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Our Desire for God - Our Risks for God

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

“I don’t have time to go to church.” “I can’t find the time to pray, or to read the Bible every day.” “I don’t have time to visit the nursing homes, to help some family in need, or to visit someone in the hospital. I just don’t have time!”

How often do we say, or at least think, such things? And yet, how rare it is for us to say, “I don’t have time to watch TV. I don’t have time to read my emails or look at facebook. I don’t have time to meet a friend or go to the mall.”

Do we, or do we not have time? Why does looking on the internet come naturally each morning, while reading the Bible seem like an unbearable chore? Why does going to the casino, or the mall, or the coffee shop seem so normal, while going to Church, or doing a good deed in a nursing home, or visiting someone in need take such an effort?

When we evaluate these scenarios, we begin to realize that the issue isn’t whether we have time or not, but the real issue is whether we have a desire or not. If we really want something, we find the time for it, we arrange our schedule to fit our desire! A student who wants good grades finds time to study. If someone wants a promotion and move up the ladder in their work, they put in extra time and effort at the office. If our passion is a hobby, or a sports team, or some other form of entertainment, we find the time and place to fulfill our desires. You see, we each have the same 24 hours in every day, and we typically find time for those things that we most desire.

Well, today’s Gospel reading draws our attention to evaluating our sincere desires and passions of life. In the story of Zaccheus, we hear about a man who had such a strong desire to see Christ, that nothing could hinder him from fulfilling his aspiration. In order to properly understand the context of the Gospel reading, though, we need to fully picture what type of person Zaccheus was. He was a chief tax-collector the Bible says, which meant not only that he was a chief-thief who collected taxes for the Romans, but also implied that he pocketed a good portion of his collections for himself. Thus, he was very rich. Just as bad, though, was the fact that every tax-collector worked for the Romans, who subjugated the Jews in their own land. Jews considered any tax-collector a traitor to his own people.  The Jews despised tax-collectors to such a degree that they placed them in the same category as robbers and murderers, and all three were forbidden to enter into the Jewish house of worship, the synagogue.

Despite his wealth and position, Zaccheus seems to not only have heard about this famous prophet Jesus, but he sincerely longed to see Him. Zaccheus must have heard many stories about Jesus - maybe even how Jesus offered the worst of sinners an opportunity for a new life of salvation. So Zaccheus musters up his courage and ventures out into the midst of a crowd that surely despised him. Yet as he goes out, he quickly realizes that his small stature doesn’t allow him to see Jesus, and the large crowd won’t ever allow him to get close to Christ. 

Zaccheus faces a dilemma, and isn’t sure how to proceed. One virtue, though, that we clearly see in Zaccheus is his strong desire to meet Christ. He won’t allow his small stature, or the imposing crowd, or anything else hinder his desire to see and meet Jesus. So, he comes up with a plan to run ahead of the crowd, and climb into a sycamore tree and wait for Jesus to walk by his way.

Now, before we continue the story, we should note one very important point. Not only does Zaccheus display his strong DESIRE to meet Jesus, but he also shows how he is willing to take a RISK to fulfill his desire. By leaving the safety of his house and going out among a large crowd of people that despised him, he risked his very life.  Imagine being in the middle of a crowd of people who hated you. Anyone might attack you, abuse you, or hurt you. And no one would respond to your pleas for help because others would probably take delight in your misfortune. Thus, Zaccheus exemplifies both the desire and the willingness to risk one’s life in order to meet Jesus.

As Zaccheus runs ahead of the crowd, he decides to climb up into a tree. Now, imagine for a moment a grown man, a prosperous man of clout, climbing into a tree in front of a crowd. The people probably laughed, and even ridiculed this behavior of a grown man. This reveals a third important characteristic of Zaccheus in the Gospel, which is his humility. Zaccheus’ strong desire to meet Christ gives him the humility to ignore the opinion of others and focus on only one thing -- encountering Jesus.

And his DESIRE, RISK, and HUMILITY all point to one other virtue hiding in the heart of Zaccheus – HOPE. Although Zaccheus was a terrible sinner, a thief, and a traitor, he still held on to some hope that this man Jesus would view him in a different manner than the rest. Maybe from all that he had heard about Christ, he believed that Jesus would treat him as a person, instead of as a despised enemy.

These four characteristics of Zaccheus are important traits for each one of us to cultivate within our own spiritual journey toward Christ. Do we have a passion and strong desire to truly meet Jesus in our own lives? The devil fills up our lives with countless worldly, superficial distractions which pull us away from God. If we allow our life to be controlled by what is urgent or pleasurable, we will never get around to what is truly essential. 

And to follow a strong desire for Christ implies taking risks, doing whatever is necessary to cultivate an intimate relationship with Him? Far too many people prefer a comfortable, secure life, far from risks, and thus, far from an intimate relationship with God. Jesus asks us to give up everything, including all our false securities, and face God naked, with only our true, sinful self. Yet too many of us are afraid to do this!

Of course, we can never meet Jesus if we do not have humility.  When our pride and ego control our actions, we will always be more concerned with the opinions of others, than of God. Our pride deceives us into thinking that we deserve to meet God, while our humility teaches us that we deserve nothing. Everything is a gift from God, and thus meeting Him is the greatest privilege.

The Gospel story concludes as Zaccheus sits in the tree and Jesus passes by, looking up. Our Lord surely realizes the strong desire, the willingness to risk, and the humility of sitting in a tree, and thus sees something which most others don’t see. Christ does not see a sinful thief and traitor, but instead sees a hurting person looking for healing. He sees a lost child longing to be found! And here lies the crux of the story – Jesus never sees us only as we appear - hurting, sinful, unworthy – but he sees the greatness that lies within each person. He remembers that every person on earth is created in the image and likeness of God, and even people like Zaccheus have the potential to become saints.

So Jesus looks up at Zaccheus and says with great joy, “Zaccheus, come down from that tree, for I will come to your house today.” 

We see once again a common pattern throughout history. God always takes the initiative to fallen humanity. Our Lord desires all people to be saved, and reaches out to us, offering an opportunity for us to respond. We have this beautiful image when Christ says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Christ is knocking on the door of every heart, giving us the opportunity to open the door and welcome Him in!

In response to Christ’s openness and love, Zaccheus follows through with his desire and passion by not only accepting Jesus into his home with joy, but by radically changing his life and becoming a new person! Zaccheus’ encounter with Jesus leads him to say, “Lord, I will give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay them back fourfold.”  Zaccheus’ transformation is not in word alone, but in radical action! As my former professor, Fr. Ted Stylianopoulos, used to say, “It costs nothing to become a Christian, but once you become one, then it costs you everything!” Zaccheus was willing to give up everything, in order to possess Christ!

So today, let us reflect on the Gospel by meditating on the lessons that Zaccheus teaches us. First of all, do we possess a sincere DESIRE to meet Jesus and to allow nothing to hinder this meeting? Of course, such a desire implies taking certain RISKS that will rattle our comfortable and secure lives. Will we take these risks? And underlying this desire and risk for Christ must be the HUMILITY to approach Him in our stark nakedness and sinfulness. IF we approach our Lord in this manner, then we may always maintain a sure hope that Jesus will lovingly enter our domain and embrace us.  This is the type of encounter that transforms lives.

We can make a lot of excuses when we don’t want to do something. Yet, if we truly desire an encounter with Christ, union with God, then we are willing to take a risk, approach in humility and believe in hope. When we joyfully accept Jesus Christ into the home of our hearts, then we will have the courage, like Zaccheus, to give all we have to God. Then we will hear Him say to us also, “Today salvation has come into this house.”