“He came down quickly and received Him with joy.”
I was both devastated and confused as a freshman seminarian when a priest whom I considered a model devoted and holy priest left the ministerial priesthood because he had been found guilty of numerous sexual improprieties over the years. This caused me to struggle then with many questions: “How could this happen to him? How did it get to this point of living a double life for so many years? Could it happen to me too as a priest? What does one do to avoid such a thing?” A colleague simply replied to my questions about this priest, “He simply forgot who he was.” This response only added more questions to my already confused mind: “What has knowing who he was got to do with this?” What light can self knowledge shed on such an experience that is so painful for the priest involved as well as for the entire Church?
True self knowledge involves being aware of and simultaneously acknowledging two ever present but contrasting dimensions of our souls. In the first place, we understand deeply the beauty and dignity of our souls as spiritual realities created in the image and likeness of God. Even here on earth, God dwells in our souls as His dwelling place, filling it with natural and supernatural riches, orienting and directing them to their eternal destiny with Him. The awesomeness of such knowledge is expressed in the immortal words of St. Augustine: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.” On the other hand, by self knowledge we also acknowledge and accept the sinful tendencies, possibilities, and movements present in this same dignified soul. True self knowledge sees and accepts both the inherent greatness and riches the soul receives from God who dwells within it as well as the soul’s deficiencies, sinful tendencies, and sin-inflicted wounds. Without this truth about ourselves from self knowledge, we condemn ourselves to many moral sufferings and difficulties because we will be hindered from tending to God and His will for us but we shall tend to something less than or contrary to what is good for us.
The First Reading in Sunday’s Mass gives us some pointers to this true self knowledge. The same God, to whom the universe is as “a grain from a balance,” is also the “lover of souls” who has such a tender care for each individual soul. Like He does for all created things, God “spares (the soul) because it belongs to Him.” God’s “imperishable spirit is in all things,” most especially it is present in the human soul. God communicates this self-knowledge to the soul when He “rebukes offenders little by little, warning them and reminding them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in Him.” Hence this true self knowledge comes from God and God bestows it on the soul to lead the soul to Himself for its own fulfillment. We cannot talk of true self knowledge outside our relationship with God because God is both the source and goal of this authentic knowledge of self.
Sunday’s Gospel passage shows us the journey of Zacchaeus to self knowledge and the effects of this self knowledge on him. There were many things that he knew about himself. Undoubtedly, he knew that he was the “chief tax collector and also a wealthy man.” He also knew that he was “short in stature.” He also knew himself as a sinner as well as his reputation as a sinner among the people of Jericho. His fellow citizens would not even call him by name when they grumbled about Jesus staying in Zacchaeus’ place, “He (Jesus) has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.” Zacchaeus knew he was despised and hated by the Jews for being a collaborator with the Roman conquerors. Knowing all these things, he knew that his best chance to see Jesus was to watch for him from the top of a sycamore tree. In effect, his sense of self came from his wealth, his reputation among his neighbors, his past sinful actions, his career as a tax collector and his physical stature.
Zacchaeus knew all these things but he did not know himself as God knew him until the moment Jesus looked up at him on the tree and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Never did the wealthy tax collector dream that any Jewish rabbi would know his name talk less of come to stay at his house. In that single encounter with Jesus, the God who loves every individual soul, by the light of grace, Zacchaeus clearly saw the deep contrasting realities present in his own soul. He grasped both the greatness and riches that God has given to him as well as the inclinations to sin and its effects on him. Moved by divine grace and perceiving clearly the deep generosity within him, he offered to give half of his possessions to the poor. Knowing his past greed and tendency to cheat, he showed his repentance by offering to pay back four times what he might have extorted from others.
Jesus affirmed that Zacchaeus had come to some sense of his true self by exclaiming, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.” Zacchaeus had accepted and acted on the true self knowledge that Jesus had communicated to him and thus entered on the path of salvation back to God. This journey back to God will never have happened if Jesus had not revealed to him both his soul’s giftedness as well as sinfulness. As St. Paul reminds us, “For in Him (Jesus) were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible…all things were created through Him and for Him.”(Col 1:16) Where Zacchaeus’ town’s men had seen only a hopeless sinner, Jesus saw and brought out the good that He as the soul’s Creator had placed in the tax collector’s soul. Only our encounter with Jesus leads to that true self knowledge that imprints on us the good in our souls that we have from God and the energy and zeal to conquer sin and tend to God and what He wills for us for our own good.
What happens when we ignore this necessary self knowledge and pretend we can go to God without knowing who we really are? When we do not know our true selves, the dignity of our souls as well as the effects and tendencies to sin present in the soul, we expose ourselves to moral failures and difficulties in many ways.
Without true self knowledge, we become fixated on the material body and ignore the soul’s vital yearning to be united to the God who dwells within it. This may explain the current prevalence of pornography, nudity, and excessive pre-occupation with what we look like and what people think about us. The focus has become: “Pamper and exhibit the body; ignore and starve the soul to death.” Also, without true self knowledge, we easily identify ourselves completely with what is less than our vocation to perfect happiness with God. Poor self knowledge leads us to identify ourselves entirely with our evil tendencies, sexual orientations, or ideologies.
The self is reduced to being an alcoholic when self is seen as nothing more than combinations of flesh, chemicals, and energy, instead of seeing self as an embodied soul, created in the image of God, and destined to live forever with Him in heaven. This attitude of identifying ourselves completely with anything other than our relationship with others in God and our orientation towards Him only kills the soul slowly by depriving it of all hope. Frustration and discouragement with the spiritual life are only a step away. On the other hand, when we focus on the good we have received from God without realizing our sinful possibilities, tendencies and the effects of sin in us, we become presumptuous, self complacent, or easily compromising with sin in our lives. We begin to depend on ourselves and rationalize away our sinful behaviors. It becomes so easy for us to live a double life. We need a healthy dose of self knowledge to continue our journey to God, making use of His gifts to us while remaining vigilant and hopeful in the fight against the glimmers of darkness present in the soul.
This true self knowledge ultimately does not come from mere self introspection, psychological analysis, or public opinion about us. Self knowledge only comes from our honest tending towards a deeper relationship with God in Jesus Christ. “In His light we see light.”(Ps 36:10) As we draw closer and closer to God, He reveals to us more clearly both the priceless treasures we have as well as the evil that still lurks in our hearts without depriving us of peace. With this knowledge, we become grateful to God for His gifts to us, humbled by the blessings we have received from Him, and trusting in God alone to uphold the good that He has given to us even in the face of our sins and sinful failures and tendencies. It is this true self knowledge that makes us echo the words of Mary, “He who is mighty has done great things for me” and “He has regarded the humility of His handmaid.” Mary both acknowledges the gifts and riches that she has received from God as well as her own utter nothingness before Him. Only true self knowledge brings such an indispensable attitude.
In this Eucharistic celebration, we have another chance to encounter Jesus Christ. One single encounter with Jesus changed Zacchaeus from a greedy tax collector to a generous benefactor in his community because he was open to the self knowledge that Christ Jesus alone brings. Jesus Christ says to each of us today too, “Come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” The Lover of souls longs to be with us in the houses of our souls that He created and redeemed by His blood so as to communicate self knowledge to us there too. He alone has the grace and light to reveal to us our true selves and move us to respond to this knowledge. Let us come down quickly from our own trees of false self knowledge that we receive from the world, from others, from the devil, or from our past sinful actions and tendencies. If we come down and receive Jesus with joy and openness of heart like Zacchaeus did, we too shall know ourselves better and spare ourselves many moral sufferings and difficulties.
Glory to Jesus!!! Honor to Mary!!!