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TUESDAY HOMILY: The Dreaded Shrinks

By Fr Dwight Longenecker
November 20th, 2012
Catholic Online (

In the children's story The Twits by Roald Dahl, the characters suffer from "the dreaded shrinks". The selfish characters seem to become smaller and smaller the more selfish they become. There's a lesson there that stands the world on its head:

GREENVILLE, SC (Catholic Online) In the children's story The Twits by Roald Dahl, the horrible characters suffer from "the dreaded shrinks". The outlandishly selfish couple seem to become smaller and smaller the more greedy and nasty they become. There's a lesson there that stands the world on its head: The more you try to become great by being selfish, the smaller you become. On the other hand, according to gospel values, the smaller you become the greater you grow.

Whenever I hear the story of Zacchaeus the little tax collector I'm reminded that Jesus chooses little people. This very human and touching story is today's gospel. Zacchaeus is not only a man of short stature, but he's a tax collector. To understand just how despised and "little" Zacchaeus was in everyone else's eyes we have to understand about the Roman taxation system. It was simple. Rome told the governors of the various provinces how much tax money they wanted. The governors hired local tax collectors and gave them a couple of soldiers to help enforce the tax collection. The tax collectors were paid by collecting whatever extra they thought they could get from their customers.

Consequently, most tax collectors took as much as they could get. If this didn't make them despised enough, the Jews considered members of their own community who worked as tax collectors to be traitors to their patriotic cause. They had sold out and were working for the hated Roman overlords. Here's the irony--Zacchaeus wanted to be a big man with wealth and power and prestige. He had soldiers to do his bidding. He had wealth and influence, but it didn't make him big it made him little.

But it was his being little that enabled Zacchaeus to meet Jesus Christ. Because he was little he climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus, and because Jesus recognized his true littleness he could see the intrinsic value of Zacchaeus. 

We have so many plans for ourselves. We have so many ideas of how we're going to become big and important and powerful and successful. We have so many delusions of grandeur. After the big show is over, however, we eventually have to come down where we ought to be. We have to stop being the big people and get a case of the shrinks. We have to become little if we are to be truly big. We have to become small to become great.

This is the wisdom at the heart of the teaching of St Therese of Lisieux. Her "little way" is a way of spiritual childhood. She probably loved Zacchaeus because he was little. He would have been a symbol for her of the "little way" of simplicity and trust which lies at the heart of the gospel. Jesus said about the little children, "unless you become like one of these you cannot enter the kingdom." He might also have said about Zacchaeus, "unless you become as little as this little tax collector you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven."

I have written about the little way of St Therese and compared it to the "little Rule" of St Benedict in my book, St Benedict and St Therese, the Little Rule and the Little Way. St Benedict also calls his monks to follow his "little Rule for beginners". His little Rule emphasizes the need for child like obedience, simple trust and a heart that is open to constant conversion.

This "little way" is pictured for us as Zacchaeus comes down from the tree to meet Jesus. His climbing the tree is a symbol of the climb he had made socially. He climbed up the tree of power and influence and wealth and status in order to become great, but to meet Jesus he had to come down where he was supposed to be. He had to come down to himself. He had to come down to his littleness before Christ.

When he met Christ Zacchaeus' life was changed. He vowed to give back the money he had stolen and begin living a new life. By coming down to his littleness Zacchaeus became truly great.

The same must happen to each one of us if we are to really meet with Christ. Sooner or later, one way or another, all the things we've gathered around us to re-assure us of our greatness will be taken away. If we really want to meet Christ, then sooner or later, one way or another, all the prestige and power and wealth and influence and worldly greatness that we have gathered to ourselves will be removed. We will come down from the sycamore tree of our vanity and reliance on human achievement and kneel before the Lord and realize our littleness. This process is painful. It's the spiritual version of the "dreaded shrinks" because through it we are becoming little not large.

Then we will come down where we ought to be. At that point Jesus Christ will lift us up and make us truly great. At that point he will say with great joy, "Today salvation has come to your house!" At that point he will welcome us into his embrace and remind us that this transaction of salvation is the whole point of his life in the world, for he has come to seek and to save that which was lost.

He has come to help the ones who think they are great realize they are little, and to lift up the ones who are little to their true and everlasting greatness.

Fr Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is Catholicism Pure and Simple. Visit his blog called Standing on My Head and go to his website to browse his books, read his bio and make contact.

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