When You're Strange
In our American culture, few things are cherished above personal freedom and individuality. The freedom to express ourselves and to be whatever we want to be is at the heart of the American spirit and has been for years. The ironic thing, though, is that the more people try to be different, the more they end up resembling one another.
When I was a college chaplain, I was speaking with another chaplain who had remarkable success with his campus ministry. We were discussing how, often, college ministries become centers of strange liturgical practice and “selective Catholicism.” How do we get through to the young people today? His answer was this: “These kids pierce everything. They will get tattoos of anything and have them placed everywhere. They’ve been catered to and pandered to for much of their lives, and this ministry should not be just another one of those experiences. The most shocking thing we can present to these folks is the Truth – it’s the Gospel.”
He was right. I saw it work myself.
Today, striving to be different often leads simply to blending in with the crowd. There are a lot of faces in that crowd, and we really don’t want to be another one of them.
Friends, it is time for us to be strange!
We meet one such “strange” person in the Gospel today. Zacchaeus stands out from the other people in Jericho. He is shorter than most people. He is the chief tax collector – not just “a” tax collector. And he is a wealthy man. All of these things mark him as different – as “strange.” However, as Jesus passes through the town, intending to simply pass through, Zacchaeus could just blend into that crowd like everyone else and just watch Christ as He passes. But he doesn’t. He can’t.
Due to his short stature, he can’t see over the complacent, conforming crowd. So, he climbs a tree – a very strange thing for a grown man to do! He wants to catch a glimpse of Jesus; he wants an encounter. Zacchaeus, literally, goes “out on a limb.”
Seeing him, Jesus stops. Our Lord knows something is up with this little guy; he catches His attention. Now, in the gospels, very little amazes, surprises or impresses Jesus. Demons jump out at Him, and he simply rebukes them. However, when someone shows remarkable faith (or a remarkable lack of faith), Christ pays attention. Here, as He intends to pass through, something remarkable must have stopped Him in His tracks as He sees Zacchaeus up in that tree. So, He calls him down.
Here, we learn new “strange” things about Zacchaeus. In spite of his great wealth, he will give half of what he has to the poor. As tax collector, if he ever cheats someone, he will pay them back – not just double or triple, but four times! Even amid the jeers of the crowd, the little man stands tall and speaks up to Jesus in his defense. “I am not all they think I am, Lord.”
And Jesus knows this.
“Today salvation has come to this house.”
Brothers and sisters, we can blend into this congregation and be part of the crowd. At Mass, we could be content to hear God’s Word spoken to us and Jesus become present at the altar. We could leave this place having fulfilled our duty and return to the “rest of our lives.” But this is not what we are called to. Jesus wants us to impress Him; He wants us to stand out.
Conforming to what the world calls “normal” will not catch God’s attention – not in the way that Zacchaeus did today. We must be “strange.” And this is seen in the way we encounter the world around us.
Do we need to follow the fashions of the world? Do we need name brands and expensive tags to show that we are just like everyone else who buy this type of purse or that kind of jacket? Are we prudent in our use of the world’s goods, or do we conform to a “throw-away” culture?
It is easy to blend in; it’s comfortable. There were a lot of “faces in the crowd” as Jesus walked through Jericho, but there was only one Zacchaeus. And there is only one you. How will Jesus notice you today?