It strikes me this morning that one of the reasons that homilies might be so unsatisfying, aside from the old “familiarity breeds contempt” dictum, is that American clergy, like the rest of us, are so fixated on the individual. We pay lip service to community, but we seem, perhaps fundamentally and irrevocably, to have lost our genuine connection to a community that baptism seeks to restore in a sacramental way. Water, we believe, is actually “thicker” than blood. But after Freud and Dr. Phil and a thousand high school psychology classes, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson movies, we can’t get past “me,” the rugged individual, the self-made person, the loner, the drifter, the hero. You hear this subtly in the way preachers tend to preach about the Zacchaeus story as a story of personal conversion, and less subtly as week after week they change the corporate and cultic prayer from “The Lord be with you” (vobiscum, plural) to “the Lord be with each and every one of you” (painfully singular), and make individualistic changes in cultic texts out of some sense of presbyteral entitlement which has no fundament in liturgical principle or law. The repeated anti-ritual focus on “each and every one of you” recalls the markedly un-Catholic notion of individual salvation, the “personal Lord and Savior,” who is indeed a person but who has saved all humanity forever equally, at once, and as one. The path of life is a highway, not a foot trail, through the wilderness.
It comes out loud and clear in the approach we've all heard to the Zacchaeus pericope. The story was about the individual conversion of Zacchaeus to Jesus, we have been told, and his changing his ways. But the text doesn’t necessarily support this. Luke the evangelist is always concerned about the insider-outsider mentality, and in this story, it’s the rich sinner who is the outsider. To Luke, it is the crowd, and not Zacchaeus, which is in the wrong. The murmuring of the crowd suggests that, as in other stories of insider-outsider in Luke, the crowd is making a false accusation, “he has gone to eat in the house of a sinner.” But inside his own house, with Jesus present and the crowd outside, Zacchaeus “stood his ground”! “I give half of my belongings to the poor,” he says, and “if I have defrauded anyone I pay them back fourfold.” This kind of lavish redress, as you can see if you can count, will not work for long if one has defrauded many people. The obvious upshot is that the crowd has made a bad judgment on Zacchaeus, and it is they who need to change their hearts. “Salvation has come to this house” because Zacchaeus has indeed tried to keep the covenant in a complex and unjust world. He and Jericho need to come to some reconciliation, all need to move toward a new truth. Like Jesus, who is on the road to Jerusalem and his own encounter with the demands of his integrity with the covenant, Jericho and one of its wealthier citizens are on a road that is an opportunity for transformation at the very moment of crisis.
All that aside, the implied hospitality of at least dinner with Zacchaeus reminds us of the centrality of eating in the gospel narrative, and always the communal meal, people dining together. You don’t need me to reiterate the ubiquitous Catholic lamenting the loss of the family dinner. That, I think, is a symptom of our pathological individuality, not the cause of it. The gospel mindset, coming from the Middle Eastern world, is that the extended family is a given. Hospitality to travelers, particularly countrymen, is part of the law, but hardly had to be. In order to assure the survival of self and family, some kind of order needed to be maintained that put a high premium on hospitality. In a hostile desert environment, to be separated from the group, whether family or village, was a death sentence. Meal-sharing in the desert culture was literally the sharing of life. Not only were meals nourishment for bodies, but bonds between people, social and religious bonds, were nourished as well. Hospitality to strangers was offered out of a sense of solidarity: “once you were strangers and aliens,” they were reminded, and the tradition of hospitality among peoples of the Middle East endures to this day.
Just look over the last eight weeks or so of gospels we’ve heard from the lectionary on Sunday. One gospel was set at a sabbath meal in a Pharisee’s house; in another we had the accusation that “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” followed by three parables, each of which has a celebration (by implication this means food was share) at its center, including the slaughtering of a fatted calf in the final parable. The parable on September 29 was about the rich man and Lazarus, which included a reference to the table habits of each. October 6 had a reference to service at table by masters for slaves; next Sunday’s reference was, of course, to the meal at Zacchaeus’s house. From the first time we meet Jesus (in a manger, a feeding trough) to the post-resurrection stories in Luke at Emmaus and on the beach in Galilee, Jesus is shown by Luke to be in the life- and solidarity-affirming context of the meal to proclaim by his presence and word the arrival of the empire of God.
As I say, I feel that the loss of family meals in our culture is a symptom of the loss of solidarity among us. We’ve been seduced by the myth of the frontier, of private property, of the self-made man and the American dream. We are so busy pursuing our individual schedules and driving our overscheduled kids to the circus of activities that will make them successful adults that we’ve all but abandoned family meals and created the demand for fast food. Now we’re beginning to see, thanks to the light-hearted muckraking of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and cinematic documentaries like Supersize Me and King Corn, that our diet is threatening both to kill our bodies and turn the biodiverse ecology of the United States into a monoculture of poisoned corn.
So what’s the lesson here? I guess I’m not sure. Among the many activities of Jesus reported in the gospel, exorcisms, healer, miracle-worker, one of the most commonly cited of his activities, actively or in his speech, is that of eating. Our very act of remembering the meaning of Jesus’s life and death is encapsulated in the weekly sharing of a ritual meal. If our not eating together is a symptom of a social breakdown and lack of communal cohesion, can the disease be reversed by treating the symptom? I guess I feel inadequate to the task even of pursuing the question. Maybe if I can just get up into this sycamore tree, I can get a better view...