I recently wrote a little online note to a favorite Christian author of mine, thanking them for their work.
I didn’t expect anything in return, though the author is known – to the delight of fans – to respond from time to time personally to comments, notes, and feedback. There was nothing special in particular to differentiate my note from any other, and the author’s responses are sporadic and spontaneous. So imagine my surprise when I received a small but heartfelt response to my little note from the author himself.
That little note made me feel the same way I used to feel when I was in grade school and had the small but deeply serious hobby of writing letters to presidents. I still remember the amazement at getting something in the mail addressed to me from the White House: a letter on starched formal stationary (sometimes with an accompanying presidential photograph) bearing my name.
There’s something special about being recognized out of a crowd of many others, of being noticed by someone whose business really ought not to be noticing you at all. And it is one of the great joys of the Christian faith.
I have always loved the Zacchaeus story in no small part because of that. Here we have a thoroughly ignoble and disliked man sitting at the fringes of the vast audience, climbing trees to see Jesus, and yet he is seen and acknowledged. Jesus stops right under his tree: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Zacchaeus was simply hoping to see Jesus; it was Jesus who called out Zacchaeus by name and invited himself home for dinner.
We see it with Nathanael, in one of the Bible’s most humorous exchanges. Philip tells Nathanael the good news, and Nathanael’s instinctive response is to crack a joke: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Jesus is not offended by the words (indeed, if you read the Scripture the way I do, He’s amused) but rather immediately recognizes Nathanael as an honest and forthright man. Then comes the following exchange:
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you when you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Nathanael’s response is an instant and immediate confession of belief. And here again we confront Jesus’ ability to see people: not just those right in front of Him, but those at the periphery and the edges, those unaware that they’ve been acknowledged. Here, that seeing is intrinsically tied to God’s Messiah-ship: that He can see those who expect to be unseen is related profoundly to His identity as Lord and Savior.
God goes on seeing everybody. As Christ on earth He is constantly picking people out of crowds, from the margins, noticing the insignificant, the ordinary. As God He is watching over His children even when they feel they are far out of His reach, as the Psalms frequently attest.
It’s a wonderful thrill to be seen by God in such a way. Recently I had a particular concern I had been wrestling with God over in prayer for quite some time. I was frustrated because it felt God wasn’t hearing me or responding, even though I know that isn’t true. Then, later, a particular event fell out in such a way that it was clear God was directly addressing one of my struggles. I haven’t yet received an answer to that prayer, but in that moment I felt strongly as though God was telling me: “I hear you. I see you.” And that was a wonderful relief all on its own.
The Author of the great story sees you. Isn’t that, in and of itself, a miracle?
And so it is our imperative to remember to see others: to be mindful of those hiding up in trees, sitting under fig trees, touching the edges of cloaks, toiling away in what they believe is anonymity. As believers, we mustn’t ever give in to the temptation only to tend to what is directly in front of us or the people we perceive as most important or worthy of our time. Like God, we must be watching always – even for those who exist on the periphery, who feel insignificant, who consider themselves unworthy.
One of the first and greatest acts of love is sometimes simply to reach out and to say, “I noticed you there.” Jesus taught us this – and it is up to us to emulate it.
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