Limited Space

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” -Luke 19:1-5

The children like this story. It is a story to which they can easily relate. They identify themselves with Zacchaeus. At first glance, it is hard to see the connection. The man in the story was wealthy and corrupt. He did not lack anything materially. Our children are homeless. They sleep under a bridge. They don’t have any possessions. Besides all these differences, they see something in Zacchaeus reminds them of themselves. Many of us may not want to identify ourselves with him. We prefer to think that we are better than him. For most of us, this story is an example of the power of God’s grace. We liken the person of Zacchaeus to that of a drug dealer, or a politician standing for Presidential election or someone we would like to easily allocate into the cesspool of objectionable personality. However, our children see a complex human being in Zacchaeus not unlike themselves.

We know how this story ends, even our children are very familiar with it. We tend to focus on the ending and ignore some interesting details in the story. The author of the gospel saw that it was important that we knew about Zacchaeus’ physical stature. His small stature wasn’t a physical ailment or some other impairment that warrants special attention. It was just something that helps to give an insight into Zacchaeus’ personality. The gospel wants us to go beyond the superficial assessment of a person in society. It requires to question why a person is the way he or she is. The story tells that, because of his height, Zacchaeus could not participate in the event of the day; the arrival of Jesus in Jericho. Even though he possessed wealth and power as a tax collector, it did not give him privy to the one of the most important events of the city. He was an outsider and most likely had always been an outsider. No one cared that Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus. In fact, no one cared if he existed or not. This must have been the story of his life. He was alone and had to make his way in this world. He chose the wrong way to do it. He was ruthless and unkind. He stole from people and the flaunted his wealth. People began to notice him. They despised him but he apparently did not mind this as long as they were forced to acknowledge his existence.

The more we get to know our children the easier it becomes for us to see the connection between Zacchaeus and them. The thing that brings them to the streets is not poverty; it does have a small contributing role but it is not the major reason. Our children don’t mind being poor. They can adapt to it. However, they do mind being neglected and ignored. They don’t demand too much attention but they want to know that their existence is important to someone. Most of them have suffered a trauma which caused them to flee to the streets. It is not even the tragic circumstance itself that brought to the streets. It is the unfortunate fact that no one cared enough to notice or help them through their traumatic experience. They take refuge in the streets hoping that someone will notice them. Those who engage in criminal activities don’t do so because of survival. They can have food and clothing without stealing. They can even buy drugs with the money they get from begging. However, people only notice their existence when they steal. People only think of the homeless children when they do something negative. Most of the time, they are invisible because they occupy such a small space in their lives or society just the like the man of small stature in the story from the gospel.

Zacchaeus was hidden from the crowd but Jesus noticed him anyway. This was a dream come true for him. He did not need to do anything to be acknowledged. Jesus knew him by name and broke bread in his household. The people despised the fact that Jesus wasted his time and energy on this person. People liked to crowd around the person of Jesus. They often spoke of Him. Unfortunately most of them hardly understood what He came to do. He came to look for those whom we want to forget in society. In this story, it was a wealthy man; in others, this person was a forgotten widow or a homeless beggar. They come from different social backgrounds but they share a common trait. All of them occupy a small place in the hearts and minds of people, so small that it is easy to forget that they exist. Most of the time, people don’t even think that they deserve God’s grace. Strangely, God chooses these people to help understand the meaning and immensity of His grace. However, if we choose to remain in our hatred and apathy, then we won’t be able to see or appreciate it.

Zacchaeus had been taking from people all his life. He found his identity in possessing things aggressively. However, now he discovered that this was unnecessary. He changed. He became a giver.

One remarkable change in our relationship with the children over the past few months is the fact that they are beginning to offer things to us. Usually it is some simple snacks. They have done this before as a courteous gesture but now there is a subtle difference. They offer us things that they buy with their own money. They even insist that we take it when we politely refuse. They want us to have something of theirs. They don’t want our relationship to be one-sided. They want it to become a mutual relationship. They want to be generous with us. This is a sign of genuine spiritual transformation; generosity always begets generosity.

Zacchaeus experienced God’s generosity and he could not help but become generous himself. However, he did not try to give to Jesus anything. There was nothing he could offer Him that would measure up to what he had received. Jesus had given Zacchaeus his existence. He realized that even though the world around him had ignored him all his life, Jesus knew him by name. No amount of money or power could compensate for this gift he had just received. The only thing he could do was to follow the example of Jesus. He gave to those who couldn’t reciprocate and he also undid the wrong he had done in his life. He had spent his life taking and now it was time to give.

There are Zacchaeus all around us. Some are rich and powerful and some are poor and isolated. They are people whom we like to forget. However, they are not different from us. They are just like us trying to find a place in this world. They are just like us trying to find a reason to justify our existence. The only difference perhaps is that they are more aware of their anonymity in this world then the rest of us. God chose Zacchaeus to show that even though you are despised and hated by the world, this does not disqualify one from God’s grace. The children understand this valuable lesson. They are glad that Jesus chose to dine at Zacchaeus’ home. It gives them hope. It gives us hope as well.

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The Weak and the Strong

The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”-Luke 18:11-14

A fight had broken out. We were in the middle of it literally. Ruan and Alex were fighting where we were sitting. We were unintentionally the cause of the fight. Alex was being difficult and he used some foul language. Ruan confronted him. He thought that it was inappropriate to use that kind of language in our presence. The next thing we knew they were throwing punches at each other. Ruan is only 14 but he is almost twice Alex’s size who is two years older. Things went from bad to worse. Alex emotionally disintegrated right before our very eyes. His face turned red and tears flowed profusely. We pleaded with them to stop but their passions had taken control of them completely. Before anything could be done, a punch landed on Alex’s face and he lost his balance. His head hit the steps. Blood started to ooze out a gash just above his right eye. Alex became hysterical at this point. He was screaming away at Ruan and was wailing like a two year old. Ruan just sat down in silence.

Alex went to the side of the cathedral and sat there alone. He couldn’t stop crying and he then laid down on his side. To make matters worse, he started to hyperventilate. He looked like he was going into shock. We tried to calm him but he was inconsolable. Ruan became remorseful for his actions and came over to apologize. However, Alex was not in the right frame of mind to accept anything from anyone. We began to get worried. It seems like he needed medical attention, and then he slowly started to breathe normally. Throughout this time, Ruan sat behind him and said that he was sorry. Alex continued to bleed from his wound but he refused any first aid from us. He stood up and walked away in a daze. We remained at the steps. Our minds were reeling from the whole incident. We have never seen any of our children or teens break down in this manner before. We have never seen them in such a vulnerable and fragile state.

All it took was a simple altercation. It is something that happens on a daily basis in the streets. Everyday we walk by people fighting over the silliest things. Maybe it sounds strange to some readers but it is the reality in the streets here. Alex navigates in this world daily. He always appeared to be comfortable in this environment. Maybe he believed that he was immune to the violence until a punch landed on his face. The aggression revealed to him that he was just as fragile as anyone. Perhaps it was too much for him and he couldn’t handle it. For us, it was heart breaking scene. We saw a teenager revert to the young lonely child. We had a glimpse of the hidden frighten child in the teenage body of Alex. There was nothing we could do or say that would help Alex.

There is something in us that wants to show the world that we are strong and better than others. This was the basis for the fight between the boys. In the end, the only thing that was obvious was how weak we are as human beings. We stood and watched Alex in tears and broken emotionally. There was hardly anything we could do to make it better. Ruan has physical strength and sometimes he does things to appear like a bully. In reality, he has a tender heart. He wants to be a good person but ends up doing things that hurt others like Alex. He is unable to do the good he so desperately wants to do. Alex wanted to show everyone that no one can push him around. The only thing he managed to reveal to the world was how fragile he really is.

The Pharisee in the above parable wanted to believe that he was better than the tax collector. He thought that he was stronger than the tax collector who has succumbed to the temptations of life. Unfortunately, in his attempt to show off his strengths, he ended up revealing that he was much worse. The tax collector showed the better way. He acknowledged his utter weakness. Maybe because he did not have much of a choice. Society had already condemned him for being a traitor. His weakness and vulnerabilities were open for everyone to see and judge. In a strange way, this involuntary exposure of his personal and moral frailties made him open to receive something better and greater. It has given him the wisdom to discover a different and a more lasting and powerful source of strength.

We saw Alex and Ruan a few days later. They were talking and joking around together. Ruan came up to us and said that we were late. We were not. We arrived at our usual time. Ruan and Alex were early. They usually show up later in the day. There was something different about them. Ruan was more affectionate. Alex approached Mary and started telling her about things that happened to him over the weekend. There was a tenderness in the way they interacted with us. I think it has something to do with being vulnerable. The fight was a simple altercation in the eyes of many. However, the Holy Spirit transformed it into an encounter where all our frailties were revealed. It has given us the courage to admit that we are weak and now we are ready to discover our true strength in the redeeming power of God’s love. Perhaps this is why the boys were not afraid to share their love and affection with us. They no longer needed to pretend to be tough. They just needed to be themselves. The strength will come from the One who is truly strong.

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Eternal Answers

And Jesus said, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”- Luke 18:7-8

I want to start with Boethius. No, it’s not a name of a teenager in the streets. He was a philosopher from the sixth century. I always begin my reflection with an encounter in the streets. Today, I want to take a step back. I am going to someone furthest away from our reality. Boethius is from a time and culture completely different from our reality. Yet, I believe that he has something relevant to say to us and even our children living in the streets.

I encountered Boethius for first time in his book, the Consolation of Philosophy. It was an involuntary introduction. It was required reading for Medieval Philosophy. Recently, I had a reunion with him. I purchased his book again. It wasn’t for any particular reason except for the fact that it was on sale. Capitalism helped me revisit Boethius and I am glad for it.

The book is not an academic treatise on philosophy. It is a reflection of a man who was faced with an uncertain future. It was a question of life and death. He was imprisoned unjustly and his fate depended on the whims of an unreliable and corrupt king. His life until this point had been quite stable and prosperous and now everything dissipated with the looming possibility of a painful and humiliating death. Boethius needed to find solace in this chaos. This book is the result. Strangely, as I was reading the parable of the unjust judge quoted above, this book came to my mind. Jesus said that God answered prayers swiftly. God answered Boethius’ prayer for justice swiftly but in the way many would not have hoped.

Boethius was trying to understand the question of evil and good, God’s timing and his timing, fate and destiny, and why bad things happen to good people. Questions that drown our hearts and minds when we are faced with an existential crisis. He did not resort to simple religious formulas. He faced difficult issues boldly. He was persistent to discover the Truth or God’s justice in this case, just like the old woman in the parable when she confronted the unjust judge. Perhaps, the major difference was that Boethius did not believe that he had to keeping insisting on an answer. He wasn’t questioning a corrupt judge. He was having a dialogue with Lady Wisdom. He was confident that he would receive the answers at the right time. He did and perhaps they helped to face his imminent death with tranquility.

Boethius was executed immediately after the completion of this work. His death was slow and painful. Many would say that he never received the swift justice that Jesus promised in the quote above. However, we need faith to understand God’s justice. For many in the world, God was silent in Boethius’ case. It is because they have a concept of justice which is superficial and worldly. Boethius has been gone for more than thousand years and yet he is remembered. His greatest work was the one he produced in the last moments of his life. The people who played a role in this unjust trial are nothing but names today. No one remembers them. Their lives have no influence today. Boethius, on the other, still speaks to us today. A boy in the streets once asked us about life and death and suffering. I remember talking about Boethius and his concept of eternity. What he had to say about the subject were simple but it’s profundity is still discussed today. The young man I spoke to was able to grasp what I shared about eternity. It brought it some comfort to his soul. He had just a lost a dear friend when he asked this question.

The most powerful words of the parable from Luke are the final ones. Jesus ended the parable with a question; will the Son of Man find faith in this world when He returns? I have heard and read this parable since I was a young lad. I had always focused on the judge. I missed the point. I confused God with the judge. I thought that it was necessary to keep insisting with God until He gave in and answered my prayers. I am not alone in this. There are churches that have built their theology of prayer based on this. We treat God as if he is an unreasonable bureaucrat who will only answer our request when we dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Jesus was representing a different picture. He was teaching via negativa. God is nothing like the judge or us for that matter.

This is more consistent with the other teachings on prayers;

“..your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”-Matthew 6:8

On one occasion, Jesus taught;

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”- Luke 11:11-16

If anything, Jesus reveals to us that we do not need to twist God’s arm to attend to our prayers. He is always willing and swift to answer our prayers. The problem lies not in God but whether we are able to discern God’s response. Sometimes we ask the wrong things from God and we don’t get the answer we want. Job wanted God to give him a satisfactory answer to the perennial question,“why do bad things happen to good people?” The story ends with a different answer, one more pertinent to the nature of God. We often ask God for something contrary to His nature and we don’t get an answer.

Our children in the streets beg all the time. In theory, they beg because they need money for food but in reality, they want to buy drugs. They can get food for free whereas drugs cost money. They never beg from us. Even if they do, it is usually done in jest. They know our answer. They know that we know how they use their money. Most importantly, they know that we have a different kind of relationship. Occasionally, a new arrival to the streets will ask us for some spare change. It doesn’t take long for them to realize that they will receive nothing from us in terms of money. Some will close themselves to us and our relationship will end there and then. There are others that will figure out that our refusal to succumb to their pecuniary demands is due to the fact that we are willing to offer something more valuable and enduring. If they are willing to wait around and get to know us, they will discover what we want to give to them.

Boethius wrote the Consolation of Philosophy when he knew that he could be facing a slow torturous death. I am sure that he prayed for justice. God answered his prayer. He did not allow Boethius’ enemies get what they wanted. They wanted the memory of his life to be completely erased. Instead, his imprisonment contributed to his name being remembered till today. Our fears are mostly based on being forgotten. The greatest injustice is being treated as if one does not exist. We don’t want to be forgotten and considered irrelevant. Sickness and death are the inevitable things in life that threaten our very existence. Most of our desperate prayers stem out of these situations. The widow in the parable refused to be forgotten and the corrupt judge conceded to her pleas. God is nothing like the unjust judge. He does not forget us. The problem is whether we trust Him enough to know that He will remember us.

The parable tells us that the woman got what she wanted because she was willing to wait. In our relationship with God, we don’t have to convince God to do what is just. We just have to wait. Waiting is trusting. We don’t wait for justice because of the eloquence of our prayers. We wait for justice because our God is a good God. However, God’s justice is not to be confused with giving us what we want. His justice is giving what is really and truly important to us.

Justice was given to Boethius even though he died. The world would say that he had based on his life on a false hope. They have eyes but they do not see and ears but they do not hear. They think of justice purely on materialistic principles. Our faith should help us to understand reality in terms of eternity. It is something that only could be understood by faith. It is no wonder that the major truss of the Consolation of Philosophy is on the concept of eternity. God answers our prayers swiftly. The response is understood in terms of eternity. We need faith to see this. This why Jesus asked the question, will He find faith on earth when He returns?

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