I imagine Zacchaeus was wondering the same thing. I imagine he had some anxiety about the encounter. Every Passover they set a place at the table just in case Elijah shows up. But did Zacchaeus and his family really expect it? Are we prepared for an uninvited dinner guest?
So let’s unpack this meal a bit.
Remember, Jesus was eating this meal in a very politically charged time. This simple meal had international implications. Like the indigenous First Nations people inviting the foreign imperialists to a meal. I imagine the awkward silences. The stares over the food. The wondering whether or not to trust the other. It was just a snapshot, just a meal. But it meant so much more than that. So much that we still find ourselves contemplating cross-cultural encounters every fourth Thursday in November.
Jesus met Zacchaeus on the Jericho road. I need to say a few things about Jericho and its relationship to Jerusalem. Jericho represents the secular and Jerusalem represents the Sacred, at least in Biblical understanding. Jericho is the place of the pagans, the outsiders. Jerusalem is the place of the holy. So much of life happens on the Jericho road, somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho.
Jericho is down in the valley, near the river Jordan. These days it’s about an hour and half drive from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a city built on a hill. God was seen at Jerusalem, but trade and commerce happened in the strategic town of Jericho. If you were on the Jericho road you were between Jerusalem and Jericho—that place between the sacred and secular. Some of our tables are like that. Somewhere in between. With two political parties at the same table. Two versions of the truth.
These days, warring factions are on the Jericho Road. Jericho is controlled by the Palestinians while the shrinking area around it and on the way to Jerusalem are being swallowed up by the Jewish state of Israel.
That is the tradition as old as the Hebrew Bible. When Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, he was a conquering general making the city crumble with his might.
King Zedekiah, the last of the kings of Judah who lived in Jerusalem before it was taken over, was captured by the Babylonian army on the Jericho road as he fled his place of security, the walled city of Jerusalem. It was there on the Jericho road that he had to watch his sons executed. Then his own eyes were plucked out.
When Elijah passed his mantle to Elisha, it happened in Jericho.
When John the Baptist was doing his Baptism thing, he was doing it in the river Jordan, just outside of Jericho.
The Bible depicts Jericho as the place of confusion, of divided loyalties, of suspect agendas. From a Jerusalem perspective, if you were from Jericho, you are not to be trusted. I am sure it worked the other way around too. Jerichonians had plenty of reason not to trust the religious/political ethos of Jerusalem.
So naturally, Jesus went to Jericho. It was at Jericho that he met blind Bartimeus. It was at Jericho that Jesus met the rich young ruler. And it was at Jericho that Jesus encountered Zacchaeus. And after his lunch with Zacchaeus, he heads uphill to Jerusalem where all hell will break loose. But to get there, he had to go through Jericho.
But Jesus does something different when he gets onto the Jericho road.
Jesus does not come to Jericho to destroy or overthrow. Jesus does not come to Jericho to decide who is in and who is out. Jesus comes to tell parables and have us make up our own minds about our role in this world. A good parable will make people confront not only Jesus’ words, but their own inner demons.
Such is the art of a good story-teller. The stories are woven into our fabric and we are left to pnder the substance of our lives.
Zacchaeus symbolized all of the conflicting loyalties, all of the mistrust, all of the self-hating and other-hating that is so prevalent in this world. Jesus did not tell Zacchaeus to repent. Jesus sat down at his house and respected him as a person—something few had even attempted.
My friend and mentor George Williamson reflected on Zacchaeus in this way:
“Zacchaeus lived in Jericho where he represented the colonial power and made himself rich in their behalf. Jesus took Zacchaeus the way his ancestors had taken Zacchaeus’ town; not by direct attack, but by surrounding him, by waiting with God for the walls to come a tumblin’ down…Thus Jesus ended his ministry as he had begun it, breaking the purity laws by sharing table fellowship with a tax collector…
“There’s not a person here who isn’t like Zacchaeus, seduced by some system of meanness into serving yourself at others’ expense. Most of us serve in the system of gossip, pumping ourselves up by putting others down in hostile, slanderous conversation. Some of us parents use our hierarchical power for emotional benefit against our kids. Some of us kids use our subversive emotional leverage to get from our parents, at their expense, not so much what we authentically need, but what we greedily want. We upper middle-class types can enjoy the exploitation of the poor without ever having to call it that or ever even witnessing a single incidence of class oppression.
To you I say, Jesus wants to share table fellowship with you. What you do with this gracious presence of Jesus in your particular life is not for me to say. All I know is that Jesus, standing in for God, has surrounded you with overwhelming, unconditional and utterly selfless love.” (From an August 4, 1996 sermon entitled “Liberated Jesus and the Tax Collectors”)
This Thanksgiving, whether we are in our own home or on some Jericho road, remember that we eat alongside people who love us and who try, at our best, to model Jesus’ mission of love and acceptance. And for one meal, we might give thanks for the gift of coming together. We might remember those who have gone before. We might remember the challenge that it is to open our tables up to another—showing all of our hospitality and risking exposing our demons. But demons lose their grip when exposed. They can get downright surrounded by love, even redeemed.
So this Thanksgiving, why not give yourself and your guests the gift of calmness. Remember that it is a grace to gather with loved ones. Remember that it takes a lot for people to come to tables. And remember those less fortunate. Remember the one who sat at table with a supposed enemy. And because of that meal with a known oppressor, Zacchaeus responded with generosity.
I’m not saying that we can make people be generous or guilty or gracious even when we think they really should be. What we do know is that how we approach each other will say something about our priorities. May we approach our guests and our hosts like Jesus approached Zacchaeus. Not as a know-it-all, not as a moralist, but as a fellow sojourner on the Jericho Road.
Who knows, maybe the walls of fear, mistrust and dysfunction will come a tumblin’ down. And maybe we’ll build from that rubble the foundation of a new community, a beloved community, thankful for the message and witness of our savior.