When I taught high school, I fantasized sometimes about going into a witness protection program. My day began about 7am when I walked the fifty feet from the Jesuit residence to the school. Most days students were waiting on me, if not on a bench in the main hallway, outside my office door, with questions on the previous night’s homework. Once I finally finished helping them, I usually had about five minutes to myself to figure out what I was doing that day before the first bell rang. With a cup of coffee in one hand and a half-formed lesson plan in the other, it was off to the races.
Two or three classes would pass by, if I was lucky I would take a break in my office, get another cup of coffee, and try and regroup. Even when I shut my door, however, they found me: knocks on the door from my students or my colleagues; an email, phone call, or unannounced visit from a parent. Another Jesuit showed me a trick where he could position his chair just so in a way that let him take a nap without being seen from the outside. Wouldn’t it be nice, I would think sometimes in those moments, to relocate to some distant place, where no one knew who I was, where I could just have some peace and quiet? A witness protection program. That sounds pretty good.
I suspect that not only teachers think like that. I wonder: do you have the same experience when you walk into work? People constantly asking you questions. Meetings, phone calls, emails, business lunches. It’s just enough to get through the day.
Perhaps you feel like that as a parent or grandparent. You get to Saturday morning, look forward to sleeping in, and at 6am your son or daughter wakes you up: don’t forget about the soccer game or the campout. You would just like one night for a family dinner or a date night with your significant other without some school event, church function, or Scout meeting in the evenings.
Even students can have this experience: as you go from class, to practice after school, to hang out with your friends, to spend time with your family. Everyone wants something from you, and sometimes you just want to run away from it all, to go to some lakehouse and never come back.
I have a theory about Zacchaeus, the tax collector we meet today in Luke’s gospel. I think he felt the same way. The gospel calls him the “chief” or the “senior” tax collector. I suspect that people wanted something from him all day, and he got tired of it, so he made a secret plan on his lunch break to leave the office, without telling anyone, and see this man named Jesus, whom he had heard of.
One thing foiled Zacchaeus' plan, however. He was short in stature. He couldn’t see in the back, so he ran down the way, and climbed up in a tree. Short in stature, and probably a little short in hope and expectations as well. He probably expected to learn a little something, get a little respite, and then go about his business. Maybe he would hear an inspiring story; maybe he would see a healing or miracle. He didn’t even care. He just wanted to get away for an hour. He could see Jesus, but he never expected for Jesus to be able to see him.
Pay close attention to what happens next. No detail is wasted in the gospels. In contrast to Zacchaeus’ small vision, Jesus looks up with a large vision. “Come down, Zaccheaus.” Come down quickly because I’m going to stay at your house.” Zaccheus reacts instinctively, comes down the tree, finds himself unexpectedly on center stage, in response to a God who has a bigger vision for him than he has for himself.
The book of Wisdom describes the vision of this God . “Before the Lord the whole universe is as of a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come from the Earth.” Think of how small and precious a drop of dew is, and how it fills us with wonder. Could it really be that God looked at Zacchaeus like that? God loves and preserves his creation. So far so good. But there’s more: God calls forth. Jesus’ invitation calls forth Zacchaeus.
Of course the voice of invitation is not the only voice that Zacchaues hears. The crowd offers a different perspective. They cannot see beyond the man who Zacchaeus was, the tax collector. In those days, tax collectors were hated, because they worked for the occupiers, the Romans, and made extra money on the side by stealing from the poor. I think that crowd gives voice to something inside of Zacchaeus as well, some part of him who cannot imagine himself any differently. He faces a choice: to hold on to his own limited vision of his life and himself, or to allow God to call him forth into something new?
This encounter with God transforms Zacchaeus. He not only promises to return all of the money he has stolen, but he feels moved to give something of himself, to change his relationship with the people around him, to invest in the same people he has just been cheating.
There is something of Zacchaeus in all of us, I think. Even when we take the time to pray or come to Mass, we have low expectations. Maybe we too look for a witness protection program of sorts. Just give me a break. Don’t ask anything more of me. Just let me sit here, and then I’ll go back to trudging through my life. Like Zacchaeus, we are short in stature, and short in vision. We lose touch with how God looks as us and what an encounter with God can do for us.
I felt that way as a high school teacher, especially at the end of the day, but God snuck in even there. As I mentioned before, sometimes students would come to ask for help after school, and they would work in my office while I prepared the lesson for the next day. One day, I got up to go to the copier to run something off while a student was working, and I came back to find a note on my chair: “Mr. Pitts, you always seem so busy, but you always find time to help us. Thank you.” All of the tiredness, frustration, and anxiety left me at that moment, and in its place, I noticed for the first time the gentle invitation of a God who was drawing generosity out of me. It wasn’t an obligation, like Stephen, do more, or else. It was an invitation: I believe in you. I have big dreams for you. If you stay with me, not only will you be able handle this but you will in fact find great life in it.
It did not happen overnight, but little by little encounters like that changed me. I learned to give more of myself. Even more, I learned to receive the love and support that God was offering me, through the faces of my students and their families, my colleagues, and my fellow Jesuits What’s more, the awareness of slow and steady growth in myself opened me up to the possibility of slow and steady growth in others. I felt God asking me to believe in my students the way that God was believing in me. “You overlook people’s sins, so that they can repent.” // “You rebuke offenders little by little, so that they may believe in you.” Pope XXIII puts it this way: “see everything, overlook a great deal, correct little.” (cf Pope Francis).
Like Zaccheus, like my colleague who napped in his office with the door closed, where in your life do you feel tempted to sneak away? Where do you feel overwhelmed by work, family, friends, and life responsibilities? Where do you struggle to just make it through the day? How might God be calling you to look at the situation differently, to give more of yourself, not in response to guilt or obligation but in response to a God who believes in you and has big dreams for you? Moreover, how can you communicate this experience of God to others, correcting a bit less and perhaps encouraging a bit more, so that they too can believe?
I think this message resonates in a special way as our election season winds down. One of the most profound moments for me was at the end of the second debate, when the last question asked Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton to say something good about each other. It took us all aback, the people I was watching the debate with, because we realized the question revealed how crazy the tone the election has taken on. No matter who wins in two weeks, it will take a special kind of vision to bring this country together, an honest vision that sees everything for sure, but a merciful one that overlooks much and corrects little, a vision that reconnects us to God’s vision for our communities, our nation, and our world.
Reshaping our vision is no easy task, but the promise of the journey draws us together this morning for Eucharist. Like Zacchaeus, Jesus believes in us and invites each and every one of us this morning to dine with him. As we partake of this sacred meal, we ask him to strengthen us so that we can give more generously of ourselves for the life of the world.