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  • Writer's pictureFr. Gustavo

When Jesus went to dinner at Benedict Arnold's

Zacchaeus by Miura Hiroshi, 1934
"Zacchaeus," by Miura Hiroshi, 1934

One of the many sins of the Christian Church is that over the centuries a widening gap between the Jesus of the Gospel and the Jesus of the contemporary church has grown.

Through theology, the art, the rise of the age of reason, the selective picking and choosing of Scriptures and – it has to be said – the growing ignorance about what the Scriptures actually say, the Church has tried to sanitize and varnish Jesus. And in a way, perhaps we too have been somewhat – perhaps unaware – accomplices.

You see, on the one hand many have tried to “clean up” Jesus of his powers. Miracles are transformed into coincidences. Great deeds that may challenge some notions of traditional science are attributed not to Jesus but to gullible and ignorant followers of yesteryear – the poor things!

Even some theologians have proposed that even if, indeed, Jesus did some sort of miracles, it was done for during His own time. Now Jesus is enjoying retirement while modern man takes care of business.

On the other hand, Jesus has been romanticized and all references of Jesus being a pain in the back to organized religion have been either conveniently pinned to the “pharisees.” Or caramelized into Sunday School songs about the beautiful Jesus who loves the little children.

That Jesus was crucified – among other things – for being “the friend of sinners” has no relevance to a church who loves to sing “Amazing Grace.” And yet, some still look with disgust at those who cannot make the cut of their own standards of virtue, decency, and self-righteousness. For some have lost sight that “Jesus came to save the lost,” and not “The righteous who need no repentance.”

So, the story of Zacchaeus who pointedly was not the champion of decency is sanitized into Zacchaeus, who “Was a wee little man. And as the Savior passed that way, He looked up in the tree, And he said, ‘Zacchaeus you come down, For I'm going to your house today!’” The end.

Lost in the process was the kind of person that Jesus chose to lodge with. Zacchaeus, not only a tax collector, but the “Chief” tax collector.

Professor Dan Clendenin, in his webzine “Journey with Jesus,” tells us that Zacchaeus was “the sort of sleazeball person that we love to hate … ‘chief tax collector.’ That is, he was a Jew who collected taxes for the Roman oppressors. So, he was a traitor to the political cause” as well as his own people.

Not only he was just the Tax Man, further, as a Chief Tax Collector, he also took a cut from the small fry, which eventually meant that the taxpayer was squeezed not only once, but twice! As a result, no wonder that Zacchaeus was rich.

And Clendening adds, “How did a Roman tax collector get wealthy? By extortion and embezzlement. By taking advantage of the elderly, by exploiting the working poor, and by taking care of his cronies. There's an unspoken assumption of corruption here. Zacchaeus is a man who deserves our disdain.”

From the story we learn that Zacchaeus didn’t want to meet Jesus, just to check him out. A good question to ask, then, is to wonder why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus? “If Jesus had such a large following, somehow money should be involved, right?”

Our Gospel lesson ends in verse 10, however from the following verse (v. 11) we also learn that the crowds “thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.” For, as we know, the meeting with Zacchaeus was almost right at the door of Jerusalem and our Lord’s Palm Sunday entrance into the City. So, was Zacchaeus concerned about a possible “New Sheriff in Town” and what it would mean for him – and his business?

Luke doesn’t tell us about Zacchaeus’ motivation, but for sure, it was not spiritual! The conversion, as we know, came later.

And so, to the dismay and chagrin of the religious leaders of the day – and even perhaps to the astonishment to his own disciples – Jesus invites himself to have dinner with Zacchaeus. And let me stress this again – The conversion came later.

One could almost hear the leaders asking, “How could Jesus be worth listening if all He’s doing is cozying up to the wrong crowd?” “How could Jesus bring himself to lodge at a traitor’s home? Where not enough decent places for Jesus to stay?”

For, what kind of person in his right mind would go to have dinner with the Benedict Arnold of his day?

It is no wonder, then, that the religious leaders of the day dissed Jesus. For our Savior’s love and commitment to his mission was something that the religious leaders found not only distasteful but unacceptable. And still, some still do. And this is why the story has to be sanitized into the story of a “Wee little man.”

Why would Jesus had to go to have dinner with such sort?

For the same reasons that Jesus is still willing to invite himself to have dinner with us.

Writing in the late 1500s in his Second Book of Homilies, Bishop Jewell taught that, in the Sacraments, Jesus “embraces us and offers himself to be embraced by us.”

Whenever we receive the Body of Christ, Jesus is embracing us in His saving and redeeming love. But at the same time, when we extend our hands to receive the Bread of Heaven, in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist, God offers Himself to be embraced by us.

Let me suggest that it is not easy to accept God’s shocking and amazing love. As Christy Thomas, a “retired elder in the United Methodist church,” wonders, “What Jesus would do today with people who have made a total mess of their lives by stupid decisions and immoral behavior and lack of proper respect for the right way to do things. I have this strange sense that God loves them, too.”

What would Jesus do with people who think that they are better than Zacchaeus? What would Jesus do with people who cannot make sense of themselves – who they truly are? What would Jesus do with those who are shunned for believing that God’s outrageous love can reach them too? What would Jesus do with those who think that they are too far gone?

Just love them as He loves us – all of us – too. Love understood as the love of one from who I have no right to expect anything, not even the time of day, and yet gives me everything – even Himself. (Michael Card, Inexpressible: Hessed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness.)

And this is the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story of God’s amazing and reckless love for you and for me. A God who had no qualms to go and have dinner with the wrong crowds. And still does, every Sunday.

Let us pray: With eternal love, O God, you loved us – and you continue loving us until the end of time. Even as we have to reckon that we cannot understand how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and we can’t grasp such love that surpasses knowledge, please pour out your Spirit that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you, One God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Fr. Gustavo

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