Posted by: Sue Spencer | November 11, 2007

Zacchaeus and the Soul

Last weekend, I was invited to offer reflections at our Sunday Eucharist. The Gospel was the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), one of my favorites from way back. Zacchaeus, you may recall, was the despised tax collector, short of stature, who climbed up in the sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus. When Jesus invites himself to his house, Zacchaeus’ life turns around, giving half of his possessions to the poor, and offering to make restitution four times over to anyone he has cheated.

One obviously fruitful direction to take with this story is to explore its social context. Such exploration would be right in line with Luke, who was ferocious on the subject of wealth and poverty. What would it mean if the rich nations were to relinguish half their property, so that the rest of the world could simply live? And what would it mean if we were to restore fourfold what we have extracted from poor nations, in the way of resources, interest payments, and the like? If we did that, I suspect it would mean giving up far more than half our possessions.

Last weekend, however, I found my thoughts moving in a different direction, perhaps because the preceding week had been one of introspection for our house. I remembered the method of Bible Study made popular by Walter Wink, where we consider a Bible story (any story, actually!) for what it has to say about our inner lives. Thus, for example, this method might involve having a dialogue with our “inner Pharisee,” or miming the story of the hemorrhaging woman who touches the hem of Jesus robe, or modeling our “inner paralytic” in clay.

This process invites us to think of all the characters in a story as reflecting different aspects of ourselves. It’s a bit like dream work in that regard, where we assume that every figure in a dream represents some part of us. In dream sharing, Jeremy Taylor tells us, the operative question for participants is to ask “if that were MY dream, what would it mean?” Similarly, we can take a story and ask the same question.

So! If the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus were my dream, what WOULD it mean? My first thoughts about it go something like this:

In my dream, Zacchaeus is an ambiguous figure. He represents my ego in its most untamed form – the part of me that strives for recognition and success, and will seek it through any means, no matter how inauthentic or destructive. At the same time, Zacchaeus represents something wounded within me. This part of me, at some level, knows that things are way out of alignment, and that there’s “something more.” When Jesus comes to town, it strains to get a glimpse.

The crowds – the “murmurantes” – represent my superego, I think. As I understand the superego, it is not the same thing as the conscience. The conscience is the voice of Love, deep within the soul, and speaks quietly and insistently. The superego, on the other hand, natters away. It’s always ready to say, “You’re wrong! It’s all your fault! You’re unworthy! You’re a sinner!” It rarely helps us choose the good. It just traps us in a never-ending cycle of blame, and locks us into the status quo.

Catholic psychologist John Glaser, while acknowledging the superego as a necessary stepping stone on the way to the development of a conscience, warns us not to let it take over: “To associate the mystery of invitation…the radical call to eternally abiding love…with the…arbitrary tyrant of the superego is a matter of grave distortion. It reaches into the totality of a person’s life and poisons every fresh spring of the Good News.” Catholic theologian Gregory Baum says, in the same vein: “Jesus has come to save us from our superego. God is not punisher – God saves.”

All this gives me a hint about who Jesus represents in this dream! Note that he doesn’t beat Zacchaeus over the head. He doesn’t tell him what a sinner he is. He doesn’t tell him to shape up. All he does is invite himself into his house – that is, into his soul. And that’s what makes all the difference.

The Risen Christ, then, is “the mystery of invitation,” “the radical call to eternally abiding love” – the True Self. Christ doesn’t try to conquer our ego, but rather befriends it. Christ is always inviting himself into our lives – with mercy, love, and radical hospitality.


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