Shame and Desire

There was a man there named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax-agent. And he was wealthy. He was trying to see who Jesus was but he could not see over the crowd, since he was so short. He ran to the front and climbed up a sycamore tree that Jesus was about to pass by, in order to see him.

Luke 19:2-4

In a footnote to verse three of his translation of this passage, Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “Zacchaeus seeks to see and does not know that he is being sought after and saved.” In many ways, Zacchaeus is one of the scriptural characters with whom it is easiest to identify. As the story begins, we immediately learn three things about him: he is short; he is a chief tax-collector; he is wealthy.

Being “vertically challenged” myself, I have no difficulty identifying the physical obstacle Zacchaeus experiences in trying “to see who Jesus was.” Wherever there are crowds, I am well accustomed to seeking a space between those who are taller than myself in order to see what is happening. The other two specifics of his description, however, require identification by analogy. As a chief tax-collector, and so an agent of the oppressor, Zacchaeus is a member of a truly despised minority. It is easy to imagine that he would prefer to be lost in the crowd rather than to stand out in any way. Yet, he seems to forget his social status and rather, in the manner of a child, enthusiastically climbs a sycamore tree so that he might “see who Jesus was.” Finally, he is wealthy. He stands, in the context of the gospel, as a contrast to the Rich Young Man who is also wealthy yet whose clinging to his wealth is the obstacle to his more closely following Jesus. In his almsgiving Zacchaeus demonstrates a sense of being released in relationship to his possessions.

As Zacchaeus, most of us spend the bulk of our lives seeking to see who Jesus is. We live a life of desire, and so of lack, that is always driving us to seek that for which we long. It is our attempt to seek, to find, and to attain that for which we long that is the source of frustration in life. For, of its nature, the ego, in its essence, is frustration. The great paradox of human existence is that what we most need and want we cannot ourselves attain. The good news of the story of Zacchaeus is, as Johnson writes, that as we seek we are “being sought after and saved.” The Rich Young Man goes away sad because he is, at least for the moment, unable to let go of his possessions and in doing so create the open space in himself that Jesus, who seeks him in order to save him, might enter. He remains too full and too closed, and so too inhospitable, to receive the love and friendship of Jesus.

Zacchaeus, on the other hand, is not held hostage by his wealth. The evangelist takes pains to describe all the ways in which Zacchaeus will share what he has and will repair to the maximum degree any harm he has done. Most of all, however, it is the childlikeness of Zacchaeus, even as he seeks to see Jesus, that disposes him to discover Jesus’ seeking of him. “Today salvation has happened in this house . . . for the Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost.” The great appeal of this story has always rested, in good part, in the impulsiveness of Zacchaeus’ climbing of the sycamore. The very image evokes a sense of simplicity and enthusiasm. Most of all, it suggests a certain recklessness, a foolhardy disregard for the opinion of others that refuses to allow fear of others’ reactions to deter the pursuit of his own longing.

We spend our life working and seeking. We seek enough money and possessions to be comfortable and to care for those we love; we seek a sense of significance that comes with the recognition and respect of others; and we seek to be loved and to be loved by chosen others and by God. We seek, as Zaccheus, to see the truth of things and whatever or whomever can lead us to the truth. More than that, however, we seek to be sought after and to be seen. Yet, this greater desire and longing is often buried deep from our consciousness. We are so busy seeking, that most of the time we are unaware that we are always “being sought after and saved.” What we most want is to know that we are desired and delighted in. Yet, this can seem so far beyond our reach that we settle for things (be they objects or experiences) that we can hold and control as possessions.

What makes Zacchaeus such an appealing figure for us is that he behaves as we wish we could. He is excited and enthusiastic about the arrival of Jesus, and so he does whatever he has to in order to see him, no matter how silly he may look to others. Were I, also a short person, in his place, I would discreetly attempt to look between people, to try very hard to see Jesus, but without drawing attention to myself. Most importantly, I would not want my enthusiasm and excitement to be apparent to others. It’s interesting to see in the gospel that when Jesus teaches about prayer, or when he truly is able to encounter those whom he seeks, they are often doing socially embarrassing things. In the parables about prayer, there is the woman who never stops pestering the judge, and the one who keeps knocking on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night. Beside Zacchaeus who climbs the sycamore, there is the woman who barges into the meal at Simon the Pharisee’s house and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. There is the blind man who keeps crying out, although being told to be quiet. On the contrary, there is the Rich Young Man who cannot let go of the possessions and so the status that constitute his identity. He can’t be poor enough to realize Jesus’ love for him.

Who we think we must be to be acceptable to “the world” well might be our greatest obstacle to knowing how much God seeks and loves us, to knowing as we are known. We are taught very young to be ashamed of our excitement and enthusiasm. We are, unfortunately, educated out of our spontaneity and creativity. The depth of dissatisfaction we often feel in both our life with others and our life of prayer is largely due to the quality and sincerity of our presence. We stifle who we most truly are and what we most truly want for fear of being shamed. The person we offer to others is far more often the Pharisee in the parable who speaks of who he is socially and externally but, unlike the Publican, offers nothing of what he really feels and experiences.

As we become more and more identified with the ever increasingly restrictive norms of our cultures and societies, we are more and more apt to become anxious and depressed. The more we dissociate from “our very push for life and . . . our very trust of each other,” the more drab and lifeless we feel. Living by convention is the very opposite of living prayerfully. For, our greatest experience of “spiritual poverty” lies in our returning to the deep desire of our hearts to be sought after and loved. This is the poverty that is our vacancy for God. It is from this place that we can hear Jesus say to us, “I must stay in your house today.”

We are shamed in our enthusiasm. We are made to feel guilty, naive, and humiliated about our very pulse for life and about our very trust of each other. Long before we are ever told that sex is bad, or that our body isn’t quite right, or that we have failed in our duty somewhat, we are told we are bad because we are so trusting and enthusiastic.

Remember as a child the number of times you ran up to somebody, someone you trusted—a parent, a teacher, a friend? Completely trusting, full of life, you tried, with a nakedness you can never bring yourself to risk again, to share something you were excited about: a leaf you had found, a drawing you had made, your report card, a story you wanted to tell, a fall you had just taken, something that was very important to you. Try to recall the warmth, trust, and spontaneity of that moment. Try to bring that feeling into your prayers with God, a God who delights in you, a God who has no use for crippling shame. Jesus said: “Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The tail-end of that sentence contained the challenge: Jesus loved us by becoming vulnerable to the point of risking humiliation and rejection. We must recover our childlike trust and try to do the same.

Ronald Rolheiser, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, p. 11

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