I recently had a couple of conversations with a Protestant who has been struggling with doubts about the identity of Jesus Christ. He is bothered that what Christians believe today about the Incarnation — that Jesus has two natures but is one Person — is the result of definitions made at ancient ecumenical councils that sometimes involved bad blood, feuding and personality clashes. “Wouldn’t it have made more sense,” he asked, “if Jesus had written a book?” Would it?
Consider that as Jesus traveled up to Jerusalem to face torture and execution, he was rejected by many. The Gospels clearly depict people refusing to recognize Jesus as the Son of God despite his teachings, his miracles, his uncommon bearing. And consider Judas, who spent three years traveling with and learning from Jesus before betraying him for a bag of silver. How is it that someone could spend countless hours with the Incarnate Word and witness many stunning signs, and then scorn the hand that miraculously fed 5,000 (see Lk 9:12-17)?
Yet the depictions of fallen humanity in the Gospels ring true. Perhaps we even recognize something of ourselves in the tax collector Zacchaeus. He did not appear to be the sort of man who would seek after truth and then change his life radically — immediately! — upon finding it. Tax collectors were self-seeking, greedy and untrustworthy. However, Zacchaeus had undoubtedly heard stories about this mysterious man and his message of repentance and the Kingdom. And despite his position and wealth, he “was seeking to see who Jesus was.”
Zacchaeus was, St. Cyril of Jerusalem observed, short of stature, both physically and spiritually. He must have realized he was missing something, for he responded to the presence of Jesus with authentic spiritual thirst. “He desired to see Jesus and therefore climbed into a sycamore tree, and so a seed of salvation sprouted within him,” wrote Cyril, “Christ saw this with the eyes of deity. Looking up, he also saw Zacchaeus with the eyes of humanity, and since it was his purpose for all to be saved, he extends his gentleness to him.”
St. Augustine emphasized that Zacchaeus had to escape from the crowd, which “gets in the way and prevents Jesus from being seen.” Each of us has moments when “the crowd” — skeptics and doubters, tempters and corrupters — comes between us and Jesus, blocking our view and threatening to sever our communion with him. In which case, we must leave the crowd; we must climb the tree. St. Augustine interpreted the tree as a symbol of the cross, which is, St. Paul the Apostle wrote, “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). Zacchaeus was willing to look foolish in order to look upon Jesus. “Let Zacchaeus grasp the sycamore tree,” St. Augustine insisted, “and let the humble person climb the cross.”
This account by the Evangelist Luke was written to emphasize that while Zacchaeus believed he was the one seeking to see Jesus, it was actually Jesus who had first seen him and sought him all along: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost.” The author of the Book of Wisdom describes the Lord in today’s first reading as the “lover of souls.” God knows our deepest longings, doubts and fears; he also, St. Paul states, promises to fulfill “every good purpose and every effort of faith.” Come down quickly; receive him with joy!
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.