St. Elizabeth of Hungary: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
Zacchaeus is traitor to his people. And he's short. He can't help being short, but his traitorous nature is the direct result of sin. As a tax collector for the Roman occupiers and their puppet king, he is charged with squeezing the conquered population of Judea for cash. He's not paid to do this. To earn a living he keeps a percentage of what he collects. So, the more he collects, he more he earns. Ta-collectors were counted among the scum of society along with prostitutes and lepers. Now, we could psychoanalyze Zacchaeus to figure out why he became a tax-collector. As a smaller boy he was bullied. Ostracized. Teased for being short, he grew up angry, swearing vengeance on his childhood oppressors. Fortunately for him, he hears about Jesus and something inside him is set alight with the desire to glimpse this wandering preacher. When Jesus comes through Jericho, he gets his chance. But, alas, he is not only a sinner but a short sinner and he cannot see Jesus over the crowd. Having spent much of his childhood running from bullies, he's quite skilled at climbing trees. So, he climbs a sycamore tree and from its strong branches, he sees Christ. And, more importantly, Christ sees him. Without that tree Zacchaeus might have never found his way to salvation.
The gospel this morning is no doubt a story about a sinner finding Christ. It's one we've heard many times. But this is perhaps the only gospel story where a plant aids in the preaching of the Good News. Zacchaeus finds among the branches of that sycamore a refuge from the throng surrounding Jesus, a perch from which to watch Jesus pass by. Obviously, this is no ordinary tree, right? The sycamore is a species of fig. It has heart-shaped leaves; grows only in rich soil; and produces fruit year-round. The ancient Egyptians called it the “Tree of Life” and used its timber for royal coffins. It was a measure of wealth and prestige. Is it any wonder then that Zacchaeus finds sights his salvation from its branches?
Let's take some literary license here. Thinking of our 21st century world, what serves as our sycamore tree for the short sinner? Where can those of us who are stunted by sin go to climb above the crowd to see Christ? What thrives in the rich soil of the Word? What produces good fruit year-round? What grows among its strong branches a foliage shaped like a God-longing heart? Where can we climb so that Christ sees a sinner above the crowd? Is there a better place for the sinner to be than the Church? Among strength, fruitfulness, holy desire, and the richness of a firm foundation, Zacchaeus, a short traitorous sinner, clearly sees the one he will host in his own home, the one to whom Jesus says, despite the grumbling of the crowd, “Today salvation has come to this house. . .”
We can draw and some have drawn the wrong lesson from this story: Jesus welcomes all sinners, therefore we cannot call a sin a sin. But notice that it is not sufficient for his salvation that Zacchaeus sees Jesus from the sycamore. Christ calls to him, knowing who he is, and invites Zacchaeus to host him. Zacchaeus hears the invitation and immediately knows that all his thieving, all his traitorous behavior is just fine with the Lord. His sin is no longer sinful. Wrong. Zacchaeus repents and vows to do penance by repaying his thefts four times over. Then Jesus announces the redemption of his house. This is the gospel pattern: Christ comes. Christ is seen. He invites the sinner to table. Overwhelmed by this mercy, the sinner repents and does penance. His salvation is made manifest. The task of the Church is to be the sycamore, the refuge for any and all who long to see the Lord from her strong, fruitful branches. From among these heart-shaped leaves, the worst of us can see Christ and hear his call to a new life and the proclamation of our redemption.