Genuine hospitality is a social art. It might also be characterized as an intricate dance. Both partners have to know the steps, but they also have to be able to feel the rhythm of the other. They have to know when to move forward, and how far; they have to know when to step back, and to what extent. And they have to know how fast to move. The host generously offers the use of something; the guest gratefully accepts the offer. If either one acts too fast or too slowly, they might end up stepping on each other’s toes. Being invited to someone’s home is also a sign of one’s standing in the community. We don’t all get invitations to the White House, and few of us host celebrities or dignitaries.
In several ways today’s Gospel story redefines the protocol of hospitality. Whether he was honest or not, Zacchaeus was paid by the occupying Romans, and his business made him unacceptable in the eyes of many. No self-respecting Jew would think of being a guest in the home of such a sinner. This does not bother Jesus. In fact, he disregards the protocol of hospitality and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home. He is leading in the dance, and he is changing the steps as he goes.
On the surface, this is an account about hospitality; and Zacchaeus, the host, should lead in the dance. A closer look shows that this is really an offer of salvation, and in such circumstances the initiative is always God’s. So Jesus offers salvation; Zacchaeus then offers hospitality; Jesus accepts hospitality; and Zacchaeus is granted salvation.
God’s willingness to reach out to the sinner is also seen in the reading from Wisdom. The author first maintains that the immensity of the entire universe is minuscule when compared with the magnificence of the creator. Furthermore, it is this creator who shows mercy toward sinners. And why does God show mercy? “For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.”
The love of which the author speaks is not the passion associated with eros or the friendship identified as philía, but the wholehearted commitment of agápe. God’s mercy flows from this kind of love. The graciousness, mercy and compassion of God are praised in today’s psalm as well. It is with these sentiments that God calls us to salvation and invites us to make ourselves at home.