The gospels point out that, before his conversion, Zacchaeus was a short man, someone lacking in height, but that, after his conversion, the tall man gave back what the small man had stolen. Meeting Jesus, it seems, made Zacchaeus grow bigger in stature.
That’s what goodness does to us, it makes us grow taller. For example, a friend of mine shares this story: He has a neighbor who frequently drops round to drink coffee and chat. The neighbor is a good man from a wonderful family and has been blessed with lots of love and good example in his life. But, like the rest of us, he has his weaknesses; in his case, gossip and occasional pettiness. One day, as he was sitting with my friend, he made a very racist remark. My friend, instead of accusing him of being a racist or shaming him with the inappropriateness of his remark, called him instead to his own essential goodness: “That comment surprises me,” he said, “coming from you. I’ve always considered you and your family big-hearted people, with class, never petty. I’ve always envied your family for its goodness and understanding. That remark simply doesn’t sound like you!”
The man’s reaction was instant, positive. Immediately he apologized: “You’re right,” he said, “I don’t know why I sometimes say stupid things like that”! Like Zacchaeus the taller man gave back what the smaller man had taken.
It’s interesting to note that the word “Gospel” means “good news,” not “good advice.” The gospels are not so much a spiritual and moral theology book that tell us what we should be doing, but are more an account of what God has already done for us, is still doing for us, and the wonderful dignity that this bestows on us. Of course the idea is that since we are gifted in this way our actions should reflect that dignity rather than what’s less lofty and more petty inside us. Morality is not a command, it’s an invitation; not a threat, but a reminder of who we truly are. We become taller and less petty when we remember what kind of family we ultimately come from.
In essence, we all have two souls, two hearts, and two minds. Inside of each of us there’s a soul, heart, and mind that’s petty, that’s been hurt, that wants vengeance, that wants to protect itself, that’s frightened of what’s different, that’s prone to gossip, that’s racist, that perennially feels cheated. Seen in a certain light, all of us are as small in stature as the pre-converted Zacchaeus. But there’s also a tall, big-hearted person inside each of us, someone who wants to warmly embrace the whole world, beyond personal hurt, selfishness, race, creed, and politics.
We are always both, grand and petty. The world isn’t divided up between big-hearted and small-minded people. Rather, our days are divided up between those moments when we are big-hearted, generous, warm, hospitable, unafraid, wanting to embrace everyone and those moments when we are petty, selfish, over-aware of the unfairness of life, frightened, and seeking only to protect ourselves and our own safety and interests. We are both tall and short at the same time and either of these can manifest itself from minute to minute.
But, as we all know, we are most truly ourselves when what’s tall in us takes over and gives back to the world what the short, petty person wrongly takes. John of the Cross, the great mystic, made this insight the center-piece of his theology of healing. For him, this is the way we heal:
We heal not by confronting all of our wounds and selfishness head-on, which would overwhelm us and drown us in discouragement, but by growing to what he calls “our deepest centre.” For him, this centre is not first of all some deep place of solitude inside the soul, but rather the furthest place of growth that we can attain, the optimum of our potential. To grow to what our deepest DNA has destined us for is what makes us whole, makes us tall—humanly, spiritually, and morally.
Thus, if John of the Cross were your spiritual director and you went to him with some moral flaw or character deficiency, his first counsel would be: What are you good at? What have you been blessed with? Where, in your life and work, does God’s goodness and beauty most shine through? If you can grow more and more towards that goodness, it will fan into an ever larger flame which eventually will become a fire that cauterizes your faults. When you walk tall there will be less and less room for what’s small and petty to manifest itself.
But to walk tall means to walk within our God-given dignity. Nothing else, ultimately, gives us as large an identity. That’s useful too to remember when we challenge each other: Gospel-challenge doesn’t shame us with our pettiness, it invites us to what’s already best inside us.