31st Sunday in Ordinary time

I guess you’ve come across those irritating people who use step-trackers to count their physical activities 24/7 and who talk about it at every opportunity. I’m one of those people! And I lead by example, so a couple of my friends – inspired by me – have bought their own devices and use them. Even my mum has got one, and she eagerly uses it. It so happens that hers, mine and one of my friends’ devices are made by the same company, so our achievements can be compared. In fact, we have a wee weekly competition as to who does the most steps. To my frustration I get beaten virtually every week by a friend of mine 20 years younger than me (no surprise there, then) and by my mum 20 years older than me (that is a surprise). Does it mean that I’m less eager than them to succeed? Nope. It means that I cover the same distance as them with fewer steps thanks to my long legs. To beat my competitors, I’d have to cover significantly longer distances than them. My substantial height that comes in useful on many occasions can be a disadvantage in others, as I was reminded last Friday when I banged my head against a low-hanging lamp and as I checked the leader-board. Life’s not fair.

Zacchaeus, the central character in today’s gospel, experienced a disadvantage in the opposite direction. He was short; too short, in fact, to have any chance of catching even a glimpse of an itinerant preacher visiting Jericho. The crowds, attracted by the preacher’s fame, lined the street, completely obscuring Zac’s view. I don’t know what he’d heard about Jesus or what he expected, but he was certainly very determined to see Jesus. So determined was he that he climbed a nearby tree – hardly an act appropriate for a man of his wealth and social standing. By resorting to such an action, he publicly manifested one of his shortcomings (pun intended!). This left him exposed and vulnerable; perhaps there were some in the crowds who spotted Zacchaeus up the tree and mocked him, taking revenge on him verbally for his real or imagined crimes, or making derogatory comments about him. There’s never a shortage of unsparingly envious people always ready to humiliate others. However, Zac’s vulnerability was exposed to Jesus too, and this exposure turned out to be transformational. Jesus enters Zac’s home, the space we all consider private, personal and safe, where only those we trust and love are invited in.

There are people who believe that the vertically-challenged commonly have a complex that leads them to try to compensate for their lack of height with achievements in other fields, even in dubious or undeniably questionable areas. I don’t know whether that’s true; I’ve known a number of diminutive people who showed no sign of that. And I know a tall person who used to do battle with low self-esteem, complexes and insecurity. Yes, you are looking at him right now. No matter whether they are short, medium or tall, people can have a variety of real or imaginary reasons to feel insecure, low, under-appreciated and so on. Often unaware of that, they subconsciously try to compensate in many ways: flashy cars, oversized houses, a string of sexual conquests, overeating and many other manifestations. But those attempts at compensation rarely effect positive change; more often they generate even more insecurity and anxiety, sometimes hidden behind a screen of arrogance and boastfulness. Let me be clear: I’m not claiming that everyone with an expensive car or a big house has a problem. I live in a big house – in fact it’s far too big for a man and a dog.

In the gospel, when Zac lets Jesus into his home and his life, it changes him. Liberated from his unhealthy attachment to riches, he commits to donating half his wealth to charitable causes, and declares his readiness to return quadruple to anybody cheated by him. Incidentally, take note that he uses the conditional ‘if’ that implies that he has at least been dealing decently with some people. Jesus didn’t make him physically taller; he didn’t remove that particular disadvantage. The change was internal: it was the change of Zac’s heart. It was a similar experience for me many years ago when my youthful rage, anger, insecurity and other unpleasant traits were healed and transformed. I’ve remained tall, a factor which continues to play havoc in my “little steps” competition. But I don’t bother about that, as at the end of the day both my competitors and I gain something valuable: a healthy lifestyle. Jesus has the gently operational power to transform our lives for the better whenever we summon up the courage to expose our wounds and vulnerabilities to him.