It is easy for us to lose track of the setting of the stories in the Gospel. Today’s Gospel is set just days before Palm Sunday. The excitement that will lead to our Lord’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, and the dramatic shift that will lead to His execution and death, are already starting to build. He is in the town of Jericho, and a very large crowd is already gathering around. The sheer excitement generated by His arrival is hard for us to imagine. Picture yourself as one of the guards on the city walls of Jericho, and you see a large crowd of people moving towards the city. At first, maybe you suspect it to be an army coming to raid the city, but slowly you realize that none of these people are armed. Rumors start to swirl in the city – Jesus of Nazareth is coming, the famous preacher and miracle worker who has challenged and silenced the religious leaders of the day, and some people are claiming is the savior of the world. The word is passed from house to house – Jesus of Nazareth is coming, Jesus of Nazareth is coming! And so people begin to line the road leading into town and the streets of the city where our Lord is likely to pass.
It is into this kind of scene that Zacchaeus, the city’s head tax collector who encounters our Lord in this passage from St. Luke’s Gospel, inserts himself. Zacchaeus is not a likely candidate to be so excited to see our Lord. He is a notorious, public sinner, a greedy man known for extorting more money than he could lawfully collect in his profession as a tax collector. You can imagine all the others along the road sneering at him, “What do you have to do with Jesus of Nazareth?” But despite his past life, Zacchaeus has somehow been caught up in the excitement that is swirling about the city of Jericho. He is curious about Jesus.
What Zacchaeus does next is even more outside the expected norm. He is a very rich man, in all likelihood dressed very well in the 33 A.D. equivalent of an Armani suit. And here he is, running ahead of the crowd and climbing a tree in order to see Jesus. His behavior is more that of a little child, not a self-respecting public official. People would have been pointing and gawking at him, remarking on the foolishness of this once-haughty man.
However, Zacchaeus is not afraid to appear foolish in order to encounter Christ. In this way, the tree he climbs should remind us of the words of St. Paul: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block indeed to the Jews, and folly to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). Zacchaeus’s seemingly foolish climbing of the tree is a foreshadowing of Christ climbing the tree of the Cross, laying down His life for our salvation, the ultimate act of foolishness to a world that rejects His sacrificial love.
In this way too, Zacchaeus’s sycamore tree is symbolic of the sins of greed that he had to overcome in order to encounter Christ. For us, embracing Christ’s cross means first and foremost leaving behind the sins that keep us from Him. And leaving behind our sins often looks foolish in the eyes of the world, which holds up material goods and physical pleasure as the ultimate goods to be pursued, rather than a life of sacrifice and humility.
To the accusations of the world that Zacchaeus’s actions, and the actions of all Christians who run towards Jesus and away from sin, are foolish, the great doctor of the Church, St. Augustine responded, “Say what you like, but for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus. The reason that you cannot see Jesus is that you are ashamed to climb the sycamore tree. Let Zacchaeus grasp the sycamore tree, and let the humble person climb the cross. We must not be ashamed of the cross of Christ, but we must fix it on our foreheads. … As for you, I rather think you make fun of the sycamore, and yet that is what has enabled me to see Jesus. You make fun of the sycamore, because you are just a person, but ‘the foolishness of God is wiser than men.’”
Each of us has a sycamore tree he must climb, something that we must overcome to draw closer to Christ, something that is a cause of embarrassment to us, either before the world or before God Himself. For Zacchaeus, though, being willing to be seen as foolish paid off in a big way. Upon seeing him in the tree, our Lord instantly knows everything, knows the embarrassment he has overcome in order to the see Him, knows the suffering and longing of his heart to be set free from his greed, and looks at him with love and says, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” So what is your tree? What is the obstacle you need to overcome in order to draw closer to the Lord?
Oftentimes it is shame that prevents us from conquering these obstacles, and this sense of shame can manifest itself in different aspects of our life. It is present when we hesitate to bring a sin to the sacrament of confession out of embarrassment. When this happens, we should take reassurance from the absolute secrecy of the seal of confession, as well as the fact that our sins are unlikely to be that different from the sins of other people anyways, and thus of relatively little interest to the priest, even on a human level. But even if our sins are not the normal kinds of sins that people tend to confess, our Lord will always look upon us with the same love and compassion with which He saw Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree. Zacchaeus, after all, was not an ordinary, everyday sinner. He was an extortioner, a greedy thief, and his conversion is thus not an ordinary, everyday conversion. He makes amends for his sins by giving away half of his material possessions and not only repaying those he has defrauded, but repays them four times over. Are we willing to make similar amends for our sins?
Sometimes, though, our cause of shame is more worldly – what will other people say if we give up a relationship, a job, a hobby, or a friendship that causes us to sin? We could experience shame at the possibility of having to face a world that will sneer at us and laugh at their sincerity of our conversion. In this case, it is important to remember that we are never alone. Many others have walked the path of conversion, and many have paid the price of martyrdom for their faith. And above all else, our Lord promises to be close to those who sacrifice the esteem of the world in order to draw near to Him.
In the redeeming power of God’s love, what seems like foolishness to the world – abandoning sin and fleeing to Jesus – is ultimately revealed as wisdom, and those things that seemed to be good because of the allure of sin to our fallen human natures are revealed as the true foolishness. What is truly foolish is not Zacchaeus climbing the tree, but the apathetic people who remained in their homes and did not go out to see Christ, or those who did so only halfheartedly, standing around at the back of the crowd. There is absolutely no sin that Christ will not pardon if we come to Him without sincerely repentant hearts, but He does ask that we come to Him, not that we huddle at the back of the crowd. Rather, drawing close to the Lord requires boldness. And when we are bold, when we approach Him in the sacraments, especially the sacrament of confession, to seek His mercy, the way that He receives us is extraordinary.
Our Lord does not tell Zacchaeus, “I would like to stay at your house,” or “It would be convenient to stay at your house tonight,” but rather He says that He must stay at Zacchaeus’s house. Why is it that our Lord and Savior must stay at the house of the tax collector? The reason, I would propose, is that Christ’s plan is incomplete without Zacchaeus. In ordinary circumstances, it would be considered rather rude to invite oneself into someone else’s home whom one has never met. But that is precisely what our Lord does: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.”
Our Lord directs the same request to each and every one of us. He wants to come and stay in your house this very day. There is some part of His eternal plan that will be left undone unless you climb the sycamore tree of your life – the foolishness of sin that you must put aside – in order to see Him and make a place ready in your heart for Him.
There are two important ways for us to understand our Lord’s desire to come and stay in our homes. The first is spiritual, in that He desires to take up His home in our souls by our worthy reception of Holy Communion, for which He desires that we prepare by climbing the sycamore tree of repentance from our sins just as Zacchaeus did.
We can also understand Him more literally: He wants to come into our homes. Is it obvious in your home that Christ is dwelling there with your family? Have you welcomed Him in and are you attentive to His presence by praying every day as a family? Are your conversations formed by His presence among you? Do you speak to your parents, spouses, and children as if He were present among you? Is He truly welcome in your home? It is one thing to hang a crucifix on the wall – a good thing, yes, but not enough. It is quite another thing to let that crucified Christ live and move among you and inform everything about the way you live.
Our Lord told Zacchaeus, “Come down quickly.” There is no time to wait – Jesus is there, what is Zacchaeus waiting for? Come down now, Zacchaeus, come down now, sinners who have had the courage to approach Him! Come down to welcome the Lord, to make amends for your sins, to begin anew, to welcome Christ into your hearts, into your homes, into your families!
Christ wants to dwell in your heart and your home – no, He must dwell in your heart and your home! What is the tree you need to climb in order to meet Him?
The Rev Royce V Gregerson
Parish Church of St Charles Borromeo, Ft Wayne
XXXI Sunday through the Year, AD MMXVI