About 20 years ago, my forester neighbor in Ireland gave me a dozen sycamore saplings, half of which I planted in the old sheep pens that were entirely devoid of trees and flowers. They are now well over 50 feet tall and the branches are pretty high up. So I was curious about the gospel story about “the man in the sycamore tree,” as Thomas Merton called him.
The sycomores of Palestine are an entirely different species from our sycamore maples. It’s a ficus or fig tree. But if anything, in its natural state it can grow even taller than our sycamore maple and its branches spread wide, very wide. But they are low enough for even a short fellow like Zacchaeus to climb up for a better view. And he was short. That minor detail Luke adds seems odd other than as an excuse to get Zacchaeus up that tree. But why did Luke go to all that trouble about a fellow who appears only once in the New Testament? The answer is probably simple enough: early Christians knew him. Call him a local hero. By the way, the Zacchaeus Tree is a living 2,000-year-old sycomore in Jericho that has always been associated with our little tax collector.
Jesus knew his name. That detail is even more telling and too easily slips by. Before meeting Jesus Zacchaeus was no doubt well known in his community and most likely widely despised. He was a tax collector and very rich, which probably meant he took more than he was entitled to as his percentage. Sound familiar? So it would seem that Jesus not only knew about him but came looking for him. He called him by name. And he had a plan.
He invited himself (and no doubt several of his disciples) to supper at Zacchaeus’ house, something that set some people’s teeth on edge. Zacchaeus was a collaborator, an agent of the hated Romans, a sinner and a traitor. And yet Jesus reaches out to him. Or, rather, up to him. And saves what was lost.
It seems that Jesus developed a bad reputation among the Very Best People because of his habit of eating and staying with tax collectors and other sinners. It certainly didn’t stop him. And up a tree, this little political hack is struck by the invitation that saves his soul and no doubt even his reputation. “Today,” Jesus says, “salvation has come to this house…” And that is what brings us here today.
Zacchaeus is us. Whether we are up a tree or out on a limb, and most of us usually are, one way or another, Jesus reaches up to us with words of invitation and promise. And what he offers is not merely better social relations, but eternal life. Salvation.
Our yearly gathering to remember our beloved and even ornery departed family members, friends, and associates, follows the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Like the Latino Dia de los Muertos celebrations, both commemorations begin what has traditionally been called “the month of the Poor Souls.” They remind us that we are in this together — saints AND sinners, Apostles AND tax collectors. The living AND the dead. God loves us all and extends the promise of salvation to all. Zacchaeus is our model here. On hearing the good news, he changes his life, bringing it into line with the mercy, justice, and love that God expects of us all, those he calls to the Supper of the Lamb. And that means everyone.
As we heard from the Book of Wisdom,
“…you are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made…You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living” [Wisdom 11:23-24, 26].
So let us always pray for each other, present and departed, asking that God will make us all worthy of his invitation and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, and we in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. [See 2 Thess 1:11-12].