Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, 177

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