I was travelling on the Tube today, and following the great tradition of reading someone else's newspaper. The words GUILTY PLEASURES, the title of what was obviously a popular series, were emblazoned across the top of the page. It made me think: why do we feel that the most pleasurable things are the ones we should feel guilty about, and why are life's naughty people so much more attractive than the good who are towing the line?
Jesus certainly seems to have enjoyed the company of the naughty. In no way averse to a good night out, he was a popular guest of tax collectors and sinners, much jollier hosts than the poker-faced religious 'professionals' who only invited Jesus round in order to try and catch him out.
Today's Gospel is the endearing story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, one of the much-hated tax collectors, and vertically challenged into the bargain, climbs up a tree so he can see Jesus arrive in Jericho. But Jesus sees him first, and invites himself round for the night. Zacchaeus is thrilled, but the crowd mutter among themselves, 'He has gone to stay at a sinner's house.'
We might conclude that God doesn't really mind how we behave, whether we respect 'moral standards' or not, provided we are loving and warm people who live life to the full. But of course the rub is that Zacchaeus repented.
People had good reason to dislike him. Tax collectors are never popular anywhere, but in the Palestine of Jesus's time they worked for the occupying Roman government, and made their money by putting extra on top of someone's tax bill. As Zacchaeus was wealthy, we can conclude that he put on big extras. An anti-social extortionist, then, however much fun his dinners might have been. So if anyone needed to repent, he did.
But the extraordinary thing is that Zacchaeus repented without any word of rebuke from Jesus. All Jesus asked was that Zacchaeus come down from the tree so that he could get things ready for him to stay. It was not that Zacchaeus was looking at Jesus: it was that Jesus was looking at Zacchaeus. That gaze, the gaze of God's love, transformed Zacchaeus. Something about what he'd heard of Jesus attracted him, but in spite of his efforts to make sure he saw Jesus, it was Jesus who saw him first. And that moment, that moment of Christ's gaze, transformed Zacchaeus, because Jesus recognised him and appealed to what was best in him.
The thought of being host to this amazing person who had called him by his name grabbed Zacchaeus, and he welcomed Jesus joyfully. Suddenly the old pleasure of getting money out of his neighbours didn't appeal any more. Perhaps it had been his way at getting back on people who looked down on him anyway because he didn't fit the image of the body beautiful. Being short might have excluded him from many kinds of work too. But now he has found what he is looking for, and right there in front of the people who are condemning him and Jesus, he pledges half of his property to the poor and fourfold restoration to anyone he has cheated.
So often we search for God and seem not to find him, and we turn for comfort to things that may be less than wholesome. So let's just allow Jesus to look on us, as he is looking out on us from so many icons and statues. He is calling us by our name, knowing and loving us. So let's allow him in. Not to condemn us, not to break us down, but to light the spark of genius within us, to reveal to us our true selves, our real pleasures.