When I was a child, I learned a song about Zaccheus. I won’t sing it for you, but the words went like this:
Zaccheus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…
The fascination of the story for children, of course, is that this small but important man clamored up a tree to get a better look at the popular preacher who had come to town. He was curious and determined, and he didn’t let his small stature deter him from realizing his goal.
We can picture him running ahead of the crowd, climbing into a tree, and looking down the road as Jesus approached. He hides himself among the leaves, wanting to see the prophet, but not expecting to be seen by him. And yet this is exactly what happens. Jesus stops the procession, looks up into the branches, and summons Zaccheus to come down. He already knows who Zaccheus is – not only that he is a tax collector, but that he is a chief tax collector – but he also perceives that there is far more to this little man than what his title and role might suggest. Perhaps he senses Zaccheus’ present dissatisfaction with his life, or perhaps he recognizes his hunger for God. Whatever it is, he sees something and invites Zaccheus to a life-changing conversation.
This is not the only story in the gospels in which Jesus looks into a person’s eyes and perceives the intentions of their heart.
Jesus perceives that a young man who is seeking to please God is actually more attached to his wealth and to the status and privileges that he enjoys because of it (Mark 10:17-22).
He recognizes courage, extraordinary hospitality, and grateful devotion in a woman whom others fail to see (“Simon, do you see this woman?) because she has been labeled a “sinner” (Luke 7:36-50).
He discerns the true motives of a crowd of people who praise him after he provides them with a free meal, recognizing they want him to be king for the further benefits he could provide (John 6:1-15).
He perceives that his own disciples have not yet understood his message and asks what they have been discussing amongst themselves. He’s disappointed, but not surprised, when they admit they have been arguing about which of them will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Mark 9:33-37).
He sees through the questions the religious leaders pose to him and realizes that they are not seeking God. Instead, they are trying to entrap him in order to discredit him and to maintain their position of power and privilege (Luke 20:27-40).
He observes a poor woman offering two small coins at the temple treasury. He recognizes the love and devotion with which she offers it and counts her gift as more valuable than the bags of coins that the rich contribute (Luke 21:1-4).
Again and again in the gospels, we see Jesus perceiving the intentions of the heart, whether for good or for evil, and responding in ways that reveal the truth. I’m not sure how Zaccheus felt when Jesus called him down from the tree, and I’m not sure how most of us would feel to have Jesus look us directly in the eye, knowing that he sees us as we really are.
But this is the truth. The Triune God sees and knows everything about us, even what we keep hidden from others. When we realize that God sees it all and still loves us with an unwavering love, we can risk being honest in our prayer. God does not want to hear from us lovely platitudes or empty promises or carefully crafted words; in prayer God desires our honesty. Genuine prayer is always truthful and real. We can pray the truth about ourselves because God is trustworthy and faithful. Because of this, we can bring to God the whole of our lives, not just our ‘spiritual selves.’ As we say in our community’s Rule of Life:
The life of prayer calls for the courage to bring into our communion with Christ the fullness of our humanity and the concrete realities of our daily existence, which he redeemed by his incarnation…. We are to bring him our sufferings and poverty, our passion and sexuality, our fears and resistances, our desires and our dreams, our losses and grief. We must spread before him our cares about the world and its people, our friends and families, our enemies and those from whom we are estranged. Our successes and our failures, our gifts and shortcomings are equally the stuff of our prayer…
(The Rule of the Society of St John the Evangelist, chapter 22, page 45)
It takes courage to speak honestly and directly with God about the whole of our lives, but the task becomes easier when remember that it is Love who listens to us.
It is Love that redirects us when we have lost our way.
It is Love that reorders our priorities and shows us a higher purpose for our lives.
It is Love that summons us to be our best selves.
God is Love, and there is no reason to be afraid. “In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:6).
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