When I was seven years old, my parents took me to London to see the sights. It was a big deal: as the baby of the family I rarely got my parents to myself. Among the usual tourist attractions that we visited was the obligatory witnessing of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I don’t have many memories of that vacation, but I do remember being in the crowd and not being able to see ANYTHING because I only came up to most people’s waists. I remember the frustration of being surrounded by a wall of raincoats (of course it was raining), followed by the thrill of being lifted up onto my father’s shoulders and getting a clear view of what today I can only call the liturgy of the guard. It wasn’t fun, being small in a crowd.
Zacchaeus was a small man. He was small and he was unpopular: not a good combination when you’re out in public. No wonder he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a tree so he could watch, unobserved, as Jesus came by. Nobody ever really saw Zacchaeus: they saw the chief tax collector, the lackey of the hated occupiers, a man who handled coinage with the image of the emperor, a man who profited from the misery of his neighbors. So he didn’t want the crowd to see him, because all they would see was the enemy. He didn’t expect to be seen, let alone greeted warmly.
But Jesus saw him. Jesus looked where other people didn’t look, and he saw the man other people didn’t see: the small man with the expensive clothes, hiding in a tree because of the shame he carried, the shame of who people perceived him to be, shame that imprisoned him in a lonely and fearful existence.
Brené Brown is a scholar of shame. She speaks extensively about the corrosive effect that shame has on the human soul, and she makes this distinction between shame and guilt:
Guilt is what we feel when we know we’ve done something bad.
Shame is what we feel when we believe we ARE something bad.
Shame is the fear that we are not good enough. Zacchaeus knew he wasn’t good enough to be with his neighbors; he knew he wasn’t good enough to approach Jesus; he knew, as the Psalm puts it, that he was small and despised.
Shame is an epidemic in our world. Abused children know shame. Closeted LGBT people know shame. People suffering from mental illness know shame. Girls and women with unfashionable body types know shame. Shame cripples and corrodes. It makes us out to be less than we truly are, stunts our spiritual growth, prevents creativity and courage, cuts us off from community, enslaves and isolates us. But we know that our God is a God of liberation, not of captivity. And God does not mean for us to live in shame.
So, Jesus sees Zacchaeus. He sees a son of Abraham, no different than all the sons and daughters of Abraham who surround him on the road. He sees, not the hated tax collector, but the beloved child of God, made in God’s image, shunned by his neighbors, trapped in an unhealthy lifestyle; lost, and unable to find his own way home. Jesus sees him and he calls him by name. What power there is in being called by name! It tells Zacchaeus that Jesus really sees him; that in spite of the shame, in spite of who he is and what he has done, Jesus wants to be in relationship with him. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, join your neighbors, allow me into your home so that we may sit together at table.” I wonder how long it’s been since anyone voluntarily crossed the threshold of the chief tax collector’s house?
In the face of this empathy and kindness, the shame starts to melt away, and courage takes its place. Zacchaeus forgets his fear and scrambles down the tree, eager to be worthy of the invitation. He is only too happy to offer hospitality, and he goes further, offering to give away half of his possessions and make whole – more than whole – those he has cheated. Freed from shame, Zacchaeus is moved by gratitude to generosity and amendment of life.
To be seen, called by name, and invited into relationship: this is what we all long for. And Jesus offers these gifts freely, indiscriminately, to the right people and to the wrong people alike. The key that unlocks our prisons of shame is relationship, and Jesus has a keen eye for those prison cells. He goes out of his way to find the little people, the invisible ones, the ones who live on the margins and in the shadows, the ones who know they aren’t worthy of inclusion until someone tells them they are worthy. Each of us might sometimes be Zacchaeus in the tree, and each of us might sometimes stand in for Jesus, looking up and out from the warmth of community to beckon to those on the edges.
In this season of discernment around our individual giving, it’s worth noting that when Jesus frees Zacchaeus from shame he also frees him from anxiety, specifically around money. The gratitude Zacchaeus feels for being called by Jesus expresses itself in generosity. Luke makes a point of telling us that Zacchaeus is rich. It’s not hard to see that, if he gives away half his possessions and makes fourfold restitution for the fraud he has committed, he’s probably not going to be rich any more. The relief of having that burden of shame lifted, of finding that he does have a place in the community, that he does have value as a human being; all that relief changes his priorities, allows him to loosen his grip on material wealth in order to be in right relationship with his neighbors.
Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. It’s not so great being the wealthiest guy in the room if you are spiritually lost. Zacchaeus was lost, but he found the courage to look for Jesus, and when he did that, he discovered that Jesus was looking for him, that he was needed and welcomed, that he had something of value to offer. And gratitude for this love and acceptance led this little man to turn his life around, and to be generous.
The Pharisees who hung around Jesus got very uncomfortable when he reached out to the wrong people. They believed that contact with people who weren’t ritually clean, people like tax collectors, spread the uncleanness. But Jesus took the opposite approach. For Jesus, it wasn’t impurity that was contagious, but purity. His contact with what we might call the deplorables of his time caused them to experience health, caused them to be transformed and to live in joy and gratitude.
Our world is full of little people, people who go unnoticed and unappreciated, acknowledged only as types rather than individuals: a homeless man, a refugee, a store clerk, a gardener. What might happen if we made a point of seeing them, of learning their names, of acknowledging their worth as individuals? What cleansing breezes might blow through our culture if every person felt seen and valued? How might we spread the contagion of freedom and generosity?
Jesus calls to each of us by name. He calls us out of our hiding places, out of our shame, out of our fear and anxiety. He calls us into the light, into community and relationship, and he invites us lovingly to share our resources and live into the fullness of life in him.
October 30, 2016
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges