This Sunday, Jesus Only Comes as the Uninvited Guest (But You Can Join Him Anytime)

Jesus goes from passerby to uninvited guest to the important, but short, Chief Tax Collector of Jericho on the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C.

And he will do that in our lives too, if we follow Zacchaeus’s example.

Jesus didn’t intend to stop in Jericho on his relentless road to Jerusalem. Why did he?

The beginning of Sunday’s Gospel passage from Luke gives a lot of information very compactly. It begins, “Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.” Jesus is on a mission, and those whom he meets on the way are not his ending point. In Luke’s Gospel, this mission is summed up as his long, single-minded journey to Jerusalem, to die for the sins of the world. That means his ultimate mission is the transformation of all humanity, not just the transformation of me.

Jericho is very close to Jerusalem, so what Jesus does there is significant to his final saving act. Luke tells us “a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was.” He was too short to see over the crowd, so he climbed a sycamore tree to get a better view.

Zacchaeus literally goes out on a limb for Jesus in an action rich with meaning. For a chief official to climb a tree is an act of humility. At the same time it’s an act of trying to raise himself higher. This is what we are supposed to do when Jesus passes by in our life. But let’s stay with Zacchaeus for now.

Jesus stops and looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Zacchaeus does exactly what he is told.

Jesus comes to Zacchaeus as an uninvited guest, and Zacchaeus agrees to welcome him on Jesus’s terms.

In Luke, this story comes shortly after the story of the rich young man who refused to leave his possessions for Jesus. He wanted to follow Jesus in his own way.

Not Zacchaeus. “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over,” he says. Zacchaeus does what the other rich man couldn’t, or wouldn’t. He gives everything away for Jesus. Half goes to the poor. The rest goes to fulfill, to the letter, the Old Testament law of restitution, which commands thieves to pay back four times what they owe to cover not just their theft, but to cover the losses that followed on that theft.

To “receive him with joy” like Zacchaeus, you first have to recognize that Jesus is passing through your neighborhood.

In the Second Reading, St. Paul writes to the Thessalonians regarding “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He has written to them about this before. He told them in his previous letter that the Lord “will come down from heaven” and that the dead will arise and “we who are alive … will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

Now, he wants them to be careful about false reports that this event is imminent. They are to prepare for Jesus’s coming on the Church’s terms, not their own.

What are the Church’s terms? For starters, the Church teaches that, though he will still come again definitively at the end of time, he is “passing by” right now. We see evidence of God’s presence all around us and learn both how small we are, and how much we matter. The First Reading, from the Book of Wisdom, puts it beautifully: “Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew.”

The Wisdom reading is remarkable in that it describes a philosophical understanding of how God holds all things in being. “For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made,” he says. “For what you hated, you would not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?”

That means God is in our neighborhood right now. A present-day Zacchaeus “seeking to see who Jesus was” will look to God in nature and learn that his worth comes from God, not the other way around. He will see Christ in all things and find, with St. Augustine, that the Lord is “higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self.”

The immensity of the universe should inspire repentance, as we see that God will “Rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord.”

But when Jesus comes to stay with you and me personally, it is often as the uninvited guest.

Jesus doesn’t always accept invitations in the Gospels. The people of Capernaum wanted him to stay and he said “No.” The Gerasene demoniac begged to join him on his journey, and Jesus said, “Your mission is to go home.” Just like in Jericho, Jesus passed by the Canaanite woman and the woman with the hemorrhage and had to be stopped in his tracks. Even after his resurrection, those who grasped at Jesus found that he slipped through their fingers.

But when Jesus does accept an invitation to “stay with us” in the Gospels, the story is very much like Zacchaeus’s, but with a twist. The disciples on the road to Emmaus beg him to stay, and Jesus does —  breaking bread with them at a table like Zacchaeus’s, but then disappearing, remaining only in the Eucharist.

In fact, this Sunday at Mass we will receive the same remarkable response Zacchaeus did.

Confession is the sacrament where we go out on a limb, humbling ourselves to raise ourselves higher for Jesus. Those who have received confession to prepare for the Eucharistic table have followed in Zacchaeus’s footsteps and at Mass will hear what he heard. Compare:

  • Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” At Mass, we will hear, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”
  • Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” At Mass, we will hear, “Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
  • In Sunday’s Gospel, the grumblers complain, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” At Mass we will agree, saying, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
  • In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” At Mass, we will hear, “Go forth, the Mass is ended,” or “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

The only way to stay close to the Uninvited Guest is to join him on his relentless journey to bring salvation to the whole world.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.