Posted tagged ‘Zaccheus’

Up a Tree

October 31, 2010

Zaccheus climbed a tree.

As one who spends her life in long skirts, I can tell you that’s no mean feat in a long, flowing garment such as men commonly wore in those days. Something unusual was going on here.

First of all, climbing trees isn’t all that common in Scripture. I was only able to find one other reference, in the Song of Songs (7:7-8), and that was metaphorical (more on that at the end). This was quite literal.

Zaccheus was up a tree…and not just any tree. He climbed a sycamore tree. According to Strong’s Concordance, in Hebrew, the word for “sycamore” (yacar) is the word for “to chastise.”  Zaccheus climbed the tree of chastisement.  That fits hand-in-glove with the Fathers of the Church who, whenever they see “tree” in Scripture immediately think “cross.” The cross was the tree of chastisement.

“…he is accursed by God that hangs on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23).

So…Zaccheus was up a tree. He’d been up a tree spiritually for quite some time. In calling him the “chief tax collector”, Luke might as well have called him the “chief traitor” (milking his own people to pay off the occupying Romans), the “chief sinner” (making his wealth by cheating his own countrymen), in short, the “chief scumbag.”

Now he’s up a tree physically as well…and God’s about to call him down.

“though they climb up to Heaven,
from there I will bring them down”
-Amos 9:2

This is his day of reckoning…and he’s ready for it,
just as God wants him to be.

The other readings from today’s Mass point to this same idea. In Wisdom 11:22-12:1 (and surrounding verses) we read that God gave the cannibalistic, child-sacrificing Canaanites (see Wisdom 5:3-6, Deuteronomy 18:9-12) plenty of time for repentance.

“For You love all things that are
and loathe nothing that You have made;
for what You hated, You would not have fashioned.
And how could a thing remain, unless You willed it;
or be preserved, had it not been called forth by You?

Therefore You rebuke offenders little by little,
warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in You, O Lord!”
-Wisdom 11:24-12:2

God wants us to be prepared for our day of reckoning. He wants that day to go well for us, to be a day of joy and salvation, not a day of penalties and regrets. He goes to great lengths to get our attention, to warn us and to give us time to make things right before it’s too late.

The wicked Canaanites had 40 years of reports about the plagues in Egypt (Exodus 7-12), the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14), the miraculous victories on the journey (Exodus 17:8-15, Numbers 21:1-3, etc.); 40 years to ponder the error of their ways and to repent before the Israelites arrived.

Even when Israelites arrived, there were the incredible tales of their defeat of Sihon, king of the Amorites and Og, the king of Bashan…

“Og, king of Bashan, was the last remaining survivor of the Rephaim [giants]. He had a bed of iron, nine regular cubits long and four wide [13.5′ x 6′]” -Deuteronomy 3:11

…the miraculous crossing of the Jordan at flood stage (Joshua 3-4), and the flattening of the walls of Jericho (Joshua 6). Rahab (who did repent, with her family) reports on just how effective these reports were:

“I know that the Lord has given you the land,
that a dread of you has come upon us,
and that all the inhabitants of the land
are overcome with fear of you.
For we have heard how the Lord
dried up the waters of the Red Sea before you
when you came out of Egypt,
and how you dealt with Sihon and Og,
the two kings of the Amorites beyond the Jordan,
whom you doomed to destruction.
At these reports, we are disheartened;
everyone is discouraged because of you,
since the Lord, your God,
is God in Heaven above and on earth below”
(Joshua 2:9-11, emphasis mine).

They knew what they had coming!
The difference was in how they responded to that knowledge.

The thing is, nobody knows just when his or her day of reckoning is coming. We all start out “up a tree” as far as sin is concerned, and God is always calling us down. St. Paul tells us not to be upset by rumors and reports of “the day of the Lord,” but rather to live so that the Name of our Lord Jesus is glorified in us, and we in Him. Then we’ll always be ready for our day of reckoning (see II Thessalonians 1:11-2:2).
The timing won’t matter.

When the day of reckoning came for the Canaanites, one family (Rahab’s) was ready. They’d been “up a tree” in sin, but when God called, they responded–and were saved. They united themselves to God’s chosen people (a foreshadowing of the Church), and God Himself took them under His wing. Rahab, in fact, became an ancestress of the Messiah!
(see Matthew 1:1-5)

Getting back to Zaccheus, this Messiah, Who would mount His own tree (the cross), is standing under his tree, calling him by name and inviting Himself to Zaccheus’ house as a guest.

Here the story turns Eucharistic.

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”

Although these aren’t his words, if anyone knew his own unworthiness,
it was Zaccheus!

The quote gives the words we will use in the new translation of the Mass (as of Advent of 2011), words taken almost directly from Matthew 8:8, in which the Roman centurion expresses his faith in Jesus’ ability to cure from a distance. In the Mass, these words express our awareness of our unworthiness to receive our Lord in the Eucharist, and our confidence that He Himself can make us worthy.

Despite our unworthiness, Jesus comes “under our roof”, into our very bodies, just as He proposed to go to Zaccheus house as a guest. Like us, Zaccheus was unworthy…and like us, he didn’t have to stay that way. He “went to Confession” (the equivalent) in front of everybody and promised to make amends (and I imagine that such a public declaration carried with it plenty of accountability!).

That day, Zacheus’ day of reckoning, salvation came to his house.
Jesus, Who had come to seek out and to save what was lost, found him.

When Zaccheus climbed the tree of chastisement, the tree of the cross, to see Jesus, God made of it a tree of life (see Genesis 3:22, Revelation 22:14–another name for the Eucharist), calling him down to a whole new life (the Fathers of the Church suggest that he gave everything away)
–to resurrection.

Here we come back the the Songs of Songs, with the lover “climbing the tree”, “taking hold of its branches” in rapturous union with the beloved (Song of Songs 7:7-8). God is our Lover. We are His beloved. By turning the tree of chastisement (the cross) into the tree of life (the Eucharist) through reconciliation, He made this union with Him possible.

This is God’s way with us. He knows we’re “up a tree.” He loves us too much to leave us there. He gets our attention, calls us by name, warns us and gives us plenty of time to get the message. When we come to Him in repentance (Confession) and turn our lives around, He comes to “stay at our house,” to enter our very being, in holy Communion…a dim foreshadowing of the incomprehensible, eternal union of Heaven. If we refuse Him, then the day of reckoning will catch us off guard, still “up a tree,” self-condemned.

God’s already made clear which outcome He desires.
He is indeed,

“gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and of great kindness…
good to all and compassionate toward all His works”
-Psalm 145:8-9,

…but He will not force our free will.

Our day of reckoning is coming.
We can be ready for it at any time, if we’ll only choose to be.

It’s up to us.

Will we stay “up a tree,” self-condemned forever?

Or will we change our lives and welcome Jesus into our house
as our soul’s most welcome Guest?


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