Our homily today is based on Luke 19:1-10.
The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus has got to be one of the strangest–and funniest–scenes in the Gospel. So we’re told our Lord is, as usual, on his way somewhere, followed by the usual massive crowd. Then without any warning, he stops in his tracks, looks up–and, we can imagine, all the people around him instinctively looking up as well–to see, of all things, a man straddling a branch, hiding behind its leaves.
And to the man above him, our Lord greets him in a way that stuns the crowd and nearly knocks the man off the tree:
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
It’s a stunning greeting on so many levels. First of all, our Lord knows Zacchaeus by name! Secondly, with everything else going on around him, how does Jesus know there is a man above him hidden behind the leaves of the sycamore tree? And third, has he, a holy man, just invited himself to the man’s house for dinner? That’s unacceptable! Zacchaeus is a notorious tax collector–one who is hated not only because he is corrupt, but also because he is branded a traitor to Palestine because the taxes he collects go to Rome.
As expected, the crowd begins to complain among themselves about their rabbi’s decision “to go to the house of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus couldn’t care less. He is overjoyed and honored. It is the greatest day of his life! In fact, he is so moved by the Lord’s gesture that he decides to give half of his possessions to the poor. And he promises more more: “If I have extorted anything from anyone, I shall repay it four times over.”
How can we make sense of this 180-degree conversion of an inveterate sinner? Zacchaeus, after all, is a tax collector who, for years, has been set in his ways. Resigned to live and die with a bad reputation, he has acquired the habit of bracing himself each day to face his angry compatriots and has, in all likelihood, mastered the art of hiding in plain sight in order to avoid their ridicule and contempt. Why this inexplicable change of heart and uncharacteristic generosity?
Here’s my theory: The crucial element, what has made all the difference, is our Lord’s greeting. Despite his busy day, Jesus stops in his tracks, looks up, and sees Zacchaeus. He doesn’t do what we usually do. He doesn’t just say, “How are you today?” and quickly moves on attending to his concerns without bothering to stop to hear any answer. He sees Zacchaeus and he makes Zacchaeus feel that he is seen, giving him the one thing that he has been needing all these years: Empathy from a fellow human being.
That makes me think about the way I greet people during the day. I tend to greet them exactly the way I’m usually greeted–with a rushed “Hello” or “How are you today?”–without really the interest or the time to wait for the response to that question. We’ve generally grown too busy to pay attention to the persons we meet. But what if, just what if–as illustrated in today’s Gospel–one greeting could make a world of a difference in someone’s life?
There is beautiful greeting that is common in the Zulo tribe in Africa. The greeting is “Sawubona!” It literally means “I see you.” When you say “Sawubona” to someone, you are relaying some very important messages in that one word.
You are telling the person: “I see you. You are important to me. I value you. I’m not just going to pass you by the way we do when we toss a casual ‘How are you today?’ greeting. No. This moment, in this place, all my attention is with you. I see you and I give myself permission to discover your needs, to see your fear. I accept you for what you are and you are part of me.”
And the proper response to “Sawubona” is equally concise and equally significant. You respond by saying: “Shiboka“–which means “I exist for you.”
That day Zacchaeus climbed up to sit on the branch of that sycamore tree, our Lord looked up, looked into his eyes, and said, “Sawubona.” That one greeting made all the difference, and from the depths of his soul, Zacchaeus said, “Shiboka.”
Every moment of our lives, the Lord gazes upon all of us with love and benevolence and whispers “Sawubona. I see you!”
Seriously? All of us? Including those who do harm and boast about it? Including those self-righteous “keyboard warriors” who spend their days calling out people and bashing them online? Including those Ateneans with their big Ateneo blue egos?
Yes, all of us. For God loves “all that are and loathe nothing” (Wisdom 11:24).
The difference, however, is that many are incapable of hearing God’s greeting and responding to him because of all the static in their lives.
Let’s make an effort to hear God’s voice amidst all the noise in the world, so that unlike them and like Zacchaeus, we too may say to Him: “Shiboka. We exist for You.”