You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Revelation 3: 17-18
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Luke 19: 5-10
As we read from chapter three of the Book of Revelation today, we hear the words: “I know your works, that you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” (Rev. 3:1). Although drowsy this morning from a fairly bad case of jet lag after a very long trip, I was startled into wakefulness by this verse. We human beings live our lives out of any number of conscious and unconscious agenda. We are forever giving form to our lives and acting out our days for the sake of our projects of the moment. From the point of view of our individual projects and agenda, others and the world are but objects to be manipulated toward our end. Often we take the strength of our own agenda and the force that we employ to attain its ends to be the measure of life. The more successful we feel in imposing our ends and our means onto the world and the life of others, the more “alive” we feel. The greater and more powerful we are recognized as being, the greater reputation and status we have, the more we can feel a certain kind of fulfillment. Macchiavelli describes the human experience accurately when he says that is is better for the ruler to be feared than loved, if it is impossible to be both. From the perspective of Nietzsche that human encounter is a meeting of power with power, dominance is dependent on one’s capacity to evoke fear in others. But Revelation reminds us that the sense of “living” that comes from power, dominance, greed, and lust is actually death. To live by power, wealth, and acquisitiveness is to be wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
This is precisely why the disposition of hospitality is so central in the spiritual life. The mode of relating to the world that is truly life-giving is not that of power and control but rather that of hospitality. Throughout the scriptures it is hospitality that creates the space for the Mystery, the Lord, to enter in the person of the stranger. In the mode of power, the other in all its forms is but an object to be manipulated for the sake of our own ends. To live in this way, however, is failing even to be open to, let alone present to, “the source of all life.” The truth is that the world and so every person and thing in it is in a prior relationship to their relationship to us as individuals. They are first of all a relationship with the source of their being, with God. Thus, they are always a bearer of mystery, of new life, to us.
The story of Zacchaeus that we read today wonderfully exemplifies this truth. Although short in stature, Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector; he is a big and powerful person in his field. Yet, when he hears that Jesus is coming, he, in a very childlike way, climbs a tree in order to see him. Catching a glimpse of Jesus is so important to him that he doesn’t even consider how foolish he may look, and so how his authority and power to make others fearful, may be compromised by his behavior. Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, is willing to share a meal and his life with Zacchaeus, because Zacchaeus, in an act of hospitality, vulnerably opens his whole life to Jesus; he “received him with joy.”
Consistent with the tension that Luke always provides between those who are open to life and those who are not, the so-called religious people grumble about Jesus’ propensity to associate himself with sinners. These “hyper-orthodox” are those whose sense of life is dependent on asserting their own power by their diminishing of others. In light of the Revelation passage, we could say that the entire gospel is a contrast between those who appear to be alive, powerful and righteous, but are dead and those who are dead to the values of the world and society but are alive. This is the significance of Zacchaeus’ promising to give away his wealth and possessions in order to create a place in himself to receive the life that Jesus offers.
Any story of conversion, like that of Zacchaeus, is s story of “respect,” which in its etymology suggests “looking again or anew.” The mode of power and control is a way of being that works to conform the others and the world to our own view of them. We constitute them as we see or understand them. This way of being is truly lifeless, because it is unable to change or expand its vision. The powerful image of Zacchaeus’ running ahead and climbing of the sycamore tree represents the desire to see what we are now not yet able to see. It is a reminder that our perspective is severely limited and that the world, as related first to God, is so much more than we can see or comprehend at any given moment. A wonderful pastor at our local church many years ago would always follow the prayers of petition with a prayer that asserted that God “always hears and answers us, sometimes in ways we can’t understand and can’t comprehend.” This prayer is a reflection of one who is deeply alive, because life is not confined to one’s own stance. The short stature of Zacchaeus is a symbol of the limitations of our perspective and understanding.
Any human being with authority and so power over others must truly live in the “fear and trembling” that recognizes possibility of abuse that comes from our human limitations. To cease to always live in a humility that respects all of the life that we cannot understand and comprehend is a requisite for us, if we are not to harm others with our authority. What distinguishes Jesus from the authorities who reject him is his inclusivity. He is open to everyone who desires to come to him. He is, in that sense, hospitable to all, the so-called “sinners” no less than the righteous. This is because, unlike the Pharisees, he recognizes that every single person is a unique relationship to God before their relationship to him. This, I believe, is what Pope Francis means when he says, “Who am I to judge?” In truth, he says, the other’s relationship to God is mystery to me. So, my proper stance before the other person is respect, not judgment.
Spiritual teaching is always, to various degrees, counter-intuitive to the ways of the ego and the values of society. In the pre-transcendent view, it is the exercise and practice of power that makes us feel alive. It is our domination of others and control of our world that makes us feel significant. Today we are reminded that this apparent life, however, is really death. Life is seen in the vulnerable and what to the world would be the embarrassing or shameful behavior of Zacchaeus in running ahead and climbing the sycamore tree “in order to see Jesus.” He knew that in his customary stance of “chief tax collector” he would not be able to see Jesus, for Jesus comes only when we abandon our own need to dominate and control and hospitably welcome the uncontrollable into our lives. The scriptures repeatedly remind us that we practice this when we make room for the guest, especially, perhaps, the unwanted and foreign one.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that “time is greater than space.” He writes: “Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces… What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.” We need such a reminder because we human persons always have a tendency toward the preferring of space and power over that of time and processes. We can want to preserve and dominate our spaces, our institutions, our communities, our nations rather than opening to the ongoing creative processes in time that is the bearer and revealing of being.
Zacchaeus finds life in living out of his smallness rather than his apparent power. it is the fact that he is “short in stature” that becomes the way to demonstrate to Jesus his desire and openness. In climbing the sycamore tree, he expresses to Jesus and to all there the depths of his desire for true life. It is to this that Jesus, that the Mystery of God’s life, shows itself. In the face of such hospitality and vulnerability, the Lord is compelled to come to us. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for I must stay at your house.” Hospitality is not just a social grace; it is a requisite for truly living. Without it, we are, while having a reputation for being alive, actually dead.
But if that is true of us, if our first relationships with that energy that made us and sustains us in being, then, of course, when I look around, my neighbour is also always somebody who is already in a relation with God before they’re in a relation with me. That means that there’s a very serious limit on my freedom to make of my neighbor what I choose, because, to put it very bluntly, they don’t belong to me, and their relation to me is not all that is true of them, or even the most important thing that is true of them. That’s true of everything in the world in a certain sense — which is one reason why there’s a good Christian ground for being concerned about the environment. But it’s true in a very intense sense of other persons, who see me as I see them, who related to me and affect me as I relate to and affect them. I’m not on my own and I can’t pretend that the basic form of my relations with the world is this little atom here controlling and mapping and planning all those other little atoms out there. I’m seen, I’m engaged with, and before even human engagement and visions that relationship with God at the root of everything.
This is one of the most fundamental differences between an individualist and a personalist perspective on our lives as a particular people and our lives as a society.
Rowan Williams, Being Human, p. 37