Zacchaeus, the Tree-Climber

By Fr. Randy Flores, SVD

(the ideas here are not mine, but I remember no longer my source since 2016 when I shared it as a homily at the Cathedral of Macau)

I’ve been always fascinated by this story: a man climbing a tree.

Men do not usually climb trees, especially rich men. It’s the children who climb trees, like when were kids. But Zacchaeus did. And so he is known until today as the only person in the bible who climbed a tree.

His name, “Zacchaeus” in Hebrew means “pure” or “clean”. Mr. Pure or Mr. Clean.

But Mr. Clean is not really clean—or at least as we know about his job: a tax-collector, a chief tax-collector in fact (architelones in Greek). That’s why he is plousios—rich. That’s why the people think of him as hamartolos—sinner. What is he in “power-ful”? (a spoonerism of the quote, “What are we in power for”?).

Yet he wanted to see Jesus, maybe out of curiosity; or maybe Jesus was not paying correctly his taxes?

But though he is rich, he is small (in Greek mikros—short physically and morally small). Thus, he could not “see” Jesus—so he ran, a rich man running, with that heavy and long garment which rich men wore; on leather shoes to climb a tree; a sycamore tree whose branches are weak as a mulberry tree. But Mr. Clean, Zacchaeus does not mind—just to “see” Jesus passing by.

What happens? He does not see Jesus. It is Jesus who sees him. It is Jesus who looks up to the small man. And not only that: Jesus demands Zacchaeus to receive him in his house: “Zacchaeus come down quickly, for today (not later, not tomorrow, but today)—today I must stay in your house.”

Jesus does not request Zacchaeus to invite him—Jesus MUST be in Zacchaeus house immediately, today, now.

At that point, Zacchaeus must have realized how “small” he was before God—because of his sins, of his dishonesty, of the many times he cheated others to become rich.

He must have here a change of heart. He must climb down then; he must go down from the pedestal that he was in.

This man, Jesus, does not see him as “small,” or a “sinner.” Jesus does not think twice to come to his house and share a meal with him. Jesus is not afraid that people will associate him with the crimes he committed if goes to his house—the house of a thief.

So, Zacchaeus comes down quickly and welcomes Jesus with “joy.”Expectedly, the crowd grumbles, complaining that Jesus is eating at the house of a sinner—that Jesus partakes on food bought from stealing other’s people money.

But Zacchaeus, this time, stands on his ground—stands “tall” before the Lord and delivers a short speech of restitution: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor; and if I have cheated anyone, I shall repay it four times over.” The small man— suddenly becomes a giant before God’s eyes. From climbing a tree, he now climbs the stairway to heaven.

So Jesus says: Today (not later, not tomorrow), but today, salvation, meaning, Jesus as his name implies (Yeshua), has come to the sinner’s house.

The story ends with Jesus stating his mission on earth: to seek and save the “lost”, in Greek, apololos, “ruined, damaged, destroyed”.

There’s a small Zacchaeus in each of us—at times we really feel very small–”damaged” before the eyes of God. But Jesus also tells us, “go down, quickly, for today, not later, not tomorrow, but today, I must be in your heart.”

WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS STORY?

1. If you did something wrong to others, make up for the wrong you’ve done. That is justice.

2. If you did something wrong, God gives us a chance to have a change of heart. That is mercy.

3. If you do have a change of heart but still others do not trust you, be humble. That is charity.

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