When Pope Francis first announced the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Aleteia’s writers put on our thinking caps, and together we came up with 56 ways to be merciful in 2016. We’ve already explored the first two suggestions: resisting sarcasm and sharing our gifts with the poor. Today, we’re on to suggestion number three:
“Call someone who you know is lonely, even if you understand why they’re lonely. Especially if you do.”
We all have people in our lives we don’t like very much. Often, we’re forced together by circumstance — family, workplace, church, etc. We try to make the best of it by keeping our distance or, when that fails, keeping our interactions brief and light. We certainly don’t seek them out — we’re not masochists, after all, and quite frankly, some of these people seem as if they would rather be left alone.
Remember the story of Zacchaeus? He was a Jewish man working as a tax collector for the Roman government during the time of Jesus’ ministry. He was also very short — so short that when Jesus came to town, he had to scale a tree just to catch a glimpse of the Messiah past all the taller people in the crowd.
It’s pretty safe to say this “wee little man” was not well liked by others. (I mean, seriously — 2,000 years later, we’re still making fun of his small stature in song!) Tax collectors were about as popular as child molesters back in Jesus’ time — theirs was one of the most hated professions imaginable, since Jewish tax collectors were well compensated by the Roman authorities to extort money from their friends and neighbors and hand it over to the government, which used the funds to persecute the Jewish minority.
Zacchaeus might have been rich, but among his own people he was a lonely outcast. Imagine Zacchaeus’ surprise when Jesus — a total stranger to him — arrived in town to a massive welcoming crowd and somehow singled him out up in his tree, calling him by name and inviting himself home for dinner and a evening’s rest.
The crowd complained bitterly. It was not good, they argued, for Jesus to spend time with a man like Zacchaeus. He was a sinner and a crook, selling out his own brethren to increase his material comfort and social standing with the pagan Romans. But Jesus was undeterred. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” he said (Luke 19:5).
Zacchaeus did hurry out of the tree, but what came next was unexpected — right then and there he repented for all the evil he had done: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much,” Zacchaeus said. All that because Jesus reached out to a lonely man and said he’d like them to spend some time together.
We all know people like Zacchaeus — the people no one wants to be around. Their identities vary: The blowhard who refuses to keep his unwanted, unkind, ignorant opinions to himself; the “Debbie Downer” or “Eeyore” type whose constant negativity sucks the joy out of everything. The grumpy boss, the drama queen, the disrespectful teen. The eccentric, the weird, the mentally ill.
Perhaps they’ve spent their lifetimes pushing you and everyone else away. Maybe they’ve earned their isolation; maybe they deserve to be lonely.
Then again, what would your life be like if you got everything you deserved (and nothing that you didn’t)?
Zacchaeus didn’t “deserve” an evening with Jesus and a place in our Church’s history. Like anything else of lasting eternal value, it was thrust upon him by Jesus — a gift freely given by God. Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus, and it sparked a transformation. If we truly want to be like him, we should do the same.
When we reach out to the lonely, we give the Holy Spirit a chance to work through us. Will our efforts always be as successful as Jesus’ was with Zacchaeus? Probably not, but luckily, Christianity is not an outcome-based religion. We’re only responsible for what we put out there, not what others do with it.
Take a look at the spiritual works of mercy: 1) instruct the ignorant, 2) counsel the doubtful, 3) admonish sinners, 4) bear wrongs patiently, 5) forgive offenses willingly, 6) comfort the afflicted and 7) pray for the living and the dead.
Note that it doesn’t say “eliminate people’s doubts,” “heal the afflicted” or“stop people from sinning.” The results are out of our hands. What Jesus calls us to do is follow him, and trust. He reached out to Zacchaeus. We can reach out too.