The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus outlines the trajectory of a spiritual life. It is not that we ‘must’ have a spiritual map but the encounter indeed outlines a process that will be of great help to a spiritual seeker. Spiritual desire, effort, and encounter with God lead to personal transformation which will change the course of our life. Come let us embark on this wonderful spiritual journey by reading the map.
Zacchaeus did have a desire to see Jesus. Nature of desire doesn’t matter. May be it was just a physical desire to see Jesus; the rabbi from Nazareth, may be the unconditional loving presence of Jesus who was friendly with tax collectors and sinners (he being a tax collector himself), or may be the presence of Matthew a former tax collector now a disciple of Jesus… It is not about the nature of the desire but the fact that he had desire to see Jesus. Spiritual life is founded in the desire to see and be with God. The journey that began with baptism will take strong roots with a burning desire in our hearts for God. Like the deer that longs for a running stream (Ps 42:1) and the sentry waiting for the day to break (Ps 130:6), is my heart passionately longing for the Beloved? Like the person immersed in water gasping for breath, is my desire for the indwelling presence of God real? Let the desire for God be pure with no strings attached. It is love desiring Love for the sake of Love itself. The prayer of Rabia al Basri is a gem:
If I adore You out of fear of Hell, burn me in Hell!
If I adore you out of desire for Paradise,
Lock me out of Paradise.
But if I adore you for Yourself alone,
Do not deny to me Your eternal beauty.
With desire comes effort to actualize my desire for God.
Grace and nature work together. While it is true that even the desire for God is in itself a grace, a gift from God, still grace needs effort. They are like the two wings of a bird. Zacchaeus not only had the desire to see Jesus but he acted upon his desire. He climbed the Sycamore tree and waited for Jesus to pass by. Effort is determination, discipline, and dedication to a spiritual practice. Every spiritual practice is making an effort and effort comes with ease when there is genuine desire for the Beloved. Effort is love in action. How apt are the words of Martin Luther, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” Everything can wait. Love draws. Love endures.
Jesus, even after his baptism, remained in the desert for forty days and during his public ministry was faithful to his moments of daily personal prayer. It is said that the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree continuing to meditate for seven weeks after his enlightenment. Ramana Maharishi continued to sit in silence for years after his Self-realization. It is the story of effort before and after. Where do I stand?
It is not that God is bound by our efforts. God can bless an individual with a religious experience (St. Paul) but deepening of that experience calls for effort on our part.
God blesses a sincere seeker with a divine experience. Jesus fulfills Zacchaeus’ desire and effort. Jesus singles him out in that vast crowd and honors him with his unconditional loving presence. Loving desire and sincere effort bears fruit. God comes to us and this loving encounter with Love is a pearl beyond all pearls. It is indeed an experience of tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Ps 34:9). Encounter is the result of a sincere desire and tireless effort to be with the Love. God will not turn a blind eye to a sincere seeker.
The encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus leads to his personal transformation which has its ramifications for his family, his work, his social and political relationship with others. The old gave way to the new. His priorities changed, he found a new purpose driven life, and his entire life underwent a Copernican revolution. Zacchaeus who climbed the tree and the Zacchaeus who came down from the tree were not the same. Love burns. In being consumed by the Beloved, the ego dies and with the death of the ego, life in all its beauty and joy blossoms forth – life is worth living.
Zacchaeus story also reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect to have a burning desire for God. Be as you are and where you are and all that you need to do is to hold onto that single desire to encounter God. Love encountered will burn away all our defilements and after such an experience with God we will never be able to return to our old life.