When I was a little girl I had a bad habit of taking things without asking. I’d sneak a cookie before dinner, borrow my mom’s shoes without checking with her, and even sometimes take five dollars from my dad’s wallet.
Looking back, I can see that I was more afraid of hearing “no” than I was of getting caught. As a child, “no” is your first experience of rejection or feeling unworthy of the request you made. Rather than risk being (so I feared) devalued, I snuck behind my parents’ backs to get what I wanted.
As I read the Gospel stories for today I saw this same experience of hesitation and fear in Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Centurion. Their approach of Jesus is drastically different than the hemorrhaging woman who pulled on his coat in the crowd, or the Syrophoenician woman who boldly challenged Jesus. Zacchaeus hides in a tree, Nicodemus comes at night, and the Centurion claims he “does not deserve” to have Jesus come to his home.
In some ways, I don’t blame them. Jesus clearly preferences those who are sickly, judged as sinners, or systematically marginalized by society. At one point he clarifies this preference by saying: “It is not the well that need a doctor but the sick.”
Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Centurion were in no way sick.
As wealthy men of power they had spent their lives benefiting from economic and social systems. What’s more, they had likely used religious, political, and financial systems to oppress the very people to whom Jesus “proclaimed liberty,” and “set free.”
I imagine they thought Jesus would say no. No, you’ve already had your due. No, you’re not in need of me. No, you’ve got more than enough support already.
But that’s not what happened.
Jesus instead encounters each one of them with the same compassion he bestowed on those who were so visibly hurting. The vulnerability of these three men reveals deep places of pain, and Jesus, moved by their risk, comes to meet them. In doing so, he transforms the life of each man.
In communities of privilege, our conversations about ending oppression — specifically white supremacy — are targeted at ameliorating the pain of those who are most impacted. How can we, those who have been in power, adapt so that others’ lives are better? What do we need to do to “fix it?” How can we “solve the problem?” While we most certainly need to seek the liberation of those around us, it is equally important that we do not lose sight of the fact that we are sickly as well.
We are so burdened by the drive to be better that it leads to mental illness. We choose to work unbearably hard to sustain being the best, the wealthiest, the most respected — and in doing so we forfeit peace in our lives. We are numb and disconnected from our heart after years of avoiding the truth of how we treated people. We value thinness as if it was health and perpetuate practices that harm our bodies. We live in denial of the impact we have on others. We too are sickly and our world will never heal from a place of numbness, restlessness, and denial.
It seems that Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, and the Centurion knew they were sick. They knew they needed Jesus and they came, despite facing rejection. They came, not for the sake of others but because they needed to be set free. They came, risking their reputation of privilege for the chance to be seen, known by Jesus. And, from that place of humility and awareness emerged the willingness to be entirely transformed for the sake of others.
It is time that we come as well.
Prayer: Open me to feel the pain of oppression.
Reflection: Why is it easier for us to focus on the benefits of change to others than to ourselves? What do we gain by ignoring the way oppression impacts us? What might change if we were willing to acknowledge its impact on our lives?
Art: A study for Nicodemus visiting Jesus – Henry Osawa Tanner