Memory is a profound thing. Certain images, events, and facts stick with us over time and become housed in our long-term memory. Remembrance is the act of recalling past events through memory. Much of the Catholic Church’s sacramental life is founded on memorializing events from the Gospels. During the Last Supper, Jesus stated, “Do this in memory of me.” When I taught New Testament at a Catholic high school, I unconsciously created a memory regarding the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10. I united my love of literature with love of scripture by referring to Zacchaeus as “the hobbit of the New Testament”. Students chuckled at this provisional quip. The former tax collector was described as a short man who needed to climb a tree to view Jesus’ arrival in his town. J.R.R. Tolkien once described his creations as,
I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which allows them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off.
Linking the minor character in Luke’s Gospel to hobbits helped forge a permanent memory of Luke 19:1-10 within me. In the years following this mnemonic device, I frequently recall the life of Zacchaeus and Jesus’ mercy whenever I see anything related to The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Below are three things I learned from “The hobbit of the New Testament”
- Persistence pays off: Zacchaeus could not initially see Jesus as he entered Jericho. Instead of letting his short stature prevent him from seeing the Messiah, St. Luke tells us, “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way (Luke 19:4). Imagine a grown man scurrying up a tree or pole to see a local celebrity, politician, or other important figure. In today’s age of social media I bet someone would certainly go to Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube over such strange behavior. Climbing up a tree indicates not the strangeness of Zacchaeus, but rather his persistence and recognition that Jesus was someone important! The short man in Luke is definitely a role model for me in showing that my faith life is a constant work in progress.
- Jesus Chooses the Imperfect: Along with Zacchaeus’ persistence, the tale of the hobbit of the New Testament demonstrates that Jesus loves the imperfect and calls the sinner to follow him. Not only did Zacchaeus struggle to physically see Jesus among the crowd, he also had an occupation despised by his fellow countrymen—he was a tax collector! According to Luke, the crowd hated Jesus’ invitation to Zacchaeus by stating, “When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner (Luke 19:7)” Personally, I need to be reminded that Jesus dined with sinners— the spiritually infirmed. I struggle with the sin of pride. I battle with being judgmental. Luke 19:1-10 gives me perspective that God’s love is ultimately above my total comprehension. God’s love is transformative as well. The “hobbit of the New Testament” was changed after his encounter with Jesus. “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over,” Zacchaeus stated (Luke 19:8).
- Do not let Limitations Prevent You from Growing: A final point Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus taught me is that spiritual growth is possible despite my limitations and past failures. Jesus welcomed sinners and culturally ostracized groups with grace and forgiveness. Oftentimes, I use my limitations—my low patience with my kids, my OCD, and struggles with pride—as an excuse to put off growing in my spiritual life. Zacchaeus’ transformation in the presence of Jesus gives me hope that I am able to change too.
J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” Certainly that is true for his Lord of the Rings trilogy where the bearer of Sauron’s ring is the simple hobbit Frodo. Zacchaeus, like, the hobbits of Middle Earth, provided change in the course of the future—for sure my future! I took to Zacchaeus, a figure who was not only physically limited, but spiritually limited who saw something transformative and attractive in Jesus. Scaling a sycamore tree, Zacchaeus did not let the possible danger of falling or others’ perceptions of him stop him from gazing at our Lord. I ask for fortitude from the Holy Spirit to allow me to boldly seek Jesus just as the hobbit of the New Testament intrepidly sought after God.
***“I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again.” –J.R.R. Tolkien***