Today we’re going to take a stroll through the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus, the tax collector. It is found in Luke 19:1-10. The story begins with this curious statement: Jesus intended to pass through the town (Jericho). So, even Jesus changed his plans sometimes. What made him change his plans here? We soon find out. It is a person. It is Zacchaeus. (We too probably change our plans mostly because of a person or persons, not so?)
Then Zacchaeus is introduced. We learn he is a tax collector. Although a Jew, he is in cahoots with the detested occupational forces, namely, the Romans. No wonder he is hated by his fellow Jews! And we learn he is not just any tax collector. He is a chief tax collector. He rose in the ranks. How? By being good at what he did. He collected those taxes for those Romans no matter what. No hard luck story would warm the cockles of his heart. He accepted no excuses. You paid what you owed or else! The Romans must have loved this guy!
(Confession: I’m getting tired of typing Zacchaeus! So I’m going to call him Zack.) Zack was short in stature. That genetic happenstance plays into the story. He came to see Jesus–probably out of curiosity–and because he’s short, he can’t see Jesus. And no one in that crowd is going to say to this pariah, “Oh, Zack! Come and stand here in front of me so you can see Jesus!” No. So quick-thinking Zack, the loner, scrambles up a nearby tree, a sycamore tree. (Scripture scholar Lee Magness says it was not an actual sycamore tree, but a fig tree. In Greek the word fig has the same lexical root as the word sukaphanies, meaning defrauder or extortioner–which Zack was when he climbed that tree!) The point is, by telling us what kind of tree it was, Luke “roots” this story in reality. This story happened in a real place (Jericho), with real people (Jesus and Zack), and with a real tree (a sycamore/fig). This is no fairy tale! (Here’s another thought: When you are “up a tree,” do you seek out Jesus? What about when you’re not up a tree? Do you still seek out Jesus? Good questions for Advent.)
As Jesus passes, he notices Zack perched in that tree. How could he miss him? I bet seeing him in that tree made Jesus smile. Then Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” I could say something about every word in that sentence. But let me focus on these few. First, Jesus calls him by name. How did he know who he was? Probably the same way we all get to know people in our midst who are loners, shunned, not welcome in our circles. Jesus would have heard the rumors too. Zack’s bad reputation preceded him.
But Jesus looks up at Zack and tells him to come down quickly. He’s saying, “Come to me, Zack. I’d like to meet you eye-to-eye.” (Does Jesus say similar words to us?) Then Jesus adds, “for I must stay at you house.” Wow! The word must denotes an urgency. And talk about being forward! Jesus invites himself to dinner–and more. He invites himself into Zack’s house, that is, into his life. (Is Jesus doing the same for us? Do we welcome him into our whole house–or are there some “rooms” in our house that we have decided are “off limits” to Jesus? )
Zack scurries down that tree, brushes off his expensive robes, and proudly walks beside Jesus, leading him to his house. I picture the crowd stepping aside so this “odd couple” can pass by. I can hear them grumbling: “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner. Tsk! Tsk!” I bet Jesus lost a number of followers that day. Some would have concluded: “He can’t be much of a prophet or even a holy man. Lookie! He openly associates with sinners! The very idea!” They all probably knew the old maxim: A man is known by the company he keeps.
Next, there’s a glaring omission in this story. There’s no indication of what Jesus and Zack talked about during their time together! And I, for one, want to know–especially what Jesus said or what he did that turned Zack’s life completely around–180 degrees! What happened at that dinner table that changed him from a cold-hearted, conniving, selfish tax collector into a kind-hearted, generous, sorry-for-my-sins, I’ll-make-things-right-again kind of guy? In short, what turned Zack into a good and happy person? We know the answer. It was Jesus. It was Jesus being Jesus.
There’s one more thing that touches me in this story. At the end, Jesus highlights Zacchaeus’ amazing transformation: “Today salvation has come into this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” It’s that little word seek. Yes, we seek God, we seek Jesus. But our seeking pales in comparison to the Divine Seeking of God for each one of us. In that truth lies our salvation!
We might want to ask ourselves: where are we in this story? We may not be in cahoots with the devil, but we can all relate to Zacchaeus. We fall short. (Pun intended). We don’t live up to our ideals. We become cold-hearted at times. Or perhaps we feel shunned like Zack. No matter where we find ourselves today, hopefully we are retaining our curiosity about Jesus–about his life, his teachings, his way. Or maybe we’re in the crowd, judging others, even ostracizing them whom we have labeled as no good, lost, unworthy of our attention, care, or even prayer. Or maybe (hopefully at times!) we’re Jesus–in those moments we willingly change our plans because someone we encounter needs our attention and love.
What stands out for you in the story of Zacchaeus?
Where are you in the story?
Is there anything you would add to this reflection?
Our song today revolves around that word seek: “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.” And where is that Kingdom? It is within us… and among us… May we all be given the eyes to see what and whom we seek…
I welcome your comments, additions, insights below…
Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is the season of the church year that celebrates dreams and miracles. The dry parched desert can burst into a field of poppies and forget-me-nots… Helpless little lambs can snuggle next to mighty ferocious lions… A wild scrawny man dressed in animal hides and munching on grasshoppers can cry out in the wilderness, “REPENT!” and large crowds can listen to his rantings and be dramatically changed… And a young girl, living unnoticed in Podunk, can answer “yes” to an impossible Divine Request and conceive a child who will turn her life and the whole world upside down.
The readings of Advent give testimony to all of these remarkable things. Maybe that’s one reason so many of us are drawn to them. For they tell us: What you see is not all there is. What you assume is the end, is actually the beginning. What you hear is not the final word. What you desire in the deepest recesses of your heart can still be. The incredible things God has done in the past, God is doing in the present. Right now. And God will continue to do such unbelievable things into the future–no matter how bleak, dark, or hopeless our present time may seem.
But there’s a catch. God needs us. God needs us to help make these dreams come true, to help work these impossible miracles. In the past, God needed an Isaiah to keep the vision of hope alive before God’s people. God needed a John the Baptist to proclaim the message of returning to God. And God needed a Mary to dare to say “yes” to God’s request as no other handmaid before her had ever done. So Advent is not a time to set up permanent residence in comforting readings that promise a better future. No, it is a time to partner with God wherever we may find ourselves this Advent to help bring about that better future for which we long.
How do we do this? The ways are countless. They are limited only by our imagination and resolve. Many of these ways are mighty deeds though they may seem to be pitifully small. Allow me to suggest a few.
+ The refrain for Advent is, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Perhaps we can make this refrain our mantra this Advent as we go about our day. When we first crawl out of bed in the morning, we can say, “Come, Lord Jesus into my entire day. The easy parts, the nice parts, the fun parts. But also, Lord Jesus, come into the messy parts, the unpleasant parts, the difficult parts.” And when we crawl back into bed in the evening, we can say, “Come Lord, Jesus. Give me rest and strength this night so I may partner with you again tomorrow.”
+ Choose one way to make your small world a better place. Do this by following Jesus’ way of unselfish loving. Speak kindly to others. All others. Sometimes we’re kinder to total strangers than we are to the people we live and work with every day. Sometimes we’re kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Overlook some things. Go the extra mile. Where there is little or no love, put love and there will be love.
+ Your attention is a valuable gift. Find ways you can give your attention to someone in your life who is overlooked, taken for granted, living on the margins. It can be a family member… a co-worker… a friend… a neighbor… a pastor… a store clerk… an overworked parent… a shut-in… a caregiver… Simply ask yourself: Who is in need of a gentle word, a “thank you,” a smile, a compliment, a note, a phone call, a visit, an offer to help? In English we use the phrase “pay attention.” There’s always a small price to pay when we focus our attention on someone else.
And finally, my prayer for all of us this Advent 2023 is this:
Come, Lord Jesus! May the readings of Advent bring us great consolation. May they encourage us to dream for a better world. May they strengthen us to partner with you to bring about that better world we hope for. Give us a greater appreciation for the miracle of your life of selfless loving, a miracle we can share in every day. This Advent rekindle in us the deepest longings of our hearts for love, peace, goodness, beauty, and truth. Come, Lord Jesus, come! Amen.
Did anything stand out for you in today’s reflection?
Do you like the season of Advent? Why or why not?
How do you plan on celebrating or observing Advent this year?
Our song today is the Advent/Christmas song, “Beyond the Moon and Stars” by Dan Schutte. It captures so beautifully our longing for God… for peace… for light in the darkness.
I encourage you to write a comment below. Our readers will love hearing from you! Thank you!
Deborah Meister, a writer and artist in St. Louis, MO, tells this true story. She was in the church parking lot before Mass one Sunday and overheard a child arguing with his parents. “But I don’t want to go to church,” he cried. “It’s boring!” She wondered if the father would drag his son kicking and screaming into the church. Instead, the father said to the boy, “I’m going into church to say thank you to God, because God has given us so many wonderful things that aren’t boring,” and he began to list them. The boy listened. Then he began to smile, took his father’s hand, and walked into the church.
This father could have been a scripture scholar, for he captured the essence of the Third Commandment in words his little son could understand. We “keep holy the Lord’s Day” by gathering together in community to give thanks to God for all the blessings we have received. A corollary to our thanksgiving is this: we take time to relax and enjoy the company of family and friends–whether that means staying longer at the dinner table, watching a football game or movie, playing games, going for a walk, visiting an elderly relative, going to a museum, or sitting around a fire pit in the evening.
If you ask Catholics why they go to Mass every week, you will probably get a wide range of answers: “I go because I have to… I go to show my love for Jesus… I go to get strength to deal with my problems and worries… I go to be with friends and other believers… I go to be inspired by the prayers, the scripture, the homily, the music.” These all may be true, but it is good to remember we go to give thanks to God for all our blessings. In fact, the very word Eucharist means Thanksgiving.
Do we ever take time, perhaps while we’re waiting for Mass to begin or some other time during the day, to list some of the blessings of the past week that we are grateful for? Our prayer could be simple. Here’s a sample of what our thanks might look like. It’s pretty generic, so you can fill in your specifics to make it your own:
Thank you, God, for my spouse… my children… my parents… my siblings… my friends… Thank you, God, for my job… my house… the wide variety of food we have… Thank you, God, for health… for our parish community… for the freedoms we enjoy in this country… Thank you, God, for your amazing creation, this beautiful earth… our magnificent sun… for clean air, life-sustaining water… for trees, flowers, animals of all kinds, and our entire earth community… and thank you, God, for my precious and unique gift of life… for the talents you have given me… and for the gift of my faith. I thank you for the hard things too, God–those things that make me stronger, more humble, more compassionate toward others, more trusting of you… And I thank you for giving us Jesus, your son… and all the love he poured out on us through his life, teachings, and sacrifice on the cross. For all these blessings I give you thanks, my good and gracious God. Amen.
I want to wish all of you and your loved ones
a very Happy Thanksgiving!
And I send out a BIG THANK YOU for reading my blog!
And I include a special thanks to those of you
who write comments below–whether regularly or occasionally!
For reflection: What are you most grateful for this Thanksgiving?
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Last Monday we launched our new and improved version of my blog, “Sunflower Seeds.” All of you should have received or will be receiving: 1) an email from me announcing the launch, 2) the new blog in your email if you are a subscriber. We are still having a few glitches with that subscriber system, and our tech people are working to fix it. But I want to thank Lina (in Oklahoma) and Alayna (in New Jersey) for all their work with the new design, for getting the blog up and running, and for “training” me on how to navigate the new system. If any problems persist, I will address them for you on this blog. Stay tuned! And thanks again for your patience!
Our video is the beautiful song from Godspell, “All Good Gifts.” I hope you enjoy the song and the visuals!
You are invited to leave a comment below… My readers and I enjoy hearing from readers like you!
This is the first paragraph in Frank Bruni’s book The Beauty of Dusk:
They say that death comes like a thief in the night. Lesser vandals have the same MO. The affliction that stole my vision, or at least a big chunk of it, did so as I slept. I went to bed seeing the world one way. I woke up seeing it another.
During that fateful night, Bruni suffered a stroke that cut off the blood supply to one of his optic nerves, severely damaging the sight in that eye. The medical term for his condition was NAION. It is very rare. He soon learned that people with NAION do not get better. And worse yet, they had a 40% chance of losing the sight in their other eye. Bruni was 52. He had been a prominent journalist for over thirty years, including twenty-five years at The New York Times. It is easy to see the irony and even cruelty of his situation. Here he was: an accomplished journalist, a best-selling author, a voracious reader, a world traveler, and he was on the verge of losing his sight.
In refreshingly crisp prose, Bruni takes the reader through the specifics of his ordeal. But the book is so much more than an account of his personal trauma. It is the story of human resiliency against incredible odds–not merely Bruni’s resiliency, but the resiliency of dozens of other individuals whose stories he masterfully narrates.
The subtitle of Bruni’s book is On Vision Lost and Found. He describes how his “vision” of life was changed by this event: “I went to bed believing I was more or less in control of life.” He had assumed that failures and disappointments could be “redeemed with a fierce enough effort.” He woke up to “how ludicrous that was.” He went to bed “with more grievances than (he) could count. He woke up to more gratitude than (he) could measure.” He writes,”My story is one of loss. It’s also one of gain.”
Being a nun, I was especially drawn to chapter four entitled “Flying Solo.” It’s in this chapter that Bruni speaks of God. Sort of. Bruni acknowledges he is an agnostic. But, he says, “I’ve never been able to say that I don’t believe in God, at least God in the sense of an organizing principle to things, a transcendent spirit, a code of conduct to which we are all called, a good and pure voice that’s both within and without us. If that all sounds like gobbledygook, well, my God is gobbledygook, almost by necessity. How could anything so omniscient and ambient not be?” His words sound amazingly similar to those of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim mystics when they are trying to describe their own experiences of the Divine.
During this time, Bruni does something “out of character.” He begins to pray, not even sure to what or to whom he was praying: “To the universe? To the serenest place inside of me? To my better angels which weren’t crowned with halos but cloaked in prudence, humility, hope?” I also appreciated his title of chapter five: “Hope Is Gnarly and Evergreen.” That’s one of the best descriptions of hope I’ve come across!
Bruni’s efforts to deal with his own sufferings, impelled him to formulate a theory. Maybe, he says, we all should wear sandwich boards listing some of the hardships we are bearing, hardships often “cloaked in the camouflage of normalcy.” He suggests a few inscriptions, some of them for the individuals he writes about in his book: “Cysts on my spine that produce constant pain. No end in sight.” “Lost a leg in small plane crash. I was the pilot. My only passenger was killed. He was my 8-year-old son. “Frequent migraines.” “Crushing infertility.” “Constant thoughts of suicide.” “Bike accident. Face shredded. Twenty surgeries. Can’t feel a kiss.” Bruni, the first openly gay columnist for the Times, imagines what the sandwich board might say for the college student he met who was disowned by his parents when he told them he was gay: “Parents’ love was conditional, ran afoul of the conditions.” Maybe such knowledge of peoples’ hardships would elicit greater compassion from all of us.
Bruni’s book is a treasure trove of wisdom gleaned from misfortune and suffering. Here are a few sentences that really spoke to me:
“If hope is a thing with feathers, envy is a thing with tentacles.”
Sight is the “unrivaled monarch of the senses.”
“Life is about adjusting to loss.”
“Putting off experiences often means not having them.”
Chapter 11 is entitled “The Trick Behind All Other Tricks.” That trick for dealing with hardship is perspective. Bruni lists the three overlapping pillars of perspective: 1) “put what you’re going through in context” 2) “recast limits, which aren’t merely limits,” and 3) “reconceptualize loss, the arithmetic of which isn’t a simple act of subtraction.”
One of my favorite parts of the book was Bruni’s interaction with his dog, Regan. This little pooch teaches Bruni many lessons–such as “attentiveness, openness, and humility.” She also teaches him “that something ordinary could be extraordinary. Without therapy or thought, Regan reveled in being alive. That helped me do the same.”
If you’re looking for a book that can help you “revel in being alive,” then Bruni’s book is for you!
As many of you know, I collect quotations. I have drawers of 3 X 5 cards filled with thousands of quotes from a wide variety of people. I started doing this as a college student. I file my quotes under topics such as adversity, beauty, happiness, Jesus, love, prayer, writing, etc. Today I will share 20 quotes filed under life. This category has the most quotations in my collection. I suggest you read these quotations slowly and prayerfully. As you do, ask yourself, does this quotation resonate with my experience and beliefs? Or do I disagree with it? Or would I modify it to more accurately reflect what I believe? I hope you have some fun and gather some inspiration from these!
(1) The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved: loved for ourselves, or rather loved is spite of ourselves. Victor Hugo
(2) No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Eleanor Roosevelt
(3) When asked by an inquirer if he were God or a magician, the Buddha responded that he was neither. “What are you,” the person insisted. The Buddha said, “I am awake.”
(4) Lord, when we are wrong, make us willing to change. And when we are right, make us easy to live with. Peter Marshall
(5) Everything that happens to you is your teacher. The secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your life and be taught. Polly Berrien Berends
(6) Let us live that when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry. Mark Twain
(7) If you want an accounting of your worth, count your friends. Merry Browne
(8) All the art of living lies in the fine mingling of letting go and hanging on. Meister Eckhart
(9) Whether we are living or dying, what counts is being there. If we’ve set up permanent residence in the past or the future, the pain and joy of the present can’t bless us. Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr
(10) Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. Carl Jung
(11) There is no object that we see; no action that we do; no good that we enjoy; no evil that we feel or fear, but we may make some spiritual advantage of all. Anne Bradstreet
(12) Both what we run away from and yearn for are within us. Anthony de Mello, SJ
(13) There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us. James Truslow Adams
(14) Life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful. Annette Funicello
(15) Fortunately, psychoanalysis is not the only way to resolve inner conflicts. Life itself still remains a very effective therapist. Karen Horney
(16) Rules for the road: 1) What appears to be a detour may be the most important leg of the journey. 2) It’s okay to ask for directions. 3) Too much concern for safety is dangerous. 4) “Enemies” and “aliens” make the best travel companions. 5) Sometimes we travel farthest by sitting still. Anonymous
(17) Why wait? Life is not a dress rehearsal. Marilyn Grey
(18) Forget about productivity once in a while and give yourself permission to goof off. Amy Morin
(19) Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished. If you are still alive, it isn’t. Richard Bach
(20) Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery. Annie Dillard
Are there any quotes that touched you today? If so, which one(s)? Why?
Do you have a favorite quote that helps you to live your life well? If so, you can add it to the comments below.
Did any of the pictures in today’s reflection captivate you?
The video I chose is called “Wonderful Life” by Matthew West. It is a tribute to his friend, Ron, who struggled several years with ALS. I couldn’t find a version with the printed lyrics, so let me give you a few of the verses:
“Life can send you flying high… it can bring you to your knees… It’s filled with heartbreak and happiness and everything in between…
Life’s a mountain and a valley, a cradle and a grave…
You laugh until you cry, you cry until you hurt… can’t have one without the other…
Life isn’t always wonderful, but it’s a wonderful life… and this life isn’t all there is.
Life’s broken and beautiful, gone mad and magical, and awfully wonderful life.”
I invite you to comment below on the quotations… the pictures… the song…