Homily for Tuesday of the 33rd Week in OT, 16 November 2021, Luke 19:1-10

Today’s Gospel gives us an idea how Jesus saved people who have been bullied from turning into bullies themselves.

Bullying has become a very common phenomenon in our society nowadays. I think we need the help from pychologists and psychiatrists to get to understand professionally how people can carry with them their experiences of being bullied, all the way to their old age. How the trauma—if not addressed properly—could later be translated in the way the victims conduct themselves when they turn into adults, especially when they find themselves in positions of power or authority, as parents, as teachers, as managers or administrators, as pastors, or even as government leaders. How the once bullied kids could eventually turn into bullies themselves if nobody ever helped them deal with their suppressed feelings of anger and resentment, or even the desire to get even with their former abusers.

I have heard many stories from parents who learned only later that their children had been bullied in school. Apparently, the most common tendency is for children to keep quiet about it, for fear that their parents might overreact and just make matters worse. The parents only gradually notice something different in their children’s behavior, as well as in their performance in school.

Like, they observe that they are becoming more insecure or more lacking in self-confidence. Some parents do not realize how deeply their children can get affected by a constant bombardment of comments by comments like “Panget! Bobo! Bakla! Lampa! Baduy!” From the sheer frequency of being ridiculed, they actually begin to think of themselves as ugly, stupid, weakling or clumsy, tacky, etc. They begin to feel like they are so small or so lacking in self-worth. They can carry it into their adulthood without their realizing it.

There are actually signs that parents may miss out, especially if they are busy. Like they may not notice that their children are seriously doing some physical work-out, body-building, enrolling in courses for karate, or other forms of self-defense, or engaging in dangerous sports like gun shooting because of the desire for revenge. In some instances, because they can no longer get even with those who had bullied them, they inflict their revenge on other people, people who are younger, smaller, more helpess or less mature than they. And then the vicious cycle begins: the abused becoming an abuser. Haven’t we heard of mass killings in many states in the United States, perpetrated by formerly abused people who at some point snap and turn homicidal when their sense of power is reinforced by deadly weapons?

In Filipino we often describe them as “May malalim na hugot, may bitbit na hinanakit sa mga panlalait na ginawa sa kanya.” They have never quite gotten over a kind of inner urge for revenge that keeps replaying in their subconscious mind like, “Just you wait! You will have your own time.” Before long, they inflict evil on others not because they are themselves evil, but because they had never been able to process the traumatic experience of abuse that they had been through in the past.

I think of Zaccheus as a prototype of that kind of personality. St. Luke tells us he was “a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man”. But he also notes that this man was “small in stature.” I suspect that this man had been bullied for being vertically challenged, and had literally climbed his way to the top in the social ladder by becoming a tax-collector, precisely to get even with the people who belittled him. He thought that the best way to become a big-shot in society was by aspiring to get rich, influential and powerful. He had been looked down upon for too long, he wanted to see the time when people would look up to him despite his physical limitations.

Luke also tells us Zaccheus longed to see what Jesus was like. Perhaps he had heard a lot of things about Jesus. Perhaps he wanted to know why this man, who was a son of a carpenter, a virtual nobody in Jewish society was regarded very highly by many people. Since he was quite the opposite, he wanted to know the secret. And so he did what he had gotten used to doing: climbing his way to the top. And that created the occasion for his encounter with Jesus that would have a very profound effect on him. It would change him for good. Take note of three little details in the story that are worth reflecting on: first, Jesus looked up at him. Second, Jesus invited him to come down. And thirdly, Jesus had dinner with him.

JESUS LOOKED UP AT HIM. For the first time, Zaccheus probably felt like there was someone, finally, who looked up at him. He was more used to being looked down upon. And of all people it was the Rabbi from Nazareth who made him feel important, in spite of his bad reputation as a tax collector.

JESUS INVITED HIM TO COME DOWN. Zaccheus finally realized that he did not even need to climb treetops in order to see Jesus or to be noticed by him. He did not even need to prove himself or to prove his worth. I call the look of Jesus the look of love that says, “you are valuable in the eyes of God. You are loved AS YOU ARE.” For as long as people try too hard to prove themselves to be better, stronger, or more good-looking it can only mean they are still insecure. It’s as if they had to put down others to raise themselves up. In the sight of God, it is those who humble themselves who are exalted. It’s when they learn to come down to those in low positions, when they are able to express compassion for them and lift them up that finally show true greatness.

FINALLY, JESUS HAD DINNER WITH HIM. Jesus accepted him as he was. He did not think of what people would say if he was seen in the company of people like Zaccheus. He did not even set any condition to him. He didn’t say “I will have fellowship with you only if you change your ways.” The change would follow after the experience of unconditional love and acceptance. It made a totally new man out of him.

There are so many Zaccheuses in this world. They are not really bad people in themselves. They might just be dealing with issues that have kept them in a state of perpetual victimhood. They might be the type who will not know how to handle power, authority or responsibility, because they try too hard to prove themselves. They can be dangerously toxic, especially when they need to trample on the dignity of others in order to raise themselves up, or in order to feel vindicated.

Their sense of victimhood remains fresh even decades later and changes them eventually into a splitting image of their oppressors. They also turn abusive, aggressive and violent in words and deeds. They react defensively to criticism or correction because they take offense easily. They think they are being ridiculed all over again. Instead of accepting criticism, they will try to destroy the reputation of their critics, call them names, bad mouth them or accuse them of being hypocrites. They will do anything to put them down.

There is a charismatic song that sound very much like a good desciption of what happened to Zaccheus after his encounter with Jesus.

“Nang tanggapin ko si Hesus na aking Diyos, nagbago ang lahat sa buhay ko. Bagong ligaya ang nadarama, bagong pag-asa ang nakikita. Lahat, lahat ay aking ibibigay, ibibigay pati aking buhay upang purihin Siya!”