Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Short Story

I am short. I have always been short. It’s never been something I have given a great deal of thought however I am reminded time and time again how taller people seem to have the upper hand in most things. Certainly at concerts and movies I am reminded. I think of how easy it must be for taller people stand and not have to do the “bob-and-weave” like some prizefighter to see a performance. In certain athletic events for sure, height lends an advantage – basketball of course comes to mind. Having played basketball all my young adult life it was an interesting study in psychology to have to play against people who were taller than I was. Psychology suggests being short can lead to “Napolean” complexes where one attempts to overcome one’s physical deficiencies with huge egoistic displays of will and power.

Even in the language we are dissed: we “come up short” and possess certain “shortcomings” all terms that conjure up pejorative images. The language itself suggests to us what we all seem to already know: that being short possesses inherent difficulties.

So this is why I find the gospel story of Zaccheus so intriguing. Luke provides us with such a great detail about Zaccheus’ height you have to wonder why? What was the point of such an arcane detail? Why did Luke alert us to the fact that he was short?

Here’s the reading from Luke:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.
All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner." Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."
Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

So Zaccheus was a short, rich man. Clearly, his lack of height did not prevent him from becoming a “success”. Of course, no one needs to be reminded that he was a tax collector and they were not the most popular of people – sort of like today’s politicians or CEOs I would imagine. He was interested in this itinerant preacher who socialized with his kind, though frankly, between you and me, I think this postmodern thought of these wealthy Jews that were hated by their own people sort of misrepresents their social status. We almost feel sorry for these tax collectors but wealth back then was the same as wealth today, and most wealthy people I know don’t seem to mind their lives. I’m sure these tax collectors had parties with other lawyers and tax collectors and even invited some of the Roman Senators for the occasional lamb roast. So let’s not feel too sorry for stubby old Zaccheus. He was doing just fine, probably had a timeshare in Palestine, overlooking the Mediterranean. All this, and he was short. Maybe he was one of those with an overcompensating ego. Still Freud was a couple of millennia away so all anyone probably thought of Zaccheus was that he knew how to get the things he wanted.

Then Jesus comes along and Zaccheus wanted one more thing. He wanted to see this preacher. He wanted to hear what he had to say but the crowds were crazy. He couldn’t see. So he finds a Sycamore tree. Now the Sycamore is a large tree with small flowers. Legend had it that Persian King Xerxes found this tree so beautiful he actually assigned it a personal bodyguard. Now I don’t know that Luke had this story in mind, but the Sycamore is a large beautiful tree. It’s wood provided shelter for the pilgrims who first came to America. It is almost the antithesis of how we picture Zaccheus. He climbs the tree presumably scrapping with the crowd, throwing the occasional elbow here and there. And there, aloft in the soft breeze of the Sycamore, Jesus sees him. Zaccheus’ ability to overcome obstacles has caused him to seek the goodness that is represented in Jesus’ message. Though the path is crowded with others, nothing, it seems, will get in Zaccheus’ way. In essence his ascent into the tree almost foreshadows Jesus’ “climbing” his tree later on as he dies on the cross. It is this ability to shed his old life and leave his earthly concerns below that makes Jesus look up at Zaccheus and pronounce salvation to his house. Zaccheus almost seems to promise a new life when Jesus implores him to come down, willing to pay him back four times what he may have defrauded others.

I love the description of the grumbling people when Jesus announces he is going to stay with Zaccheus. It seems that we humans have not changed one iota since those days. We seem to be a species that is so incapable of allowing another to have one moment of joy without us wanting to step all over it. Zaccheus probably had visitors at his house, but certainly no holy men such as Jesus. No spiritual celebrities ever stopped there – not the Pharisees or Sadducees certainly. It would be, I assume, akin to the Dali Lama or the Pope coming to my house. Better clean the bathrooms for sure!

In the end though, it is Zaccheus’ shortness that causes him to find the way. Because of his limitation, he seeks to overcome his inability in that overdeveloped, Napoleanic ego of his, It is our disabilities that help us discover what our limits are: are we too “short” in loving others? Are we too “short” in forgiving others? Are we too “short” in finding the good in people? If we allow these “disabilities”, our lack of stature, to force us into a tree to see the truth, then we become so much more than just what we are not. The measure of who we are as spiritual beings is not made in what we cannot achieve, but in what we have overcome and choose to overcome.

So I can really relate to Zaccheus. He probably could never have dunked a basketball either. He was always chosen last in the Hebrew School basketball pickup games; I’m sure it took a toll on his self-esteem. But remember that it was what was most lacking in him – his height – that drove him to leave behind earthbound concerns and offer Jesus a place at his table.

M C Biegner


Blogger Kevin said...

if you reread the text, there is another possibility...

what if Zaccheus climbs the tree because "Jesus" was to short to be seen?

we always assume the "he" refers to Zaccheus, but perhaps Jesus was the short man.

what so you think?

10/28/2005 11:49 PM  

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