Where Your Heart Is: Luke 19:1-10

by G. Timothy Johnson

[Meditation given at Morning Prayers, Memorial Church, Harvard, March 18, 1999.]

I will never, ever forget my very first formal attempt at listening to the heart through a stethoscope. It was the moment we had all waited for in our second year of medical school—our first physical exam on a real patient. After months of learning and practicing on each other—and on willing friends and relatives—we were assigned a patient on one of the hospital wards. Our task was to do a complete exam from head to toe and then report our findings to our preceptor. I was doing fine until I came to the heart. I put my newly acquired stethoscope over the left side of the chest and—to my utter astonishment—I couldn’t hear a thing. I was quite certain the man I was examining had a beating heart, because I was able to carry on an extended conversation with him. So, while I attempted to appear cool and in control, I frantically moved my stethoscope all over his chest, front and back, in a desperate attempt to hear his heart sounds. Nothing. Finally, in utter embarrassment, I went to my preceptor and confessed my terrible inadequacy—I couldn’t find the man’s heart. Apparently it wasn’t in the right place! As it turned out, the man had severe emphysema and the only way to hear his heart sounds was to listen below the chest over the upper abdomen—a lesson you can be sure I have always remembered.

But what about our spiritual heart—that center of our being that makes us tick in all kinds of other ways—that determines so much of who we are and what we do moment by moment and day by day. How do we find that part of ourselves?

Well, I am here to tell you that it is relatively easy to find our spiritual heart but sometimes very hard to listen to it in the way that we ought. Jesus himself gave us a very direct and straight-forward way to find our spiritual heart. In the Sermon on the Mount he puts it very simply (Matt. 6:19-21):

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth not rust consumes and thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

According to Jesus, all we have to do is figure out where our treasure is—what it is that we really treasure—and we will then know where our spiritual heart is. Our treasure leads us to our heart. What we treasure—what we value, what we long for, what we strive for, what we work for, what we dream about—that all tells us where our heart is.

But what if—in honestly listening to our spiritual heart—we find that it is in the wrong place—in the place where moth and rust consume? Well, I could beat around the bush, but in the few minutes allotted to me this morning, I really don’t have the time to do that. So I will tell you the cure, the answer for a heart that is filled with false treasures. You simply have to get rid of them—you have to cleanse your heart of these false treasures, whatever they are—and that, of course, is the hard part. By definition, we treasure our treasures. They are dear to us. They define who we are. They make us tick, like the beating of our physical heart. And unless we are at death’s door, unless we are at the end of our rope, we do not give up our heart’s treasures easily.

Which brings us to the text of the morning—the familiar story of Zacchaeus, this little man up in the sycamore tree, who treasured his riches. Jesus plucks him right out of the tree as though he is a ripe piece of spiritual fruit. And the good news is that all it takes for this man to cleanse his heart, to get rid of his false treasure, is to be confronted with the purifying love of God through Jesus who always seems to know our heart even before we do. When confronted by the purifying presence of Jesus, Zacchaeus stands and says to the Lord:

Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold. And Jesus said to him, today salvation has come to this house.

That’s what happens when our spiritual heart is cleansed, when we get rid of the false treasures, the false hopes, and the false dreams. We are saved because our heart is cleansed, not because we have learned the right answers intellectually, but because our hearts have been purified.

It is so tempting during our academic formation to pay attention only to our mind and to forget our heart, to purify the treasures in our intellect, and to forget the treasures of our heart. So I plead with you this morning to also listen to your heart, to examine the treasures of your spiritual heart and to let the searching eye of Jesus cleanse your heart this very day. Amen.