Saturday, November 3, 2007

Go climb a tree


I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid you couldn’t get me out of trees. Trees had an unstoppable, magnetic quality to them. I couldn’t be near one without resisting the urge to climb it. Growing up we lived right on the edge of the woods and I loved nothing more than climbing up a tree as high as I could. It seemed like you could just keep going, if you got high enough, it almost felt like you could fly. Everything, the whole world, looked so different from high atop a tree. It gave a new perspective to everything. I don’t recall any feelings from my childhood that felt quite as free and exhilarating as climbing a tree. Somewhere along the line though, as we grow up, we hear a very “anti-tree climbing” message. We hear that this is dangerous, you might hurt yourself, the tree might break, you really shouldn’t be doing it! But the memory of those eternal moments of freedom high atop the branches swinging in the wind lingers in my happy memory.

And today we hear from Luke, “Zacchaeus ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus.” Luke gives us this simple, yet powerful image defining our faith journey quite basically as tree climbing. Let’s look at that image. We have this man - of “short stature” as the Gospel writer puts it – named Zacchaeus. As the chief tax collector of the city of Jericho, Zacchaeus would have been disgustingly rich. He would have been a combination of Donald Trump and Al Capone – hideously wealthy.

You see, the chief tax collector was not a worker on a fixed salary, but rather the sole proprietor of a business empire. The way things would work were like this: the Roman government would levy a city the amount of money they expected the city to contribute in a year in taxes. The chief tax collector would pay that amount to Rome and then have the sole right and freedom to impose and collect taxes from the inhabitants of the city. He himself determined how much each person would pay. He would employ the individual tax collectors to go round and collect the taxes. Whatever money they collected over and above the lump sum he paid to the Roman administrator was his profit.

Despite his extreme wealth, the chief tax collector was hated in the city, not only because he overtaxed the people purely for his own benefit, but also because he was helping the equally hated Romans to exploit his very own people. He was regarded as a public sinner, as a traitor and as someone unclean before God. Although he was financially well to do, the chief tax collector lived of life of loneliness, alienated from his own people and alienated from God. As they say, money can’t buy you love. Imagine now, this Zacchaeus, and think about the scene Luke lays out for us. Here is perhaps one of the most feared men of his community, a noble image, someone who would be more likely surrounded by an entourage, and yet here he is running like a child and climbing a tree to see who? The Emperor, the Governor, another wealthy and powerful individual? No, instead, Jesus – a poor, relatively unknown preacher who was passing through town. And yet, this new perspective, found high up in a tree, changed everything for him.

Jesus looked at Zacchaeus up there in that tree and spoke: “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for today I must stay at your house.” He hurried down the tree with a big smile on his face and the crowd made way for him as he went to hug Jesus and lead the way to his house. Take note that at dinner Jesus did not preach to Zacchaeus. He did not say, “Repent or you will find eternal damnation.” Instead Jesus’ non-judgmental and unconditional acceptance of the sinful Zacchaeus and love for him spoke more eloquently to his heart than the best sermon ever could. Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord in the full view of everybody, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Let’s do the math – by giving half of his wealth to the poor and using the other half to repay fourfold all those he had defrauded, Zacchaeus' wealth would be all but gone. But he has realized that all the money and power in the world cannot compare with the salvation brought to his household that day.

Zacchaeus learned what many of us learn once we take the time to climb the tree and see things differently – that only Jesus can bring things that are truly meaningful into our lives. The world wants to sell us a way of life that is ultimately empty; that promises lavish wealth fame and fortune, but never comes through on the promise.

How many of us have our priorities in the wrong order? How many of us spend our days accumulating wealth, working endlessly to have a better job, a nicer home, a newer car, a flat screen t.v., a better position, one that offers more wealth, more power, more prestige; only to discover at the end of the day that it is empty, that it does not bring any greater level of happiness or peace at all – in fact, it may be the very thing robbing us of quality relationships with family, friends and ultimately with God. The author, Jack Higgens, was asked what he would like to have known as a boy. His answer: “That when you get to the top, there's nothing there.”

There are many people like Zacchaeus around us every day; some days we may be a hidden Zacchaeus – putting God on the back burner for another day pursuing in the meantime things that are merely the appearance of a happy life. Jesus challenges us to have the courage of Zacchaeus and climb a tree and see things differently, to gain a new perspective, a true perspective, a Christ perspective. There are trees in front of us all the time just begging to be climbed. There are the chances to gain a new perspective in our faith life with God, but how often we walk past because we fear that we might get hurt, that we might not be strong enough, that it might be dangerous, that it might call us to surrender or change? But, if we take the time to climb the tree that leads to a deeper faith, we just might find a greater freedom than we have ever known in life. Climbing that tree gave Zacchaeus the opportunity to see Jesus instead of being stuck gazing at the false world that he knew all too well.

If we have the courage to take our lives of faith to this new perspective we too will hear Jesus say to us, “Today salvation has come to this house for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

May God give you peace!

1 comment:

  1. Hello from Ireland, I came across this beautifull blog while researching the possibilty of vocation for myself. Fr. Toms Blog will be on my favorites list from now on. I am drawn to become a Friar as I pray to Padre Pio everyday. Fr Tom I would like to ask you, am I worthy of vocation when I am not super religious, I pray to our Lord and padre Pio as if they where standing beside me. I dont go to mass every week. But I do have life experiance, I left school at 15, when religion was far from the most important thing in my life. I think I would be an asset to any order.
    I would like input from anybody who reads this.
    God Bless,
    Dave R.