We have almost no personal description of the people who meet Jesus during his public ministry. Occasionally we get a name: Martha or Bartimaeus. But we are not told what color hair Martha had or how old Bartimaeus was when he met Jesus. Today’s gospel is an exception to this pattern. It provides us with one clear personal characteristic of the tax collector, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was short—or as the lectionary delicately puts it, “short in stature.” Now it is very likely that Zacchaeus did not like being short. In the ancient world, as today, there simply is no advantage being smaller than other people. We can imagine that during Zacchaeus’ schooling and afterwards he had to endure a series of nicknames: peewee, runt, little man. A callus person could often make fun at Zacchaeus’ expense, like saying, “Hey Zach, how the weather down there?” It was not easy being short, and it is very likely that Zacchaeus simply saw his height as a disadvantage he would have to accept.
Now the beautiful thing about today’s gospel is that God uses the very thing that Zacchaeus sees as an inadequacy to lead him to Jesus. If Zacchaeus had been the same height as other people, he could have easily seen Jesus from the crowd. In the crowd, however, he would have been one of a hundred faces. But Zacchaeus was short in stature, so he climbed up the Sycamore tree in order to see Jesus. This made Zacchaeus uniquely visible to Jesus who saw him, stopped, called him, and announced that he must stay at Zacchaeus’ house. The very thing that Zacchaeus saw as a limitation was used by God to change Zacchaeus’ life, to make him a disciple of the Lord.
This gospel is telling us that God uses all the parts of our lives to love us and save us, even the parts that we wish were different. Perhaps you always wished you were a better athlete, more coordinated. But despite your best efforts you always ended up being the entertainment in gym class. This gospel tells us that God is able to show you how to invest the time and energy you would have spent on being a state champion in wrestling in other areas—in academics or the appreciation of beauty. Those investments will be a means of blessing time and again. Perhaps you still carry hurt because of favoritism in your family. You watched as your parents loved your brothers and sisters at your expense. Today’s gospel says that God is able and has perhaps already used that experience of favoritism to make you a better parent, to give you the will to make sure that all your children see themselves as equally loved and valued. Perhaps you always wished that you were better socially, that you could make small talk or to mix easily in groups. Today’s gospel says that God is able and may have already used your social awkwardness to connect you to someone on a deeper level, to help you find a friend or a spouse who knows and loves you not because of your glib language, but because they see your honesty in your heart. Those relationships can last a lifetime.
We all have parts of ourselves that we wish were different. Today’s gospel reminds that even those parts have value. Ask Zacchaeus. A limp, a scar, a fear of heights can all be used by God to deepen our lives and bring us to salvation.