This Tuesday’s Gospel (Lk 19: 1-10) tells the wonderful story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. Jesus is passing by Jericho on His way to Jerusalem, and He is winding His way through the crowds that have come to see Him. Now, Zacchaeus, a chief tax-collector (probably a crook, scorned by his neighbors), was “seeking to see who Jesus was.” He is a short man and cannot see over the other people…
“So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When He reached the place, Jesus looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.’ And he came down quickly and received Him with joy. When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.’ But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘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.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’”
It seems that all that Zacchaeus had wanted was to get a glimpse of the much-talked-about prophet. Or was he really longing for something more? He got to see Jesus, but he never really expected Jesus to look BACK at him ! And call him by name ! Zacchaeus certainly got a lot more than he had bargained for. Now he has to entertain Jesus at his home, give away half of his
ill-earned fortune, and make retribution for his life. That was some look that Christ must have given him!
This is a great story of “metanoia”, life-change, conversion, in the powerful presence of Jesus. I am always especially touched by this Gospel, not only because I am a “shorty” like Zacchaeus, but also because I had what I believe was a supernatural experience similar to his.
I might have written a little about the story of my conversion ten years ago. Back then I had little faith, but deep inside I wanted so much to believe in a loving God. One of the things that kept me going in life was the love of my wife and family, particularly my son, his wife, and my four grandchildren. They gave me so much joy that I would tag along with them to Sunday Mass just to hold the kids, or see them crawl around under the pews. I was also intrigued by the faith that I saw in my son, his wife, and the people there. I just did not share it with them. I wished I did.
Finally, my son tricked me. He invited my wife and I to be Godparents for our beloved fourth grandchild. We were thrilled, but he told us , “You are going to have to prove you’re Catholics. You can only qualify to be ‘sponsors’ if you can get a letter from your local parish stating that you go to mass every Sunday. It’s the only way!”
I don’t know how it happened, but we found ourselves sitting in front of a Pastor, getting the weekly envelopes and promising to go to mass. We asked him if we could receive the Host, like everyone else, but he told us that we first had to go through RCIA, receive Confirmation, and get married by the Church. It was a long process, and I was not too happy about it, but O.K.. All I wanted was that little letter in a few months before my lovely granddaughter’s baptism.
We started going to Church, and I was especially intrigued by the Readings and by the homilies. Who exactly was this Jesus that they were all so crazy about? I bought a little Bible and read all four Gospels, and I liked the Guy. Was He real? I was especially intrigued by the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I watched respectfully week after week.
Then one blessed, luminous day, something miraculous happened to me. When the priest lifted up that round, bright Host, I was unexpectedly struck by the power of God. I believed. All the fullness of God seemed to be emanating from that shining Host, and there, like Zacchaeus behind the crowd, near the back of the church, I felt the Light of God focusing on me! It was like looking at the sun. I could not look at that brightness. I felt such shame and unworthiness. I had to close my eyes, but even then I could see Him, Jesus. He was looking right at me. I felt the message: “You are mine. I want you. I will never let you go!”
And He never has. It has been a long road, with much learning and growth, with ups and downs, but I know He has been always at my side, a guest in my house. Last night I was watching a religious TV show where the host, a priest, was answering questions about spiritual dryness, moments of desolation, even doubt. He gave this wonderful advice: Sit calmly and remember that moment of great consolation when you felt the Presence of God in your life, when your faith was on fire. Remember it fondly, taste it, re-live it. It can help you to see that He is still right there, in love with you.
I have always wanted to quote my own version of the Humphrey Bogart line from Casablanca. Whether on top of a high tree, or down in the lowest dumps, just remember: “He’s looking at you, kid!”