A leading financial magazine surveyed business owners and corporate managers with the question, “What keeps people from succeeding in business?”
Some answered that it was lack of motivation and effort. Others complained that most workers had other priorities than getting ahead in the company. Still others noted that many people just do not have the skills necessary to plan, budget or manage effectively.
However, what just about everyone polled reported as a major factor holding workers back from success was the tendency to make excuses. One respondent was quoted as saying, “Many of the people I manage are better at producing excuses than producing results.” Making excuses was also described as the expectation to fail even before trying. Rather than taking responsibilities for choices, it allows workers to blame others for their lack of success. Excuses give people permission to not take risks and, therefore, remain imprisoned in mediocrity.
What is true in the business world is also true about our spiritual lives. We have many excuses for not taking time to pray, for not attending Mass even for not following the Church’s teachings. We have excuses for not giving something up for Lent, for not spending time reading the Bible and even for not spending time with our families. For every challenge that might come our way because of our faith, we have an excuse to avoid it. All the while, we are missing out on all the graces that God wants to offer us. So many gifts of peace and joy are lost to us because we are too busy making excuses rather than taking the risk of following the path Jesus calls us to.
Today’s gospel has much to teach us about all the blessings that can come our way once we put our excuses aside and take a risk for Jesus. It is the story of the tax collector, Zacchaeus.
There were plenty of reasons why it would be absurd for such a man as Zacchaeus to hope to ever have a life changing encounter with our Lord. He had plenty of excuses to not try to get a glimpse of Jesus.
First of all, Zacchaeus was a short man. The crowd was so tightly packed that he could not hope to see Jesus over their shoulders and heads. The children had the benefit of sitting on their fathers' shoulders to get a look at Jesus. But no one was about to help Zacchaeus. We can just imagine him getting on the tips of his toes and jumping up and down to see over the people who were packed along the side of the road.
Secondly, Zacchaeus was not only a small man physically, but he was also a small man spiritually. Though his name means "righteous one", he was far from being a just man. He had accumulated his riches by extorting from the locals more taxes than the empire required. And the taxes he gathered helped ensure that the Roman Empire could exercise its tyrannical grip on the Jewish people. He must have known in his heart that a man like himself was not worthy to be anywhere near Jesus. Zacchaeus must have feared that a sinner such as himself would be brushed aside, ignored or even scolded openly by the truly Righteous One, Jesus.
Thirdly, because of his position in the empire, Zacchaeus was small in the eyes of the crowd. No one was about to help him. Even if Jesus were to acknowledge him, the crowd would certainly denounce him for his crimes against them. In fact, we see just that happen when Jesus asks to dine at his house. Zacchaeus had reason to fear the ridicule of the crowd and, being a small man, might even have feared that they would turn on him and beat him.
With everything that was against him, Zacchaeus could have told himself that it was no use. However, instead of hanging his head and going home, Zacchaeus knew he would have to take an extreme measure to get a look at Jesus. He took the risk of climbing the sycamore tree. The crowd would surely ridicule him. He may have fallen and hurt himself, or at the very least, torn his fine tunic. But it got Jesus' attention.
Jesus called Zacchaeus by name Though he had never met him, Jesus recognized that it was God’s grace that stirred in Zacchaeus' heart compelling him to do whatever it took to overcome his size, his shame and his fear of the crowd. And he was rewarded because his love for Jesus overcame his fear.
Faith requires overcoming obstacles and facing challenges to bring our values into reality. For every shameful experience, for every crowd that denounces us, for anything standing in our way, there is a grace compelling us to do whatever it takes to overcome it. Once we brush our excuses aside, we can grasp what Jesus is offering.
Unfortunately, we tend to associate religion with guilt and shame. However, they do not help us in our relationship with God. Rather, they make us shrink away and hide. They close us off in fear, rather than opening us up in love. They may motivate us to drop harmful habits, but they cannot inspire us to do good. Zacchaeus' spontaneous pledge to payback fourfold the money he extorted came not from any shame he felt before the crowd, but because of his joy that Jesus recognized him and desired to stay with him.
Guilt and shame create excuses for us. But grace overcomes our limitations, compelling us to do whatever it takes to reach out to Jesus for friendship.