Sorting by

Skip to main content

If you’re of a certain age, (or possibly any age?) you can’t hear the story of Zacchaeus without breaking into song. Zacchaeus was a wee little man

I think I know the story well. I’ve known it since childhood. I’ve preached on it several times. Usually my sermons have some economic implications–Zacchaeus’s pledge to “give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Meeting Jesus, when salvation comes to our house, changes the way we see and use money. For my second-ever seminary sermon I was assigned the story of Zacchaeus. Being a tall person, my sermon wondered about all the people whose view of Jesus I block.

I listen to Pray As You Go fairly frequently. It is a daily, British podcast coming out of the Jesuit-Ignatian tradition of Roman Catholicism. Often you are asked to imagine yourself in the scripture of the day. The aim is to have a very personal connection with the scripture, an intimate conversation with God.

The story this day was Zacchaeus. The host was encouraging us to identify with Zacchaeus. How did it feel to be noticed by Jesus? If most people look at us with scorn, how are we changed knowing that Jesus looks on us with love and possibility? Just like Jesus’s surmisal of Zacchaeus, there is good, generosity, and love in us that only Jesus recognizes.

Then happened one of those Holy Spirit moments where we hear what we need to hear more than what is actually said. Usually I’m on the other end of these wonderfully odd occurrences. People tell me they remember the time I said so-and-so in a sermon. How meaningful it was to them. I know that I never said any such thing. But I don’t tell them that.

What I heard the podcast host say was “Jesus sees your secret acts of good that no one one else knows about or notices. Jesus knows about your kind deeds that are hidden from human eyes.”

It touched me deeply–whether or not that is what the podcaster actually said.

It touched me because I have a few small habits and deeds of love and faithfulness that no one knows or notices. I’m quite confident many of you do too. Of course if I tell you mine, they are no longer secret.

It felt so good to hear that Jesus sees my best and tiny efforts, my quirky, holy habits. And that he values them–and me. We seem to hear so much more that God sees our secret faults and foibles. “Oh be careful little hands what you do,  for the Father up above is looking down in love…” Why do we feel more scrutinized and surveilled than affirmed and loved?

Being a pastor, people have shared with me, often with some embarrassment, little deeds and routines they practice. A friend who gives benedictions to animals she sees while driving–herds of cattle, deer, stray dogs. People who relentlessly pick up bits of paper and garbage along their daily walks. Others who pray for strangers on the commuter train or for the harried mother with four young kids behind them in line at the grocery store check-out.

I think the reason for their secrecy, isn’t merely “humility”–do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Instead, it is the apparent absurdity of what they are doing. Their efforts are so far-flung, so intangible and immeasurable they feel nutty. They verge on the superstitious. Maybe they are. God knows.

I’ve also discovered people who do small, invisible tasks around the church. A friend dubbed them “church elves,” because the church seems only too glad to believe that there must be elves who faithfully and furtively do these unglamourous tasks.

We once had a retiree who would come into the building four mornings out of five. For thirty minutes to two hours he would tinker and chip away on little tasks that needed doing. They were things so small they needed no approval, no committee, no budget. Most people never knew they were done. Tightening all the screws in the old wooden chairs. Touching up paint scuffs. Making duplicate keys. Fixing dripping faucets.

Others regularly check and replenish kitchen supplies so the coffee or aluminum foil are like the flour and oil at the widow of Zarephath’s home. Still others wipe down countertops or empty dehumidifiers.

The tasks of the church elves are more “sensible,” usually more tangible than mystical, but these elves, likewise, want their deeds to remain secret.

I’ll let you in on one of my secret deeds. I am an obsessive composter. Not long ago I read an environmental activist who basically said that all such efforts are meaningless. The point was that a bunch of do-gooding, household recyclers, for example, amount to nothing, change nothing, and take the focus off of where it really needs to be, on gigantic, industrial polluters. And maybe these little gestures and habits of good simply play into our individualistic, American can-do mythos, when reality demands bigger, more complex thinking.

So many reasons to give up our secret deeds and unseen habits of goodwill. But maybe they help us define ourselves to ourselves. They remind us of our best selves, who we are, who we want to be, what we value, the future we hope for. And maybe, whether or not the Zacchaeus podcast actually said so, these little deeds are seen and treasured by Jesus.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Allan Janssen says:

    This was great. Thanks. We had a retiree in one of the churches I served who came in and cleaned the toilets. Nobody asked him and few knew who did it.

  • Jim says:

    Just what I needed this morning, Steve. And I know you said it cuz there it is in print!

  • JoAnne Wagner says:

    I serve as the Invisible Hand in my family of in-laws, reminding my husband to call family members when they’ll need a call, organizing family get-togethers, letting the adult children know when their aging mother needs a visit, generating a list of activities my MIL can still do and would enjoy, creating photo magnets of family photos to stick on the fridge as a reminder of our connectedness–basically all those actions which keep a family together, which I learned from my family of origin. Those who marry into a family often feel invisible, but are quietly cross-pollinating the family with the values and behaviors they learned in their own families. Unrecognized, but so important.

  • This is great. You reminded me that sometimes our good deeds are invisible even to ourselves (Matthew 25:37-39)….and that every action, visible or invisible, has eternal consequences (Matthew 18:1-35).

  • Mark Ennis says:

    Well said. Thank you.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Magnificent. In a small kind of way.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thanks, Steve. This explains a lot….I never realized elves were doing all those great things. I was in this church for ten years before finding out who trimmed the shrubs by the church sign. (He gets up long before the sun so only the owls see him working.
    More importantly, you made me ask myself, do I have an elfish behavior that is serving someone? If not, thanks to you I will find something to do so I can be an elf for whom someone is grateful!

Leave a Reply