In his Sunday Angelus message to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis praised the "ridiculous" actions of Zaccheus, the short tax collector who climbed a tree in order to be able to see Jesus in the crowds. "This external gesture, a little ridiculous, nevertheless expresses the interior attitude of a man who seeks to bring himself above the crowd in order to have contact with Jesus.... he is ridiculous, but it is a gesture of salvation." (Kerri Lenartowick reporting in the National Catholic Register, November 3, 2013)When I read this morning that on Sunday Pope Francis referred to Zaccheus as "ridiculous," it reminded me of some lines from an enticing chapter of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov that a friend recently sent to me:
"Karamazov, tell me, am I very ridiculous now?"Merriam-Webster's defines ridiculous as "arousing or deserving ridicule: extremely silly or unreasonable: absurd, preposterous." The key word here, it seems to me, is deserving. A deserved treatment or response is warranted, earned, just.
"Don't think about that, don't think of it at all!" cried Alyosha. "And what does ridiculous mean? Isn't everyone constantly being or seeming ridiculous? Besides, nearly all clever people now are fearfully afraid of being ridiculous, and that makes them unhappy. All I am surprised at is that you should be feeling that so early, though I've observed it for some time past, not only in you. Nowadays the very children have begun to suffer from it. It's almost a sort of insanity. The devil has taken the form of that vanity and entered into the whole generation; it's simply the devil," added Alyosha, without a trace of the smile that Kolya, staring at him, expected to see. "You are like everyone else," said Alyosha, in conclusion, "that is, like very many others. Only you must not be like everybody else, that's all."
"Even if everyone is like that?"
"Yes, even if everyone is like that. You be the only one not like it. You really are not like everyone else, here you are not ashamed to confess to something bad and even ridiculous. And who will admit so much in these days? No one. And people have even ceased to feel the impulse to self-criticism. Don't be like everyone else, even if you are the only one."
Was Kolya in fact "ridiculous"? Did he deserve ridicule, that is, to be criticized, judged, shamed? Alyosha's response wasn't "no, you aren't." In fact, he implies that Kolya was not only ridiculous but in fact was "bad." Yet his response to Kolya's tentative confession was, in Kolya's word, "consoling."
Kolya responds to Alyosha's compassion with words that could have been spoken by the equally "ridiculous" Zaccheus:
"Oh, how I have longed to know you, Karamazov! I've long been eager for this meeting."Isn't this precisely why Zaccheus climbed that tree? And when Jesus saw him perched there he called to him, "Zaccheus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house." And Zaccheus did come down, "and received him with joy" (Luke 19:6).
I haven't read enough of The Brothers Karamazov to know precisely what difference Alyosha's compassion made in how Kolya lived his life. For Zaccheus, however, the encounter with Jesus was clearly transformative. In the words of Pope Francis, Zaccheus' eagerness was "a gesture of salvation," and it resulted not only in words of repentance but also in actions: "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.”
The encounter between Kolya and Alyosha resembles the way many of us feel when we first encounter Jesus: we feel both known and loved. "How you know it all before hand!" Kolya declares, and "Oh, how I love you and admire you at this moment...!" Alyosha warns that the future will not be easy: "You know, Kolya, you will be very unhappy in your life" (though he does soften the message with the previously demonstrated consolation, "but you will bless life on the whole all the same," which also seems to hint at authentic conversion in Kolya). And even Kolya recognizes the gravity of the relationship: "Do you know, all this last month I've been saying to myself, 'Either we shall be friends at once, for ever, or we shall part enemies to the grave!'"
I will close with what appear to be the words with which Pope Francis ended his message about Zaccheus:
He is Father, always watchfully and lovingly waiting to see revived in the heart of his child the desire to return home. And when he recognizes this desire, even if simply hinted at [as Kolya hinted to Alyosha about his own sense of being "ridiculous"], and many times almost unconscious, he is immediately next to him, and with his forgiveness makes the path of conversion and return lighter [as Alyosha did for Kolya].Amen.
Brothers and sisters, let us also call upon the name of Jesus! In the depths of our hearts, listen to his voice that tells us, "Today I must stop at your house; I want to stop at your house and in your heart," that is, in your life. And let us welcome him with joy.