Can money buy happiness? How much does it take? How do you know you’ve saved enough for retirement or that your children will get the nest egg they’ll want? What happens when work, possessions, and financial stature define you? Does working all the time make you successful? How do you define success?
Mother Teresa said, “We aren’t called to be successful, but to be faithful.” I didn’t understand that. I thought if I was faithful, God would have to honor my plans with society’s definition of success. I thought if I worked hard, my family and I would be rewarded with material comforts and financial security. I thought if I did more, I would be loved more.
I found out how wrong I was.
Can Money Buy Happiness?
Money can buy a lot but not happiness. In the Gospel of Luke 19:1-10, money sure didn’t buy chief tax collector Zacchaeus happiness. Today, Zacchaeus would have had a large, professionally decorated house with someone to handle cleaning and lawn maintenance. He would have had another home outside the city to escape to on weekends and a nice car or two or three to get him and his wealthy friends there. He would have vacationed at the finest hotels on exotic islands, shopped name brands, and bought jewels for his paramours.
Zacchaeus would have had it all, except what he most craved – faith and all that goes with it.
Zacchaeus may not have been born chief tax collector, but his parents would have groomed him for that type of role. They would have introduced him to connections needed to make it to the top of his field.
He would have been fed messages about success since birth.
Those messages would have missed riches that cannot be bought and that every soul craves. His parents may have loved him, but they too may have misunderstood limitations imposed by their definition of success. They too may have tried to fill holes in their hearts with success and stuff. Slightly mis-conveyed messages passed through generations tend to mislead without our realizing it.
Tax collectors were their own breed. They had money, but it was often money taken from the powerless. Their “success” bought creature comforts but not respect. They would have known their “friends,” like them, had underdeveloped consciences. They would have greeted one another with hearty slaps on the back while always watching over their shoulders. Among like minded people, they would have trusted no one.
That isolation eats at a person.
We see this in Zacchaeus the Tax Collector as crowds follow Jesus but Zacchaeus runs alone. Zacchaeus is a short man who struggles to see the Lord, but there is more to Zacchaeus than meets the eye. Zacchaeus may not be able to identify what his life is missing, but he knows the void in a life defined by “success.” He alone among tax collectors works to change.
There must have been other tax collectors passing Jesus. Perhaps they walked in the opposite direction, grumbling about lower classes blocking traffic the way we grumble about potholes. Perhaps, other tax collectors, pushed through the crowd without pausing for the man who spoke so gently.
Zacchaeus however was not content to merely push past Jesus. Zacchaeus looked for more. In the crowd, he was alone, looked down upon by others: feared, but not respected, envied, but not loved. Zacchaeus must have known he was an anomaly among men. He must have wished he fit in, yet, he did what would make him least likely to fit in.
Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree.
Picture that. Picture the short Roman man dressed in fine robes, rings on his fingers, ledgers in hand running, running, past the crowds on a hot day. This small sweating man may have smelled worse than the crowd of peasants, worse than this son of a carpenter so many flocked to see.
No doubt some child in the crowd pointed at Zacchaeus without censure as small children do. No doubt the child’s parents hushed him, lowered his pointing arm, and stifled his giggles. They would not have wanted to catch the tax collector’s attention as they nudged those nearby, whispering under their breath, sharing a joke about the undignified tax collector. For once, they looked successful and this silly man was the one scampering to get ahead.
Picture their astonishment as Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree with its twisting branches perfect for climbing and wide green leaves perfect for hiding. Zacchaeus had wanted to see Jesus, but perhaps he didn’t want to be seen. Perhaps he’d had enough of the crowds laughing at him. Perhaps he didn’t feel ready to meet the Lord.
But Jesus knows all things and stood under the sycamore tree, not simply nodding as He must have done to others who’d climbed trees to get a better look, but stopping and calling to Zacchaeus. Jesus, who knows all, called Zacchaeus down from the tree, and invited Himself to Zacchaeus’ home.
The crowds were aghast. How could Jesus eat at the house of a tax collector, a little man not even welcome in the local synagogue? Did Jesus not know what the tax collector had done? Did He not know how he had lorded himself over the poor? Did Jesus not care?
Jesus knew and cared, but Jesus sees in our hearts as others do not. Jesus saw, not an undignified, smelly little man, but a man searching for truth and goodness. He saw a corrupt man’s heart opening to sacrificial love. He saw a man successful in measures the world holds dear but floundering without faith.
Jesus saw a man seeking upward mobility. In a society where children are born to a given fate, Jesus welcomed all and told even tax collectors they could change their position in the Kingdom of Heaven, not by being successful, but by being faithful.
But Zacchaeus knew nothing about being faithful. He was a born to a long line of those who put money and individualism over love of God and neighbor, a line that redefined values to fit their limited views rather than unpopular virtues, a line that didn’t realize how deep love could go or what having faith truly gives – or requires.
Zacchaeus didn’t know how to grow his faith, but he knew he couldn’t do more of the same. He knew he couldn’t follow the crowd by simply tagging along, hoping to fit in unnoticed. At first Zacchaeus hid in the sycamore leaves, but once Jesus called, he knew he had to come down from his perch a changed man. He knew he had to make amends and give more than he took. He knew such payment would jeopardize what he considered success. He knew friends would think he was crazy and his family might feel cheated.
But he also knew that to be faithful requires a change in what he was doing, a change in mindset, a change in his very definition of success. He knew faith meant great effort, changing vantage points, and not following shallow, popular beliefs. He knew faith meant doing what others would question. Faith required climbing a tree but also climbing back down. Faith, like change, means risk.
Application to the Divorced
Growing up, we dream of the life we think we’re owed. We may not envision the wealth Zacchaeus took for granted, but we picture the spouse, children, home, two cars in the driveway, the 9-to-5 job, and summer vacations. We define the culmination of success as a long and happy retirement spent sipping lemonade on front porch rockers, our fingers entwined with a beloved spouse as we watch our grandchildren play on the yard in the setting sun.
Or at least that was my dream.
Your dream may be slightly different, but the idea is the same. This dream is our vision of success. It is what we are groomed for from birth.
When a spouse shreds that dream and life falls apart, when material success is divided and children are shipped out to a hostile ex-spouse, what we have been groomed for will never be. When we are not successful as we define success, we can lose who we think we were created to be. Worse, we lose our faith in God and who He is creating us to be.
It’s easy to badmouth an ex, to sink to the misery of what was lost and of what should have been, of where we would be if life were different. It’s easy to see our exes as tax collectors, stealing what should have been ours. It’s easy to assume another would do the same. It’s easy to be one of the crowd, following but not really seeing, pointing out the wrongs of others, hoping we are close enough to the Lord to bask in His glory, but unwilling to stand out, to exert ourselves, to change our ways, to sprint ahead, to climb our trees, or to jump back down.
Sometimes the way we are raised interferes with our faith. Sometimes it’s things that happen to us. Sometimes we’ve been part of the crowd for so long we don’t recognize we are the crowd. Sometimes we don’t realize the work involved. Sometimes we are lazy.
Sometimes we think Jesus doesn’t know or care.
But He does. Always.
Sometimes Jesus must wonder about us. He must ask why we follow the crowd, why we don’t run ahead, why we are afraid to have people talk, point at, or whisper about us? Sometimes He must want us to climb a tree and change our view, but He must also wonder why we don’t heed His voice calling us back down, why we don’t welcome Him in our homes when He’s told us He’d like to be there, and why we don’t redefine success with faith. Sometimes Jesus must look into our hearts and wonder how His love can grow among weeds we fertilize, our definitions of success being some, our feelings of betrayal, anger, jealousy, and worthlessness being others.
Jesus must wonder why we are so concerned about being successful by relying on ourselves when we are simply called to be faithful by relying on the Creator.
Sometimes a tree on the side of the road is a tree on the side of the road. Other times, a tree is a mountain of agony you are forced to climb whether you want to or not.
In divorce, that tree is a mountain you are forced to climb. Divorce, especially since the passing of no-fault divorce laws, is something one cannot escape if a spouse defines success only in worldly terms, selfishly and childishly taking the dream he thinks he is owed. Divorce forces you to do things you never thought you could do. It forces you to change your views and come away from the crowds.
One, often unrecognized, problem with divorce is that too many have climbed that mountain and are stuck on its peak. The mountain is crowded. Too many are stuck on the uphill climb, struggling to succeed. Too many miss that Jesus is waiting for them, calling them back down, asking to stay in their homes and in their hearts.
Life sometimes travels along as planned until something big like divorce asks you to climb a tree on the side of the road, to stop your travel, to reevaluate and rest when you think you can’t.
But divorce doesn’t mean you stop traveling and it doesn’t mean you keep doing the same. It means you come back down and stick close to the Lord. It isn’t easy. It isn’t automatic. It isn’t going to produce worldly definitions of success.
Faith is found through humbly educating yourself as any good student would, through reading the Bible and the writings of those who know more, especially the Saints. It is done through identifying with verses in the Scriptural Rosary. It is done through the silence of the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and a constant return to the all Sacraments one can participate in.
Faith is found by asking others to help you understand the richness of their beliefs and in being patient when there is such depth to the Catholic faith that it cannot be explained easily, simply, or in one sitting but is best experienced firsthand and over time. It is in quiet two-way conversations with the Trinity, in seeing God the Father as all powerful, as just and merciful, as loving and everlasting. It is in seeing Jesus Christ as kind and compassionate, as your healer and brother, as strong and meek, as the man who came to flip over tables in the Temple and heal those stuck in sycamore trees. It is in seeing the Holy Spirit reigns today, invisible and undefeatable.
Divorce forces you to climb the tree before you realize that tree is a giant mountain on the side of the road that you thought you’d travel with the crowd, but divorce doesn’t force you to jump back down. Only you can decide when and how to do that. Unfortunately, too many will choose to stay with the crowds at the top, continuously trying to attain success without realizing they are now part of a new crowd, one that doesn’t realize success comes in faith.
No matter what your level of faith is now or was before you climbed your tree, there is so much more to discover! Did you ever read a book you couldn’t put down, that you didn’t want to end? Faith, real faith, is like that, always continuing, always with another page to turn, but you need to jump down into the book to experience it.
Don’t get stuck rereading the same chapter, sitting high on the cold, blustery, barren mountain top, or hiding in the sycamore leaves. Let divorce motivate you to jump down into the arms of Jesus. Free fall and know it is faith, not success, that saves you.
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