Have you ever stood before a mirror and wished you had a different face or body? If you haven’t, you belong to a very small minority of the human race. Psychologists say that even the most beautiful people in the world often feel ugly and unattractive. Such well-known movie stars as Liv Ullman, Doris Day, and Meryl Streep have publicly expressed misgivings about their appearance.
So you are in good company when you wish your nose were longer or shorter, or your ears didn’t stick out, or your chin didn’t look like the Spanish Steps in Rome, or you had Omar Sharif’s eyes instead of the ones you were born with. You are not alone when you worry that you are too thin or too fat, or that your hair is too sparse or too coarse, or that you need, as Don Knotts once said he did, a body transplant.
It is the millions of persons who feel the same way that have made reducing spas and plastic surgery as common as indoor plumbing. One woman who had made more trips to her surgeon than either he or she would admit was heard to say, “If I have any more face lifts, the skin from my knees will be halfway up my waist!”
Our preoccupation with attractiveness ought to make us extremely receptive to the plight of poor Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. Aside from those with such obvious problems as blindness or lameness, Zacchaeus is the only person in the entire New Testament noted for having a physical handicap. That is truly exceptional.
Zacchaeus must have been very, very short for his size to have drawn attention to him. Israel surely swarmed, as it does now, with short people, people with warts on their noses, people with ears missing, people with deformed bodies, people with no teeth, people in all shapes and conditions. Yet nothing was said about them. Zacchaeus must have been a little person to have received such notice.
Have you ever stopped to imagine what life must have been like for him? People can be thoughtlessly cruel about handicaps, can’t they? One of our sons was born with crossed eyes, which were later corrected by surgery. I still remember some of the barbaric remarks made by people in stores and elevators who looked into his innocent little face.
Recent studies conclude that school teachers often respond more favorably to their better-looking students, and that judges are swayed by the appearances of defendants in court, meting out stronger sentences to the least attractive among them.
Zacchaeus must have been the butt of many jokes. He was probably always chosen last for games and laughed at by the prettiest girls. Maybe this is why, when he had the opportunity, he took the position as superintendent of taxes for the Roman government occupying his country. Tax collectors were never popular, and in Israel they had the special problem of being thought spiritually unclean, because they handled money bearing the Emperor’s inscription, and therefore were not allowed to observe any of the religious holidays.
I can imagine little Zacchaeus saying, “I will show them, I will become the most powerful man in our city.” So he made his compact with the Romans, which allowed him to exact extra money for himself, and he rode high and mighty over his fellow citizens. He built himself a great house and gave dinners for important officials who came to Jericho, and he strode around town like Boss Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard.
It often works that way, doesn’t it? It’s called the Napoleonic complex. People who are undersized or mistreated or ignored as children vow to become important or noticeable in life, and their determination carries them forward with amazing force.
Many a financier has been driven to achieve in the business world because he was told by parents or teachers that he would never amount to anything. Many a high ranking military officer has attained recognition because he was a failure on the playing field or the dance floor. Many a leading politician got where he or she is today because of thwarted hopes or ambitions somewhere along life’s way. We like to be noticed, approved, embraced; and, if this doesn’t happen naturally, then we work harder to make it happen.
Thus it was that Zacchaeus was a well-known figure in Jericho when Jesus and His disciples were passing that way, and when Jesus saw a short man sitting on the branch of a sycamore tree and asked who he was, the local rabbi who had come out to escort Jesus and the disciples through town knew him at once and said, “Oh, that’s Zacchaeus, our tax collector. He lives in that enormous house we passed back there on the right, the one with all the cypress trees lining the driveway.” And Jesus, knowing how it was with Zacchaeus, that he was as bad off as any cripple or deaf person, said, “Come down, Zacchaeus. We are going to your house for dinner.”
That was the day of the miracle in Zacchaeus’ life. It was the day he sat at table with the Savior of the world and saw that all his worries about physical stature and all his ambitions to be important and have people notice him were tawdry and unbecoming concerns in the light of eternity and the kingdom of God.
When Jesus looked him full in the face, something passed between them that changed his life. All the old hurts and indignities faded into nothingness. All the compensatory achievements — the big job, the social prominence, the great house, the financial security — passed into meaninglessness. Only the presence of the Savior mattered.
I wish you could have that experience too — that you could sit down at the table in your house with Jesus and feel all the old hurts and animosities simply drain away — that you could look into the eyes of the Savior and feel all your greatest achievements becoming apples of dust and ashes — that you could see how beautiful life is, and you are, in the presence of the One who has brought God into our very midst and reminded us that God cares about us as surely as He cares about the grass of the fields and the birds of the air.
Can you imagine what it would do for you? You wouldn’t look in the mirror anymore and wish you were somebody else or had somebody else’s figure. You wouldn’t scheme or work anymore to get ahead of everybody else and make them think you’re really somebody.
You would just relax in the presence of the eternal Spirit, and feel beautiful all over, and find you could do your work better and get on with your friends more easily because you wouldn’t be possessed by the demons of getting ahead and showing off. You would feel yourself in tune with the harmony of the ages, and you would want to celebrate life and yourself and God, all at the same time. Can you imagine it?
We do need those old feelings healed so we can put them behind us and get on with the business of living. Francis McNutt, the Catholic writer, tells in his book Healing about a young woman whose worries about her appearance had nearly led her to a mental breakdown. She could no longer look in a mirror without thinking she was ugly and that other people were rejecting her because of that. Her father had rejected her when she was a child, and she thought it was because he couldn’t bear to look at her. Her thinking got in such a mess that some days she could not bear to go to work, for fear of people staring at her.
Francis met with her and taught her how to pray for Christ’s healing in her life, and she practiced this kind of praying for several days. Finally she had enough courage to call up her father and go to see him. All the way to his house she rehearsed what she was going to say. But when she got there and he appeared at the door she only collapsed in tears. Her father put his arm around her — the first time she could recall his having done this — and God gave them the gift of tears for several minutes as they stood clinging to each other. Afterwards she and her father were able to communicate as never before, and she went back to work with new hope and courage. Each day as she looked in the mirror she felt better about herself, and her whole life blossomed from having been cured in the depths of her heart.
That was Zacchaeus’ story. His whole life changed as a result of his meeting with Jesus. “I feel so good,” he said, “that I want to live differently. I’ll begin with my fortune, which I made because I was short and felt inadequate and needed a crutch. Now I can throw away my crutch. I will give half of all I have to the poor, and whoever I have wronged, in the course of my triumphal march over my fellow human beings, I will repay four times over!”
Talk about the evidence of a changed life, that’s it, isn’t it!? Zacchaeus didn’t need his props any more. He didn’t need to live in a big house where he could look down on everybody else. He didn’t need anything to lift him above the crowd. He had met the Master of life and was ready to be a servant. And there was something beautiful about Zacchaeus that day. You have to admit it. He shone with a new radiance.
You don’t have to be attractive by Hollywood standards in order to be beautiful. Your nose and eyes don’t have to match your face, your teeth don’t have to be straight, your body doesn’t have to look great in a bathing suit. You only have to be a channel of God’s love in the world, that’s all. And when you are, you’re beautiful, just the way Zacchaeus was when he had been with Jesus at the table.
Years ago I heard the story of Father Jim, who was in charge of an orphanage. Father Jim was not his real name — I have forgotten that — but it does not matter. Father Jim was the most loving, caring man anyone who knew him had ever met. All the children in the orphanage loved him instantly, and even after they had grown up and had homes of their own they would come back to visit him.
The most wonderful thing about Father Jim was the facility he had for accepting and glorifying in each child the very thing the child hated or most wished could be different. If the child had unruly hair, Father Jim made it seem the most beautiful hair of all. If he had big feet, so that other children teased him when he tried to run and became entangled in them, Father Jim praised them until they became objects of pride and the other children wanted feet just like them.
One day when Father Jim was in town shopping, a new child was brought to the orphanage. It was a little boy with a terrible birthmark covering half his face. And apparently the boy had developed a disposition to go with the mark, for he was clearly unmanageable, screaming and cursing at the social worker who brought him. All the children wondered how Father Jim would respond to the new boy. Surely he could not find anything good to extol in the boy. That afternoon when Father Jim’s battered old station wagon turned into the drive, they were all there to greet him. They wanted to behold his encounter with the new child. The new child stood off by himself, defiant of everyone. Father Jim got out of the wagon with his usual jovialness, and there was shouting and hugging as he greeted the children. Then they all grew silent and stood aside as he noticed the new boy.
“Hello,” said Father Jim, “and who is this?”
“It’s the new boy,” they said, and fell silent again, waiting to see Father Jim’s reaction.
“Well, well, well,” said Father Jim as he approached the boy. The children stared, to see what Father Jim would do when he caught sight of the hideous birthmark. They would never forget what they saw.
“Here we go,” said Father Jim merrily as he scooped up the boy. And he planted a great kiss right in the middle of the birthmark, and squeezed the boy tightly before setting him down. The boy soon became a model child, and the other children accepted his birthmark as if it were something special, given by God. After all, Father Jim had kissed it, and that made it beautiful.
Think of yourself that way, my friends. God has kissed the very part of you you always despised, and now it is beautiful in its own way. So it is with anything in creation that God has made — if we only learn to see with the eyes of God, the way Zacchaeus did.