“Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he.” I clearly remember learning this song about Zacchaeus more than 30 years ago. At Mass, earlier this month, when we heard the account of Zacchaeus’ encounter with Christ, this silly song came immediately to mind. But as I meditated on this story further, two significant details stood out to me.
I was reminded that it was not only because of Zacchaeus’ short stature that he could not see Jesus. The text tells us it was also because of the crowd! Luke writes:
“[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was but could not, on account of the crowd because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way” [Luke 19:1-4].
The second point that garnered my attention were the events that preceded Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. On the way to Jericho, a blind man was on the side of the road begging. When he heard Jesus was passing by, the blind man cried out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And despite the crowd telling the blind man to be silent, he did not cease. He continued to cry out. Jesus had the blind man brought to him and rewarded his faith by healing him of his blindness [Luke 18: 35-43].
The Ever Present Crowds
In these passages, there is a recurrent element: the crowd that tries to hinder each of these men from encountering Christ.
We are told that even though the blind man cannot see, he is acutely aware of the threats from the crowd but is not thwarted. He can ‘see’ our Lord by his faith. Because of his perseverance, Jesus rewards him with the wondrous gift of sight. On the other hand, for Zacchaeus, the crowd is an obstacle to his encounter with Christ. But he recognizes this and does something about it. Though it takes more effort, with humility and determination, he climbed the sycamore tree to overcome the barrier of the crowd.
Contemplating these events, I recognized how we too can often find ourselves in the presence of a great “crowd” throughout our lives. This crowd attempts to not only to weaken our relationship with Christ but to prevent it from becoming realized. The list of examples of things this crowd could represent in our lives is long and cannot be exhaustively discussed, but a few examples may be beneficial.
Accepting the Reality of Who We Are
One deafening crowd that has been present since the beginning of humanity is the one trying to persuade us to deny the reality that we are creatures. Not only are we made by God, we are also dependent on God. And we have a God-given purpose – to be in communion with God for all eternity. As a result, the only way to be happy and fulfilled is to achieve this goal and become the person God made us to be.
The crowd, however, rejects this and shouts for absolute autonomy. “I get to decide what is right and wrong for me. You cannot tell me what to do. You cannot impose your morality on me.”
But by choosing to ignore God and our creatureliness, they fail to acknowledge that we cannot arbitrarily invent the meaning of life. It is ingrained in us. We cannot change who God made us to become regardless of how much we may pretend that we can.
Despite this, the crowd presses us. They unceasingly try to entice us that only this material world is real. And only what can be proved by science is true. They try to convince us that religion is the opium of the masses, invented just to give us a sense of inner peace. And sometimes they will go as far as saying, “Only idiots believe in fairy tales like God.”
They try to coax us to re-invent ourselves to become whoever it is we want to be. “There are no limits. There is no such thing as a common human nature that we share. If you want to identify as a cat or dog or person of the opposite gender, go for it! No one, not even the Church, can tell you otherwise.”
Not that long ago this crowd only spoke in whispers. Now, however, we are bombarded with these messages. But if we listen to these crowds, not only will we live in a distorted reality of confusion, anguish and despair, we will remain far from Christ.
Accepting Our Sinfulness
Another example of the “crowd” in our lives is related to sin. The denial of the reality of sin is prevalent. The crowds around us hold that there is no absolute morality. If sin is even acknowledged, it is usually defined as “going against my own personal values.”
But this allows sin to take hold. When it does, it is a slippery slope because sin builds upon sin. If we allow ourselves to become blinded to the wrongs we do, we fail to see any need for repentance or conversion. This is a great hindrance to our relationship with Christ.
Another impediment regarding sin symbolized by the crowds is self-deception. How often do we praise ourselves for being “good enough”? In doing this, we forget our call to always strive for holiness. We disregard Jesus’ own words that it is the pure of heart who will see God, not the lukewarm or the complacent hearts.
And how often do we fool ourselves by thinking “at least I am not as big a sinner as that person?” How often do we find ourselves justifying our sins by thinking, “Well, it is not like I have murdered any one?” How often do we evade the truth by blaming others or by calling good evil and evil good?
In reality, I cannot weigh my own sinfulness against that of another. God will hold us each accountable for what we have done and what we have failed to do. And if we fear facing the reality of our sinfulness, we will find ourselves rationalizing our actions. This causes us to repress guilt and the need for repentance. But sin is an offense against God and an act against charity. Deluding ourselves about sin only further frustrates our encounter with Christ.
Don’t Go with the Flow
Another example of being thwarted from an encounter with Christ is when we simply go with the flow of the crowd, allowing it to distract us from Christ.
Discrediting ‘was’ is popular; the crowd lures us to focus only on the here and now – our careers, our families, our extracurricular activities, etc., averting our attention away from God. So do we go with the flow? What do we do when we are encouraged to go to sporting events on Sundays rather than Mass? Do we let others convince us we can and should ‘do whatever it takes to get ahead’ – even if this means committing immoral actions? Are we influenced by the attitude that “if cheating and lying gets me ahead and puts food on the table, how can this be wrong?” We hear the crowds praising workaholics and admiring those who fit in with them while, at the same time, belittling those committed to their families and their Christian faith. Does this make us ashamed about Christ?
The exhortation of the crowds is, “Carpe diem!” They shout: “Enjoy yourselves! Don’t worry, be happy! If everyone is doing it, there is nothing wrong with it.”
The crowd tries to persuade us to live out our desires – especially our sexuality – without constraints.
Be Not of the World
The crowd cajoles us to accept the dangerous principle that if I have a good intention, this justifies whatever actions I perform.
- “I am so in love with my boyfriend, it is okay that I engage in sex outside of marriage.”
- “The same-sex couple loves each other so deeply. I want them to be happy. How can I not support the idea of them getting married?”
- “I want to respect the wishes of the mother and, since she desires to kill the child in her womb, what right do I have to protest?”
But the end does not justify the means.
These views of the crowd are hard to tune out. We are barraged with propaganda in television shows, movies, books and songs on the radio. And the crowd will only increase in size and influence over time. How do we respond? Compromise is tempting. Do we go with the flow and ignore our higher calling?
If we conform to the world, we will be easily deceived to the point of becoming oblivious to the obstacles before us. And once again, rather than encountering Christ, the crowds will draw us away from him.
Climbing the Sycamore Tree in Our Own Lives
The humble blind man who met Jesus on the road to Jericho ignored the crowds and resisted their temptations. He remained firm in his desire to encounter Christ from the beginning. I pray this will always be my response to the crowds. I hope I will remain in God’s grace and the crowds will not succeed in distracting me or drawing me away from Christ.
But I recognize the influences of this world are strong and without God’s grace I am incapable of resisting. There will be times I will find myself, like Zacchaeus, being hindered by the crowds. This is because I have a fallen human nature. However, when this happens, I need to intentionally seek Christ as he did and not let the crowd be a deterrence.
Zacchaeus overcame the obstacle by climbing the sycamore tree. For me, this represents doing what I can to keep God always at the center of my life.
I need to receive the sacraments frequently, go to adoration, meditate on the Scriptures, study the faith and pray regularly. I need to practice virtue and better live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. In doing these things, the grace I will receive from God will help me to rise above the crowds.
I also must never forget that Jesus is always seeking me, wanting me to respond to him by opening my heart to his grace. He is always present. If I do not see him, this means there is some “crowd” blocking my view.
This crowd can represent different things for different people. It could be indifference, ignorance, sloth or pride. It could be selfishness, guilt, regret or anger. As I said, there is a long list of possible names for this crowd, but it is crucial I acknowledge this.
When I find what it is that is hindering my encounter with Christ, I cannot compromise. I cannot conform and I cannot go with the flow. I must rise above the crowd with the help of God’s grace. And then, once I encounter Christ, my life will be transformed in indescribable ways.