I’d like to invite you to walk backwards in time a few years— back to a time when things felt less divided, less polarized, less politically exhausted and fraught. Take your mind there.
Remember feeling more hopeful, more buoyed by possibilities and prospects, more receptive to light, fresh air, movement, and growth.
Me personally, I think of January 2009. It was certainly not perfect time, not completely easy. As a country, we were beginning to grapple with the great recession and anxious to move on from the Bush years. At the time, I was a young professor, early in my teaching life. Instead of freezing in the upper Midwest, where the snow hadstarted before Halloween and would end only after Easter the next spring, I was instead freezing in our nation’s capital— though more comfortably. I had spent Christmas break with family and stayed around for Obama’s first inauguration. The tricky part was doing this all from a wheelchair.
I had moved cross-country to Minnesota in late summer… and had broken my leg three weeks in, before I had even fully unpacked my apartment and oﬃce, about a week before classes even started. It meant a series of painful surgeries to pin my leg back together, months of physical therapy, an endless succession of casts and boots and wheelchairs and walkers, and navigating a completely new city and new campus with only the help of new colleagues and friend networks cobbled together. People were kind, generous, and understanding... but it was still a pretty rough introduction.
For a few weeks that winter, though, I got to escape what I called “tundra town.” I was in DC instead, braving the cold only when necessary, and largely not having to deal with piles of snow and ice just to get to the paratransit van that would shlep me around.
When we go to a large event— like New Year’s Eve in Times Square, or the parade for the Golden State Warriors after their championship, or a protest march, or a World Youth Day, or even a major arena concert—things can get fizzy as people file in and jostle for position. We can feel the energy of the crowd ratchet up with undeniable anticipation, waiting for a big moment… THE big moment. We want to see, hear, feel, touch, taste… belong. Really, as participants and spectators, we want to be swept up in belonging, to say "we were there," even when we’re peripheral to the story.
For President Obama’s first inauguration, we were among the enormous crowds filling the National Mall. Imagine the glee and the expectation, tinged with excitement, hope, and relief. The energy was crackling and electric, even as it was cold enough to see your breath hang in the air, in little icicle fogs. From my wheelchair vantage point, there were people as far as the eye could see— not only on every square inch of ground, but also in the trees that were low enough to climb easily, and even perching on the narrow square roofs of porta-potties. Even with jumbotrons lining the Mall at regular intervals, people just wanted to see, to belong, to claim the moment, to find the kinship of shared experience.
With every speech, every performance, every greeting, every conversation that day, even among total strangers, that sense of kinship and belonging grew.
This scene is what comes to mind for me when I hear the story of Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore tree. Luke loves his outcasts, and with his author's eye, his Zacchaeus-- the short tax collector dude-- is certainly among the memorable ones. At first he's content to run ahead, stake out a spot with a good view, and observe the action, to see what's going on. But then he gets called down from the tree to be at the very center of things, hosting Jesus and his disciples. And he doesn't feel quite worthy.
Honestly, I relate to his predicament DEEPLY as a person who is also short. I never get to see ANYTHING unless I can make my way to the front of a barricade or a velvet rope line, and there are plenty of everyday things I skip simply because I don’t want the hassle of trying to find a step ladder just to do it. There are days when being short honestly makes me feel excluded from regular life.
Before we dive into Zacchaeus’ story further, let's remember first the backdrop which sets it up: the first reading, from the book of Wisdom. It gets us ready and puts our very being into perspective:
“Before the Lord, the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.”
That language is exquisite, even heartbreaking in the way that it reminds us: look how small we and our cares are, in the scheme of things. But then it reminds us of the wideness of God’s mercy— the God who created us out of love, the God who loves us always and anyways and regardless, even when we are broken, even when we screw up, even as we stumble around, imperfect but striving.
“You have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people’s sins that they may repent.”
God’s mercy comes from being all-knowing and all-feeling. Even as God hears us into speech (as the old-school feminist theologian Nelle Morton would say)-- even as God calls us into being and loves us into life, that mercy has already set a table of grace for us.
“You love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.”
That mercy is extended to us from the very beginning, being created from love, in God’s image and likeness, to be kin to each other, to belong.
This is precisely where we find Zacchaeus: he just wants to see, and he just wants to belong. When Jesus asks to stay with him as onlookers grumble that he's choosing to stay with a sinner, Zacchaeus gets that nudge that the end of that Wisdom reading brings up:
"You rebuke oﬀenders little by little...
that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord!"
Zacchaeus recognizes his own faults and shortcomings and steps up to begin making amends. Maybe it's not perfect restitution for a despised tax collector like him, but it's a start. Jesus recognizes that Zacchaeus is also kin-- "son of Abraham"-- and wants to belong-- "for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost." Isn't that desire for kinship and belonging also our own? Let's take a step back to recognize when and how the desire surfaces for us. Let us also follow Jesus' lead to extend that invitation to someone else: oﬀer an opening to someone looking for a place to land, to call home, to be loved unconditionally.
Dr. Rachel Bundang
Dr. Rachel Bundang
Dr. Rachel Bundang is a Catholic feminist ethicist. Presently based in the Bay Area, she teaches on the Religious Studies faculty at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton and the Graduate Program for Pastoral Ministries faculty at Santa Clara University. She has written multiple articles and book chapters and until recently served on the editorial team for the journal Theological Studies. A founding member of the Asian Pacific American Religious Research Initiative (APARRI), her areas of interest lie at the intersections of race, feminisms, technology, inequality, and Catholic social teaching. As a liturgist, she preaches and leads music regularly at her home parish in the Bay Area and also offers retreats and workshops nationally.
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