There’s a fashion photographer in New York City who, just to mix things up, approaches people on the street, asking if they would model for him for a few minutes.
Responses fall into two broad categories.
In the first group are those who are not the least bit surprised to be stopped. By the way they are dressed, we can safely assume they stepped out into the streets that day, fully intending to be noticed.
Then there are those in the second group. These folks are mystified by the photographer’s request. Like many city dwellers, when they left their homes that day, they assumed no one would notice them at all.
As I think about Zacchaeus, the character at the center of Luke’s story today, I would put him in both groups. While I don’t think Zack went out wanting people to notice him, no doubt he knew this could not be avoided. A few hours of utter anonymity, an afternoon of invisibility would have felt delicious, no doubt.
As our story makes clear, Zack made his living doing something no one appreciated, and just about everyone believed made him an outright sinner.
People resented and even hated Zacchaeus because, as a tax collector for Rome, he was a sell-out to his own people. Zack worked for an empire bent on extracting every denarius it could from an occupied people doing their utmost to scrape by.
But it wasn’t just his work for Rome that had people fuming, it was that Zack could and probably did take liberties as he collected taxes. He was free to add surtaxes at will. In other words, he could overcharge people and keep the difference, all without consequence.
Given all this, it’s a safe bet that when Zacchaeus went to go see about this Jesus he’d been hearing about, he knew there was no point in trying to elbow his way to the front of the crowd. No one in their right mind would let him in.
Zack might have been rich and reviled, but he was also wonderfully creative. So he hiked up his robes and shimmied into the branches of a nearby tree, hoping to catch sight of this Jesus he had heard so much about.
What Zack did not count on when he climbed up high, what he could not have anticipated, was that the Jesus he had hoped to spy would also spy him.
I don’t know about you, but this is one of my favorite things about Jesus. As he moved from community to community, Jesus was like the photographer in New York, noticing all the people who weren’t expecting to be noticed.
You know the kind of people who consistently caught Jesus’ eye: the lost causes, the outliers, the cast-offs, the broken and bruised, and, in Zacchaeus’ case, the utterly reviled.
Even when Jesus wasn’t trying, he had a knack for seeing those who others didn’t see or didn’t want to see. It might even be fair to say that Jesus had eyes in the back of his head because, on at least one occasion, he noticed someone who had quietly crept up behind him.
Remember when that happened? A woman who had been ritually unclean for close to two decades tiptoed up behind Jesus in the midst of a noisy crowd. Then she reached down to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe believing that this tiny gesture would be more than enough to heal her.
Even with his back to her, Jesus knew someone was there. He pivoted immediately and, with great compassion, addressed this woman who had spent far too many years being a persona non grata, that is, a person utterly unwelcome.
Remembering this, we really shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus spied Zack perched on a branch.
Jesus wasn’t just observant, though. He was also perceptive. Jesus saw Zack’s social isolation, his identity as an outcast. Wasting no time, Jesus quickly appointed himself Zack’s friend, his dinner guest, his happily ad hoc family.
Hurry down, Jesus said. I’m coming to your house today.
In other words, I see you, Zacchaeus. I see past how you make your living. I see beyond your years of trespasses against your own people. I see behind the wealth unjustly gained. I see the YOU who is so much more than what you have or have not done. I see you, Zack, a man worthy of befriending, a man deserving of love, a person who more than merits genuine inclusion.
It’s unlikely that we know someone who closely resembles Zacchaeus, but unless we have cut ourselves off entirely from the human family, we know plenty of people who live with the painful reality that they are counted out, even excluded, on account of what they have done or who they are.
If we know those kinds of folks, we also know a few people who remind us of Jesus in today’s story. People who see beyond circumstances and into people’s souls.
One such person is Sister Helen Prejean. Since the early 1980s, when she first became a pen pal of a man on death row, Sister Helen has devoted herself to putting an end to the death penalty. Speaking to whoever will listen, Sr. Helen says with deep conviction, “People are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.”
That sounds like a lot like something Jesus would say, don’t you think? This was certainly his clear message to Zacchaeus, wasn’t it? And isn’t this what Jesus says to you and me when we are raking ourselves over the coals about a fault or failing?
People are far more than their mistakes and missteps. They are also more than their fabulous careers, their enviable addresses, or their ample bank accounts. People are more than the color of their skin, their gender, or their sexual orientation. They are more than the beliefs they hold, the votes they cast, the places they do and do not frequent.
Every single person alive is much, much more than any measure the rest of us might use to approve or disapprove of them.
To be seen for who we truly are and not for what has happened to us or what we have done, to be seen for who we truly are, is genuinely healing, even redemptive and transformative.
I don’t think I fully grasped this truth until I was diagnosed and treated for cancer twenty years ago.
Unlike what others undergoing treatment for their cancer told me, never did any of my specialists or their staff ever, ever say to me, “You’re the stage 2 breast cancer, aren’t you?” To a one, my medical providers had eyes and hearts like Jesus.
It was a grace and a gift that year to be seen for who I was far beyond my diagnosis.
When I saw her one last time before moving, my oncologist smiled wide and said she was not the least bit worried about my prognosis because, in her words, I had never taken my diagnosis on as an identity. But how could I? No one else had.
Seeing and being seen are everything. It’s what heals us. It’s what transforms us. It’s what enables us to slough off the labels and burdens that have accumulated to step into our lives today, a beautiful reality we see rise up and out of Zacchaeus in this morning’s story.
Seeing and being seen is where life begins, really. After suckling, sleeping, and being swaddled, seeing and being seen takes up nearly all of a baby’s first months.
A newborn gazes deeply into mama’s eyes, don’t they? They look at length into father’s face, don’t they? They take in the faces that crowd around them—the village, the neighborhood, the family members who gather on holidays and for no reason at all.
Bonding, we call this deep visual exchange that occurs in the first months of an infant’s life. But it’s much more than that. This back-and-forth of seeing and being seen is how we come to know we are human. It’s how we know we belong. It’s how we know we are loved and are helped to thrive.
What happens when we aren’t seen? Some of us act out. Some pull away. Some behave badly. Some try to blend in, hoping to sidestep the judgment or exclusion we fear is coming. Some of us, like Zacchaeus, give up on the idea that we’ll ever be seen for who we are—just for who we’ve become.
Whichever direction we might be inclined to go when we are not seen for who we truly are, our lives become tragically small, even if they’re outwardly big. They’re small because they can’t hold the goodness and greatness of our souls.
When our lives are riddled with lies—the ones we tell ourselves, the ones told us, as well as lies we believe about other people—what comes to pass is never what God intends. Instead of glimpses of heaven here on earth, we get shades of hell.
How well I remember someone who grew up believing there was something deeply wrong with him. “I’m the black sheep of the family,” he would say off-handedly as a way of explaining his family’s response to him. He tried to laugh off this comment but let me tell you, it was clearly a self-reinforcing mantra. With each mistake, each unwise move, each flop and failure, this friend convinced himself of something that simply was not true.
I hope he’s found the freedom that Zacchaeus finally experienced. As Luke makes clear, once seen, once befriended, once received as the beloved son of Abraham that he already was, Zacchaeus changed.
Let’s be clear, though. He didn’t change because Jesus demanded this. He didn’t change to prove to anyone that he was turning over a new leaf, that he wanted to be a new man. He didn’t change so much as he experienced a factory reset; he began again to be who he had always been. And who was he but a man with empathy for the poor? A man more than able to right wrongs and to repair the bonds he had broken.
That photographer in New York sees people who weren’t expecting to be seen. For a few moments, he lets them experience themselves as the marvels that they are.
Jesus? He wants to do this with every single one of us. And not just a little bit but all the time. Even the ones who, like Zacchaeus, seem too far gone. Especially them.
Let us pray:
God, you have loved us since before we took birth. And you will love us for all time. Hold us in your arms this morning and gaze into our eyes with kindness, compassion, and unwavering love.
We grieve the many who are lost to you, people who have given up or have been given up on.
We all stand in need of a love more enduring, more reliable, and more true than anything we can or will experience with those who most love us.
Use us as your agents of love. Help us see the unseen and love them as fully as we can. Let us all, to a one, be changed back into our truest selves, born again, transformed by the love that flows from your heart into ours. Amen.