Sunday, October 31, 2010

The First and Most Important Step of Faith: Going Out on a Limb

Much attention is rightfully paid in our tradition to the "active" dimension and expressions of faith: professing the Triune God, practicing charity, advocating for justice, showing a preferential regard for the poor, etc... But what if I suggested that the first "act" of faith, and the most important, is really not very active at all but, nevertheless, is perhaps the most difficult?

The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 (today's Gospel from the Mass) provides the key for answering the above "faith riddle." The story is, of course, about the famous tax-collector who literally and figuratively "went out on a limb" to catch sight of Jesus and who was rewarded for this gesture by the Lord calling him down from the sycamore tree, staying at his house, and sharing the gift of God's saving love with him. However, this story really isn't about what Zacchaeus did in climbing the tree nor in what he did when he affirmed his faith in God by giving away half of his wealth to the poor and promising to repay four-fold anyone whom he cheated. The most important thing that Zacchaeus did is precisely what he didn't do: Zacchaeus didn't hide.

If anyone could have hid from Jesus, it would have been Zacchaeus. Being a tax-collector, he would have been ostracized from the Jewish community; being wealthy, he would not have been the focus of Jesus' ministry (in Luke, Jesus exercises a clear preference for the poor and the sinner); being short in stature would have made it quite easy for him to hide behind others. He also no doubt had deeper reasons for hiding: shame, feelings of inadequacy, and his own or the community's perception of him being a sinner.

With a little "reading between the lines", the story of Zacchaeus provides insight into the first, and most important and ongoing act of faith: simply not hiding ourselves from relationship with God. In our day and age, it is quite easy to hide behind our "gadgets", frenetic activity, a title, our work, social status, addiction, etc...etc.... On a deeper level, we also hide because of anxiety, guilt, shame, pain, and the broken or strained relationships we have endured that perhaps have convinced us we cannot be loved or we cannot bear to risk ourselves in love again. We do have both good and not so good reasons for hiding. But in hiding, we miss out on love and life and we also waste so much time and energy trying to keep ourselves concealed from God, others, and especially ourselves.

Alice Miller, a psychiatrist who treats those who have suffered trauma, had this to say about our efforts to "hide": "Our truth is stored in our body and although we can repress it, we can never altar it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, our body tricked with medication. But someday the body will present it's bill - for it is as incorruptible as a child who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises, or excuses and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth."

The Good News of the Gospel is that for those who go out on a limb to meet God, when our "bills" come due we don't have to pay them alone. The message of the Cross and today's Gospel clearly points to a God who is willing to go to great heights and depths, even hell and back, to find us, collect us, help us "pay our bills", and ultimately lead us home. If only we simply not be afraid to "go out on a limb" and allow ourselves to truly be seen. Pat, TOR