By Father Jacob Dankasa
Special to The Texas Catholic
During Jesus’ lifetime he had people who believed in him, who agreed with him, who walked alongside him. They were privileged, because they dined with him and saw him all the time. But Jesus wasn’t satisfied with merely holding on to this circle of friends. He wanted to expand to other circles. He reached out to the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and those whom society had cast out as sinners and doomed.
The story of Zacchaeus comes to mind (Lk 19:1-10). Zacchaeus searched to find Jesus but, surprisingly, Jesus found him instead. Of course, to the amazement of both Jesus’ faithful followers and his critics, he went to dine with Zacchaeus, a tax-collector and a proclaimed “sinner.” Levi the tax collector was a similar case (Lk 5:27-31). From their immediate responses to Jesus’ invitation, it appears that both Zacchaeus and Levi were internally longing to meet Jesus. But it was Jesus who did the finding; he reached out first. The Scriptures tell us that it’s Jesus who stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3:20). He takes the initiative, the first step in reaching out, and it’s left to the person inside to open the door. Jesus doesn’t wait for an opened door; he goes to knock even on the closed doors.
In our churches and congregations today, we may have so many Zacchaeuses and Levis, people who are only coming to church to test the waters, to find out if it’s for them.
These are people who come to our churches searching for welcome, searching for someone to say hello, searching for a place of worship they can call home, searching for a spiritual friend to lift them up. Some may have been hurt spiritually or physically in the past, and some may have lived ungodly lives but are now seeking redemption. Like Zacchaeus, such people are still up in the tree. They need someone to reach out and ask them to come down.
We miss opportunities when we are not able to identify these people in our congregations.
A good number of us who are very engaged members of the church may be too preoccupied with fraternizing and socializing with those who are like us — the very engaged. We’re in the same ministries, we attend the same meetings and, often, the same Mass.
These are beautiful gestures of engagement, and we need such engaged people in the church. But we miss opportunities to evangelize when we don’t take notice of that strange man or woman we have just seen for the first time at church, or that woman who seems to be alone all the time, or those people who seem to be off and on at Mass.
Some of these people may be “the Zacchaeus” in our congregation, the one who is trying to meet Jesus but are hindered by many circumstances — doubt, loneliness, confusion etc., with no one noticing them. Such people need us to be “the Jesus” that reaches out to them. They need to know and feel that someone notices and cares about them.
As believers and worshippers of God, we must not shy away from taking the first step to reach out to someone in our congregation who appears new to us, someone who doesn’t appear to be in our circle of the “very engaged.” We must not be afraid to knock on the doors of the hearts of unfamiliar people in our congregation. These are small but significant gestures that demonstrate that someone recognizes them.
Fear of rejection shouldn’t stand in the way of our evangelizing efforts. It is true that we live in a society where people cherish their space, and for fear of not invading someone’s space, we prefer to keep things safe and stay away.
As politically correct and as cautious as this may be, it’s not in sync with the virtues of charity, love and hospitality that are basic features of our Christian faith, especially within our faith communities. A generous and glowing smile, a pleasant handshake, and a warm greeting won’t harm anyone. But even if our kind gestures happen to be ignored or rebuffed, we should see that as part of the price of evangelization. Not trying, or doing nothing, is not an option.
When we reach out to brothers and sisters in our congregation that we may not have met before or those that we see infrequently without knowing who they are, we may be winning over a Zacchaeus without knowing it. We may be surprised to find that their presence in our congregation is like climbing a tree and hoping to see Jesus. What a great privilege it would be to be the Jesus who brought them down from the tree to dine frequently at his eucharistic table.
Hopefully we can add this evangelization resolution to our list of new year’s resolutions.
Father Jacob Dankasa is a parochial vicar at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Plano.