Shame gets the blame for many problems, according to some.Lack
of shame gets the blame for many problems, according to others.
Shame also has a key but complex role in the familiar story of Zacchaeus in today’s Gospel
When our Lord says he is going to Zacchaeus’ house, the people murmur against Christ “that he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner
In their minds, to visit the house of a sinner is to bring shame upon oneself.
Our Lord pays them no attention.
For his part, Zacchaeus announces that he will give half of his riches to the poor and repay fourfold anyone he has defrauded. Our Lord responds joyfully.This day is salvation come to this house.
The crowd’s attempt to cast shame on Christ was wrong on many levels. It is an example of how public shame can be very problematic.
The most fundamental problem is that shame involves consciousness of guilt and that none
of us are in a position to judge the subjective guilt of anyone
.Judge not, that ye be not judged.
That is not to say we should just sit in silence when we are aware of objective sin: we are all sinners, but we must all help each other, relying always on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Lord himself gives us a better, incrementalist approach:Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee,
go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone:
if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee,
then take with thee one or two more,
that in the mouth of two or three witnesses
every word may be established.
And if he shall neglect to hear them,
tell it unto the church:
but if he neglect to hear the church,
let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
A publican, of course, is what Zacchaeus was: a tax collector for the evil Roman Empire.
The crowd had instantly judged and attempted to cast shame not only upon Zacchaeus but also on our Lord, as if associating with a publican automatically made you as bad as a publican.
Our Lord’s approach was different. He did not treat the publican as a publican, but as a potential penitent.For the Son of man is come
to seek and to save that which was lost.
Likewise, as followers of Christ the Good Shepherd, we do well not to leap immediately in denunciation and repudiation of others, brandishing the treacherous sword of public shame, but rather we do well to seek and save those who are lost: approaching sinners with prudence, compassion, and moral clarity.
To be sure, we must not compromise on the truth. We do no favors to the sinner by minimizing or ignoring the sin. Indeed, when all attempts at outreach have failed and someone obstinately persists in public and manifest sin, appropriate public words and decisions will be required for the sake of the truth and the good of everyone involved.
Ultimately, what is most helpful is not public shame, but personal shame.
Zacchaeus felt personal shame: a true consciousness of his own sin.
Perhaps the foolish words of the crowd had something to do with his feeling of shame, but it is safe to say that the more decisive factors were Christ’s compassionate outreach and Zacchaeus’ awareness of Christ’s infinite holiness.
That feeling of personal shame for Zacchaeus was not cause for him to wallow in self-loathing: it was an impetus to repentance and to bold action.
May we be like Zacchaeus. May the Lord reach to us with his grace, may we become more aware of our sin, may our personal shame turn us to repentance and bold action, and may we too hear our Lord say of us:This day is salvation come to this house.