I hate boogers. I have a pretty strong stomach. There are very few things that gross me out. Before I worked for the church I was an EMT at a private ambulance company. People would always ask what was the most disturbing or disgusting thing I had ever seen. Blood? No. Broken bones? Easy to handle. Burns? Nope. That disgusting distinction went to mucus and anything else that emerged from the nose. I’m getting sick just writing this.
I’ve noticed something about my son Caleb. His desire to give me kisses is in direct proportion to the amount of runny nose that has made its way to his mouth. I wish I were making this up. Dry and clean nose? Get away from me dad! Slimy, salty river of snot? You’ve never seen such an affectionate child. But you know what? Much to my surprise it doesn’t gross me out. I’ll take the gross kisses. After all, I love him. If love is stronger than death I have to believe it’s stronger than boogers. So when Caleb leans in for a kiss with a shiny upper lip, he gets a kiss. Then I wipe his face clean. But always love first, without delay, without condition. I’m compelled to. It’s never even a question. What if I demanded a clean face first? That would place conditions on my love for him. “I love you, but only if…”
Zacchaeus was a tax collector. Tax collectors are corrupt traitors to their people. Their faces are absolutely covered in snot. Zacchaeus knew this, but he also knew he needed Jesus, who had come to town. Zacchaeus raced ahead of the crowds and climbed into a sycamore tree to get a better view. And then Mercy was compelled to act. Mercy is what Love looks like when it meets brokenness, messiness and sin. Listen to Jesus’ words, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Zacchaeus steps out in faith, literally “goes out on a limb” for Christ and the response is immediate. Jesus must draw closer to Zacchaeus, quickly and without condition. Zacchaeus’ decision to repent of his sin and make amends for any dishonesty is not the cause of Jesus’ love, but the fruit that comes from it. His encounter with Jesus transforms him in an instant.
Jesus calls us to run to him quickly. He must come to dwell with us because He loves us. He wants me and you, snots and all, to know Him. By faith we go out on a limb like Zacchaeus and with the grace we receive through the sacraments “God makes us worthy of his calling.” I pray you have that same transformational encounter with God, who is love and mercy, in the person of Jesus Christ.
Does God love some people more than others? In one sense, no, He doesn’t. After all, God is love. When we love each other we are actually participating in God’s love. Because of this we can choose to participate in that love more or less or even not at all. But God is infinite and God is love. Saying God loves one person more than another makes no sense because His love is already infinite. Infinity plus one is still infinity.
On the other hand, God seems to make more of His infinite love available to some people. There are some people who feel a near constant awareness of God’s love for them and many who don’t. Saint Therese made an analogy to explain this. Even though she was talking about the different glories that await each of us in Heaven, I (hopefully with the Little Flower’s blessing) want to paraphrase her here. Imagine a large cup and next to it is a thimble. They’re both filled to the brim with water. They hold different amounts but it would be impossible to add anything to either container. Our capacity to experience God’s love is like that. Some of us have big cups, some have thimbles. Some have oceans, some have eye droppers. But all are full. So what is the secret that the big cuppers hold?
I don’t think the secret is trying to get God to love you more. That’s impossible. Our list of accomplishments, merits, awards, talents, important jobs, good grades, the number of friends we have, big paychecks, good deeds—none of it can increase God’s love for us, which is already infinite. Jesus gives us the secret to having a greater capacity to be loved by Him with the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In the parable Jesus tells us about two men praying in the temple: a self-righteous Pharisee who thanks God for making him better than everyone else and a humble tax collector who asks God for mercy. The Pharisee falls short not just because he is judgmental and dismissive of the tax collector. If we get caught up on the “judge not” message alone we will miss something hugely important. Yes, the Pharisee is wrong to judge, but he misses the mark even further by thinking he has earned God’s love by his tithing, fasting and self-righteousness. He is completely blind to his unworthiness and closed off to mercy. We can often be like the Pharisee in this second sense. True, we tend not to judge the “tax collectors” in our lives because we are good and decent people. But we can fall into the trap of believing that everything is ok. That we don’t need Jesus’ mercy every hour of every day. That crying out to God is for other people, people with problems. Not us. We too can be closed off to mercy.
The tax collector, aware of his brokenness, is open to receive mercy. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” is the motto of the big cuppers. The saints (just a fancy word for big cuppers) all had in common a profound awareness of their own sin and brokenness. From the outside this can look like hand-wringing guilt, but nothing could be further from the truth. Declarations like “Lord I need You!” and “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” are the secret to experiencing the fullness of God’s love and the freedom from anxiety, abundant joy and peace that only Christ can give.
When I was a kid I thought Jesus healed leopards. They called them leopards because their skin was covered in spots. Obviously. And a leopard can’t change his spots (that saying actually comes from Jeremiah 13:23) so Jesus preformed the miracle of changing their spots for them. I really did believe this until I learned what leprosy really was (and still is). It’s generally accepted that the ancient disease was caused by the same bacteria as the modern one, mycobacterium leprae. It is still around in many parts of the world but unlike in Jesus time, it is extremely treatable. Leprosy was so feared that people suffering from it were exiled from their community and forced to warn others when they approached. Many other skin conditions were lumped in with leprosy too. It makes me think twice before I complain about my psoriasis. After all, I don’t have to live in a leper colony (although living in a leopard colony would be kinda cool).
There is a biblical connection between leprosy and sin. In the Old Testament leprosy is seen as a punishment for sin. The gospels point to leprosy not as an effect of sin, but as an analogy for it. Like sin it is ugly, it disfigures, it can spread and it separates us—separates us from each other and from God. And just as Jesus, in his mercy, desired to free the ten lepers of their physical disease, he also desires to free us from our spiritual disease. If only we have the courage to echo the words of the lepers, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!” Christ wants to set us free, wants to heal us. But he waits for our permission to act.
Saint Francis of Assisi, whose memorial we observed this week, was absolutely repulsed by leprosy and sufferers of leprosy. Early in his radical conversion he met a leper on the road and knew what he had to do. He gave the man money, embraced him and kissed his sores. In that moment he realized that he was embracing and kissing Jesus. In an instant Saint Francis’ sin of indifference and aversion to suffering was healed. We have access to the same sanctifying grace and healing in the sacraments. We only need to ask.