"Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Lk 19:5
Every time I read the story of Zacchaeus, I smile. Imagining Jesus' rueful look as he spots Zacchaeus in the tree, I wonder whether Jesus might have whispered: "I know you are fascinated by me, Zacchaeus, but you didn't have to climb a tree, especially at your age. You could have killed yourself. Be at peace, brother. I know you are a tax collector and have probably overcharged many, but now that you have demonstrated your willingness to seek a different path I will help you."
This kind of imaginative writing would have been called midrash at the time of Jesus. It was a common practice for the rabbis to "fill in the untold story," in their commentaries on the Torah. Because so much of the scripture was written after the fact, the scribes and evangelists would have had to fill in the details of the stories about history long past and the life of Jesus. While today I smiled as I imagined a whispered conversation that Jesus might have had with Zacchaeus, at other times I thought of myself as a tax collector who, though intrigued by Jesus, didn't have the humility to climb a tree and risk embarrassment to "see" Jesus more clearly. Imagining the untold stories inside the life of Jesus helps us draw closer to the Lord and enter more deeply into the great mystery of faith.
St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, encouraged his followers to use a kind of midrash by letting their imaginations help them enter the gospel narrative. In the second week of the Spiritual exercises, he urges his brothers to walk along with Mary and Joseph as they prepare for the birth of Jesus by imagining, “the labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, the thirst, the hunger, the cold, the insults that meet the arrival of God-with-us.”(1) How powerful this kind of prayer can be! We smell the dankness of the stable, feel Mary's fear not having a proper place to go into labor, and touch Joseph's anxiety about his wife's safety and comfort. The story of God's love for us in Jesus comes alive in this way and our faith gets stirred up.
Using our imaginations at prayer will not only fill us with joy as we pray the gospel, it will sometimes lead us into difficult and uncomfortable questions. Was Jesus trying to undermine the authority of the Jewish leaders by sharing a meal with a "unclean" tax collector like Zacchaeus? Is he urging us to "speak truth to power," in our nation, parish and church? Learning to live peacefully with the questions that emerge naturally from our prayer is a necessary step in the spiritual life. Jesus does not want us to be afraid and promises always to be with us on our journey. He is the ground beneath our feet, our food along the way and the breath of God's love that keeps us alive, but he also demands that we become other centered and involved with those who have no voice, no home, no food.
Today, try using your imagination to enter a gospel story more completely, and don't be afraid of where it takes you.