If you’ve been around children for more than about five minutes, I’m sure you’ve gotten frustrated. They interrupt and question when you just want to have a nice conversation. They run ahead, or behind, or zigzag, or sit down when you just want to have a nice walk. Think about that behavior. Now imagine yourself doing it. Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you think about what other people may think about your doing or asking? Name that uncomfortable emotion. Is it embarrassment or, perhaps, shame?
The word in our Gospel reading translated as “persistence” literally means “shamelessness.” Your friend knocks at the door late at night, and knocks, and keeps knocking, without regard for what you think about him. He needs something. Like a child, he is unashamed of his need, unashamed to ask, unashamed to persist.
Children appear in both our readings this morning, and imagining a particularly shameless child helps us to understand not only what it means to persist in prayer, as Jesus exhorts us, but to persevere in a relationship with God. God, Malachi tells us, will have compassion on those who serve God, as parents have compassion on “children who serve them” (Mal 3:17). I imagine this group not just as obedient children, but as shameless children, unembarrassed to revere God, unconcerned by what others, who see no profit in serving God, may think about them. This is the shamelessness of the psalmist, who persists in giving thanks to God despite those who mock him. This is the shamelessness of Saint Paul, who is unashamed of the Gospel (Rom 1:16).
This is difficult. We face enormous personal and social pressures to care about what others think, to conform, to grow up. But when we apply this to God, how easily we complicate our relationship with God. What childlike shamelessness gives us, I think, is single-minded freedom. Think back to that child. How would she express her need, how would she pray, how would she relate to God? Where do you feel resistance in doing likewise? What would it take for you to turn to God like her—unencumbered, unembarrassed, unashamed? Ask Jesus to give you that freedom—the freedom to ask, to search, to knock . . . the freedom to be shameless.
Every time I hear the story of Zacchaeus, I can’t help but to think of the maple tree in the front yard of my grandmother’s house. I grew up an only child and since my dad was significantly older than my mom, all of my cousins on that side of the family were already grown. Going to visit my grandmother could be a lonely experience not to mention an exercise in self-amusement since there was no one else to play with. My favorite activity was to climb that maple tree. It had a big limb that was positioned low enough that you could grab on and swing your legs around it and then pull yourself up. Once you were there, the other limbs practically formed a staircase leading to the upper chambers of the tree. The smaller you were, the higher you could go. In spring and summer the leaves would hide you from view, and I always had hopes of eluding my parents when they would call me at suppertime. To my surprise they always found me either from the sheer repetitiveness of this game or perhaps because the tree was directly in front of the family room picture window where my mom watched periodically to make sure I didn’t fall and break my arm.