One of my happiest childhood memories is climbing a large apple tree we had in our back yard, and just sitting in the shelter of its branches. You could see quite a distance across the field behind our house, and the leaves provided shade from the mid-day sun; sometimes the temptation of those apples that were just slightly less than ripe was too much, and it was easy to lose track of time.
Of course there was the inevitable call from the house to come down out of the tree and come inside – either for chores or homework; and on those times when it took a little too long to respond to that call, at some point, either Mom or Dad would be near the tree and the one-sided conversation would usually take the form of, “Are you still up in that tree? Get down here right now! One….two……”
There was a sense of urgency to that demand to come out of the tree, but not exactly an inviting one.
Contrast that with our passage today from St. Luke’s Gospel; the story of Zacchaeus. There is an urgency to the words of Jesus ,”Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And Zacchaeus complies – not out of fear, but out of joy. He doesn’t respond to Jesus because he has to – he responds because he wants to. Something has happened to change Zacchaeus – something wonderful in the depths of his heart. This is a moment of conversion – or reversion if you like.
This is a story that most of us are so familiar with, but sometimes we miss some of the subtle things in St. Luke’s writing, that we could lose some of the sense of wonder in this encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus. There might well be more of Zacchaeus’ story in our own lives than we might realize or want to admit.
It might be helpful if we look at a couple of points about this story.
First off, the story of Zacchaeus is unique to St. Luke – it is not contained in the other three Gospels.
St. Luke tells us Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector, but a ‘chief tax collector’…..we have all heard how some Jewish men collected taxes for the occupying Romans, and that they were well-off, mainly because they extorted money from their own countrymen, often taking more than was owed.
But Zacchaeus was a ‘chief’ tax collector, which tells us that he was at the top of part of this structure in Jericho , and so would have been very rich and would have likely been the most despised of all the tax collectors in that city.
Through the eyes of ‘the locals’ he would have been ‘unclean’ or ‘ritually impure’ because his work on behalf of the Romans would have made him, in their eyes, no better than any of the pagan Romans; in fact he would have been worse because he was also betraying his people and his God.
But despite all his wealth and power and status, Zacchaeus takes the undignified pose of a grown man in long garments climbing a tree, a rather curious thing indeed: St. Luke writes that Zacchaeus ‘wanted to see who Jesus was…”. He didn’t just want to see Jesus as if he had already decided who Jesus was – it says ‘he wanted to see who Jesus was.” This tells us that there was already something in Zacchaeus that all of his wealth and power could not fill, and perhaps he already had some sense that Jesus could fill that void.
And just the fact Zacchaeus is in a tree: yes, it may have had something to do with his stature; but with his wealth and position he probably could have had his escort clear a part of the crowd so he could have a street-level view.
He’s in a tree; that’s a safe distance to watch from, above the crowd- a safe distance from Jesus; removed from everyone else.
St. Luke’s Gospel is often referred to as the Gospel of the Poor, in which the rich are portrayed in a rather unfavourable light;
For example, the rich young man who, when Jesus told him to give his wealth away apparently walked away sad: or the parable of the poor man Lazarus, in which the un-named rich man dies and ends up in Hades.
In comparison to these rich men, Zacchaeus fares pretty well.
Zaccheus, unlike these others, responds with gratitude simply because Jesus has called him by name, and has said he is coming to his house, right now. And this is the most wondrous point of the story: Jesus is ready to meet with and stay with Zaccheus just as he is.
Jesus calls him to come out of the tree – and there is some sense of urgency in the invitation; for He is coming to his house for supper now; Jesus doesn’t send his disciples ahead to arrange a meeting and a meal with this person of wealth and local importance. He doesn’t say, “okay, how about we get together in a few hours,” so Zaccheus can prepare something ahead of time to impress Jesus; to clean up his house and set things in order.
He tells Zacchaeus to come down from his lofty perch, to come to the same level as everyone else, to come down ‘right now’ because He, Jesus, is here right now and ready to enter Zacchaeus’ house, his life; Jesus is offering the gift of a relationship right now to Zacchaeus.
And on some level from within himself, Zacchaeus recognizes this; not only does he immediately come down; not only does he ignore what the crowd is saying about him; but he repays their comments and criticism with charity: He responds by offering not only to restore four times anything he has taken from others unfairly, but he also says he will give half of his wealth to the poor.
And Jesus reminds his Jewish audience that while Zacchaeus may have strayed from his faith and people, he is still one of them, a child of Abraham, and that salvation is available to him based simply on that. It’s a message for all of us, and a hopeful one at that, that no matter how any of us wanders or drifts away from the relationship that we are all meant for with our good and loving God, and how much we substitute for that relationship; or how much we try to distance ourselves from right relationship with each other, Jesus is always reminding us that salvation is open to each of us, simply because we are a child of God.
But there is a sense of urgency each time we encounter Jesus; we have many times in the course of each and every day to meet Jesus; we ‘see’ him as he goes by in each person we come across– in the poor, the lonely, the marginalized; in the difficult child or the forgetful elder; in the bitter and the angry and the grieving; and it is in each one of these encounters that He says to each of us, come down out of that tree right now….now is the time I am coming to your house…right now; I don’t care if things are in order; it doesn’t matter if everything hasn’t been set in place; I am coming to you in the midst of your busy-ness, your hectic society – in the messiness of everyday life; …I am coming to your house now; to enter into a deeper relationship with you.
And like Zacchaeus, we can respond in haste, in eagerness, in charity and in joy; because each time we recognize and respond to Jesus in those around us, most definitely, salvation has come to our house.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!