When I was newly ordained, and still rather young, I was often treated with curiosity by those who couldn’t see any value in the requirement of mandatory celibacy for priests in the western Church. Even some of my friends wondered how I could be willing to make such a sacrifice in exchange for being a priest. My usual reply was to say that celibacy was truly a burden: that I go home each night to an empty, quiet residence where no one has moved the tv remote, raided my refrigerator or left household objects lying around in random spots.
Now, at the beginning of the seventh decade of my life, people’s reactions to me have changed. At a recent social gathering, some of the guests remarked that I didn’t look nearly as old as my chronological age. I remarked that despite my age, my odometer still showed low mileage. Everyone laughed in agreement about the toll that marriage and child-rearing can exact.
The truth about human life is not accurately portrayed in the observations mentioned above, nor in my facetious responses. The truth about human life is that any major choice is a choice for one, particular option; further, the choice for one, particular option is also necessarily a choice to forgo all other options. In the western Church, the choice to be a priest is also necessarily the choice not to marry. For all people, the choice to marry one’s spouse is also necessarily the choice not to marry anyone else. Human life occurs in particularity, not in the general.
The story of Zacchaeus is an unusual one. The renown Scripture commentator Reginald Fuller wrote a memorable quote about Zacchaeus, “He was a quisling who had thrown in his lot with the hated occupying power for the sake of pecuniary gain.” (Preaching the Lectionary, Sunday 31-C) Luke’s Gospel often condemns material wealth; this story is an exception. Zacchaeus is commended because of his use of his wealth, quite unlike the rich fool in the parable in Chapter 12 of the Gospel who was shamed because his wealth failed him. (Luke 12:16-21)
Luke’s Gospel is very insistent on the moral burden created by material wealth, the failings of the wealthy and God’s preferential care for the poor. The story of Zacchaeus concludes a long section of teaching in the Gospel about the dangers presented by wealth, and the virtue that can result from poverty. (Luke 18:18-30) It’s very odd that a rich tax collector would be judged as righteous by Jesus. (Luke 19:9) This might be an example of the particularity of human existence and the particularity of salvation.
Zacchaeus is the living embodiment of the tax collector in the parable in last Sunday’s Gospel reading. Zacchaeus received no respect from his neighbors in the crowd. He had to climb a tree to see Jesus, and when he attracted Jesus’ attention he was identified as a public sinner. (Luke 19:7) Despite his wealth and his association with the Roman Empire he went home with justification (literally): Jesus joined him for a meal.
Zacchaeus was despised by others, but was judged by Jesus to be righteous. Gaining admiration might be one of those experiences where we have to make a choice, and where the choice we make excludes other choices. Based on my limited life experience I would like to suggest that each person is limited to one choice of where to look for admiration or approval. One can seek approval from one’s self or from other people or from God, but only from one of those sources. To merit one’s own approval is to exclude the possibility of approval by others or God. To seek approval from others excludes the possibility of receiving approval from oneself or God. Most significantly, seeking God’s approval excludes the possibility of granting oneself approval or seeking admiration from other people.
In one way or another, each of us will face judgment about our righteousness. We do, however, have a free choice about whose judgment we seek. To be judged by self or others is to be judged by those also under judgment, and whose righteousness is necessarily limited. To be judged by God is to stand before the One who can know, love and forgive perfectly.
The apparent contradiction posed by Zacchaeus, the rich man who gains Jesus’ approval in Luke’s Gospel, is no contradiction at all. Zacchaeus wasn’t the rich fool who relied on his wealth to save him; rather, he was the repentant tax collector who relied solely on God’s approval. He was admired by no one, except the one person whose approval really mattered. Whose approval will you seek today? Our culture tells us that our human freedom is best protected by our self-interest. There is, however, a logical contradiction involved in our culture’s definition of freedom; to seek limitless freedom from a finite source is a guarantee of dissatisfaction. To seek God’s approval is both an affirmation of the particularity of our lives and our only access to lasting righteousness.