"Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house" (Lk 19:5). And small, rich Zacchaeus clambered down the tree and "received him with joy."
It was the beginning of his conversion, a complete turn-about for the wealthy tax collector and well known sinner. Jesus looked beyond the sin, looked into his heart and called forth his better nature.
And Zacchaeus, who knew what his fellow Jews thought of him, knew he had cheated them over and again as he filled up his own coffers, suddenly found himself face to face with this man Jesus who touched into his true self. In that instant he grew taller, his heart expanded and, ignoring the grumbling of the crowd, he committed himself publicly to a new way of living.
It may be that no one ever before had shown him who he really was.
We all need to be reminded of our God-given dignity, of the well of goodness that is in each one, waiting to be tapped. So often we focus on the mean and the petty and put ourselves and others down by our harsh judgements and sour criticisms. Appealing to the good, as Jesus does, helps us to grow as persons. How much easier it is to come down when we know that we are valued, that we are respected and loved. Our resistance crumbles and we are able to admit our sins.
A woman whose son was in and out of trouble heard that her neighbour was bad-mouthing him. One day she met her and said, "Mary, I've been told that you are saying bad things about my son." But I said to them, "No, Mary has been a good neighbour to me these many years; she is far too good a woman to spread rumours like that." The woman was cut to the quick. She had indeed gossiped about the young man; now she saw how damaging her actions had been, how wounding to his mother who refused to accuse or blame her but appealed to her heart. Like Zacchaeus, she responded to the insight, regretting her smallness, her gossip and becoming a better friend and neighbour in the process.
People seldom change if they are criticised and left with a sense of failure, trapped in their own weakness. Who does not need help to break those familiar habits which have become all too destructive, undermining the grace at work in our hearts? When we encourage others to see the best in themselves, not the worst, then change can take place bringing with it a new hope, a new way of being. When by our words and attitude we help build up another we are helping them become their true selves.
Lent is a good time to look at our values, to re-examine habits we may have fallen into, habits that demean our true selves. Rather than mindlessly drifting along we are given space and time to come to our senses, to listen gently to our heart and repent. This is a season of great hope, hope for new beginnings. With the grace of God old patterns can be broken, new possibilities embraced. "If we acknowledge our sins," St John says, "he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing" (1 Jn 1:9). Then we see more clearly what we have to do and are given the grace to do it.
Zacchaeus's conversion began when Jesus looked at him. Today he is looking at you.
Sr Redempta Twomey is assistant editor of the Far East at St Columban’s, Navan, Ireland.