When he reached the spot, Jesus looked up. He said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry down from there! For I must stay in your house today!” He quickly climbed down and joyfully welcomed him.
Luke 19: 5-6
This morning I was reading a reflection by the spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran (Words to Live By). He writes: “There is no need to throw up our hands as so many are doing today and say, ‘Let us be separate and have a relationship.'” I couldn’t help but reflect that in my relationships with others I expend much of my energy in keeping my distance, in making sure that the demands of the presence of the other in my life do not significantly disturb my own habitual ways of being and acting. I want to have relationships, but I would like to have them without their costing me too much in terms of my independence, autonomy, and security.
The 18th chapter of Luke’s gospel features the encounter of Jesus with two figures: the law observant “Ruler” of verses 18-23 and the tax-collector Zacchaeus. The Ruler is clearly among the righteous who has throughout his life striven to keep in right relationship with God. Yet, when he actually encounters Jesus, he is unable to do the “one thing remaining” that love demands of him which is to sell all he has, give it to the poor, and come follow Jesus. On the other hand, Zacchaeus commits in a continuous way to give half of all he has to the poor and to make restitution fourfold for any time he may have cheated another. That is, Zacchaeus orders his life around his relationship with Jesus, instead of ordering his relationship around his self-determined life.
There is a loneliness at the heart of human life that is profoundly formative. It teaches us a truth which is that our life is given by God and ultimately belongs to God alone. It is we, and we alone, who bear responsibility to God for the gift of the life that has been given to us. There is also, however, a loneliness that is the result of our own fear and selfishness. This is the result of the distance from loving relationship that we impose on ourselves for fear of the demands that intimacy imposes. This is the loneliness that is the result of our relating to others only in service to our own needs for social interaction and the confirmation of our self-determined sense of ourselves. It is the attempt, in Easwaran’s terms, to have intimacy without the willingness to respond, no matter the personal cost, to the appropriate demands on us of the desires and needs of the other. It is the refusal, in the words of the poet William Blake, to “learn to bear the beams of love.”
Today’s gospel is a challenge to consider how the above dynamic plays out in our relationships not only to other human persons but also to God. Here, too, I am often much more like the Ruler than Zacchaeus. I want a relationship with God on my own terms. Of course I want to “experience” God in prayer, but I want the experience of intimacy while remaining separate and in control of what that relationship might ask of me. It is very difficult to dare to enter into prayer in such a way that we truly listen, with a totally willing heart, to the demands of love on us in the moment.
A central theme in the story of Zacchaeus is that of hospitality: “For I must stay in your house today!” The demands of hospitality, however, require a full and responsive presence. It means to pass over from my own self-centered projects to the appeal of the other. Yet, so often in prayer I have one eye on the clock and another on the tasks and projects before me . I remain separate, and so God seems absent. This sense of absence is due, at least in part, to my refusal to love with a wholehearted hospitality and willingness to hear and respond to what love asks of me.
For both characters in Luke 18, as for us, “the one thing remaining” if we are to know eternal life is to release our hold on our possessions, including the possession of our own lives. It is dare to try to love “with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.” In the words of St. Francis: “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Here comes Jesus, who sees this person and speaks to him in the light of glory, saying that according to his divinity he is infinite, incomprehensible, inaccessible, and fathomless, transcending all created light and every finite concept. This is the highest knowledge of God that a person can acquire in the active life, namely, that the person acknowledges in the light of faith that God is incomprehensible and unknowable. In this light Christ says to this person’s desire, “Come down quickly, for I must stay at your house today” (Lk 19:5). This quick descent is nothing other than a desirous and loving immersion into the abyss of the Godhead, where no understanding which requires created light can reach. But where understanding remains without, desire and love enter within.
When the soul thus inclines toward God with love and intent above all that it understands, then it abides in God and God in it. When the soul ascends with desire above the multiplicity of the created order, above the activity of the senses and above all natural light, then it meets Christ in the light of faith; it becomes enlightened and confesses that God is unknowable and incomprehensible. When the soul inclines with desire toward this incomprehensible God, then it meets Christ and is filled with his gifts. When it loves and is at rest above all gifts, above itself, and above all creatures, then it abides in God and God in it. This is how we are are to meet Christ at the highest level of the active life.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, I,iv,D