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Living Life in a Sycamore Tree: Learning from Zaccheus

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Deacon Keith A. Fournier
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"At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature.

So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said, "Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house."

And he came down quickly and received him with joy. (When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying, "He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner." But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "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."(More than what the Law required)And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost." St. Luke 9:1-10

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In the last chapter of the Gospel of St John we read these words: "There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written." St John 21:25

This verse underscores the importance of the stories that are actually recorded in the Gospels. They have been selected among many, many others for a Divine purpose. Every character we meet on the pages of the sacred texts is more than just a player in a nice story. They are a door into eternal truth, meant to teach, inform and transform our lives. They put us more in touch with the Lord, ourselves and the very purpose of our lives. Upon prayer and reflection, they become an invitation to each of us to be converted, to change our lives, through our ongoing encounters with Jesus Christ.

So, it is with this story of this little tax collector named Zacheus.

What can we learn from Zacheus today?

Let's take a look.

The Context

In the days when the Lord walked in our midst, Israel was under Roman occupation. An unfair tax was extracted by people, like Zacheus, Jews who worked for the oppressor. They earned their living by adding an extra surcharge for themselves. These Jews were hated by the Jewish people. They were considered traitors, "sell outs', "compromisers".... However, they were still Jews. They were sons of the Covenant. They were children of Abraham. They knew the law and they were God's special people.

In a sense, Zacheus was not unlike many of us who are Christians. We have been baptized into Christ. We know the faith. Perhaps however, we have conveniently separated "what we do" from "who we are". "After all" we tell ourselves, "we are simply trying to make a living." The parallel continues. For many of us, we even feel these days like we are living in what increasingly feels like occupied country. Have we "sold out", actually working for the occupier.

Somewhere deeply within Zacheus he hungered for the Living God more than anything else. He wanted to see Jesus more than he wanted to maintain his economic comfort. Jesus knew that. He had come to Jericho that day seeking to save the lost. He knew Zacheus like He knows each one of us. The "crowds" around Zacheus may have deemed him as unworthy of the encounter that was about to occur but God did not see him this way. Jesus saw Zacheus' heart and he drew him to Himself.

Each one of us should find great hope in this story because, literally or figuratively, we have compromised in our lives; perhaps in our work -by failing to live fully the implications of our faith. Perhaps in our family- by failing to love in the way that we know we ought, sacrificially, perhaps in our so called "free time"- by giving in to pursuits that we know actually lead to bondage. The "Good News" is that, no matter what has happened in our past, Jesus walks into the dusty streets of our own lives, this day. He comes for us.

Let us come to a fuller understanding of the reality of the Lords action in our own lives, the way in which these encounters still occur, by learning some lessons from Zacheus about life in a Sycamore tree.

1) Remember that God is already there

Jesus already knew that Zacheus was in Jericho. He had called him, knit him together in his mother's womb. (Psalm 139:13-16) and knew everything about him. In fact, the Lord came to Jericho for Zacheus. He did not need to get the Lord's attention and neither do we. Jesus comes into each one of our lives, searching for us, because He still comes to " and save what was lost."

We often think of the Christian life in terms of our own efforts to reach and to know God- and to do His will. However, almost the opposite is what really occurs. God seeks us and we respond. Yet, we need to "position" ourselves for the meeting. Zacheus climbed that tree to see Jesus; he positioned Himself for the encounter; the call, the vocation that was given to Him that wonderful day. Those words of the Master "Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost." would forever frame his future responses to God's continuing invitation. He would never be the same.

The Christian life is really more about God's action and our response to what He is already doing. Jesus reminds us "You did not choose me, but I chose you" (John 15:16). Zacheus serves to remind us of who does the choosing and who does the responding.

Augustine of Hippo had been raised by a Christian mother named Monica. She had taught him, by word and example, the Christian faith. However, as a young man, he wandered far from the narrow path of authentic, faithful Christianity and lived a wayward and dissolute life. He had an illicit sexual relationship and cohabited with a woman outside of marriage. He also fathered a child and followed a heretical sect. Yet, God still sought Augustine, like He seeks us. He always comes to "seek and save the lost". After Augustine returned to the Christian faith, He became one of the great Bishops of the Christian Church.

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One of his most beautiful prayers is recorded in His Book entitled "The Confessions". It provides a deep insight into the true dynamic of the life of faith:

Late have I loved You, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! And behold, you were within and I was without. I was looking for You out there, and I threw myself, deformed as I was, upon those well-formed things which You had made. You were with me, yet I was not with you. Things held me far from you, things which would not have existed had they not been in you. You did call and cry out and burst in upon my deafness; You shone forth Your fragrance, and I drew in my breath and now I pant for You; I have tasted, and now I hunger and thirst; You touched me, and I was inflamed with desire for Your peace.

At the root of the word "vocation", is revealed an insight that can help us comprehend a vital truth. The latin word "vocatio" means "voice". Zacheus teaches us to learn to listen for the voice of God in our personal lives and then to respond, without holding anything back. He had to make the choice to follow the Lord and so do we.

2) Focus on the Lord and not "the crowd."

Faith is not a vicarious experience. While it is true that others can help to bring us to Jesus, He calls our name and we must personally respond to that call. Not just once, but every day, every moment. Faith is a call into an ongoing, intimate dynamic relationship with a living, loving God who, in Jesus Christ, has come to seek and save the lost. Jesus reminds us "You did not choose me but I chose you..." John 15:16

Zacheus climbed that tree in order to see the Lord, not to be seen by Jesus. He did not care what the crowd thought of a grown man climbing a tree! He went after the encounter with Jesus Christ with a childlike simplicity and a reckless abandon. Do we?

The "crowd's" in our lives rarely lead us to God. Remember the exchange with Simon Peter recorded in the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter sixteen? Jesus asks the disciples "Who do men say I am". They told him what the "crowds" said about Him. "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah...." Jesus then spoke personally to Simon and asked "...but you, who do you, say I am." Peter replied "You are the Christ". You can almost sense the joy pop off the page of the biblical text when you read the words of Jesus that follow Peters response: "Blessed are you Peter for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven...."

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In the Lord's invitation and Simons' response we find the foundation for a living faith. Simon was forever changed, signified biblically by the changing of his name, his identity, to "Peter". He went from being an enthusiastic, sometimes mercurial follower, to being a "rock", a leader, configured to the image of the One whom He served. He would spend the rest of his life responding to that call and eventually pour out his own blood in obedient love for Jesus Christ as a martyr.

We all have "crowds" in our lives. They are everywhere. Often, they appear to be well intended. However, Zacheus reminds us that crowds do not reveal Jesus. Nor do they show us the way to becoming all we are invited to become in Him. Only hearing His voice and responding to it for ourselves, by exercising our freedom and choosing the Lord, can lead us on the road to ongoing conversion and transformation.

3) Desire to see Jesus more than anything or anyone else

I know this one seems obvious, but is it? This story is able to reach deeply within us, if we will let it. It invites us to examine ourselves and not be afraid to ask the probing questions that are essential- if we are serious about fully and truthfully living out our Christian vocation.

One of those questions is do we really want to see Jesus? Or, are we comfortable with keeping Him at a distance? Do we compartmentalize our lives, living a separation between faith and life that keeps religious things in a "religious compartment", treating faith like a hat that we put on and take off depending upon the environment that we find ourselves in? This is not the way of Christianity.

The Christian life and vocation is a call to discipleship, to ongoing conversion, to giving ourselves away to the One who poured Himself out for us...and being transformed in the process. It is about giving our whole lives over to the Lord who takes up His residence within us and then continues His mission through us.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the early Christians in Galatia "No longer do I live but Christ lives in me and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God..." That way of living "in Christ" is meant to become our daily reality as well. Christians are called to live differently because we live now "in" Jesus Christ. We are also called to love differently, because we love "in" Jesus Christ. We are invited to "be" differently, because we are different now, at the deepest level. Jesus Christ continues His life and mission on this earth through His Body, His Church, of which we are members.

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This story of Zacheus invites us to ask the question "How are we doing?" It presents an opportunity to assess the relationship between our profession of faith and its application to our daily life. St. Paul wrote to the early Christians in Corinth in his second letter, and encouraged them to take just such an examination: "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? --unless, of course, you fail the test. I hope you will discover that we have not failed"

We Christians live our lives now in, for and with Jesus Christ. The Christian vocation is an ongoing invitation into a new way of "being" on this earth. Faith is real. It is tangible. It causes us to live differently, if it is truly alive. Faith also changes the way we see things. In that way it is not unlike reading glasses. I will never forget the day two years ago when I finally realized I could not hold the news paper, no matter how away I held it. My arms were too short! I went to Target and bought reading glasses. Suddenly, everything looked different! That is what faith does for those who study at its school and then walk in its way.

It also upsets our comfort zone.

When we see Jesus on the Jericho Road of our own lives, we are invited to exercise our faith, to choose Him and, in the choosing, we are invited to change, He does not do the changing in the relationship. He is the same "yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).Prayer is not, in the first instance, about getting God to do what we want. It is about entering into an intimate communion with Him and in Him, and then abiding (St. John 15). In that relationship, we invite Him to change us and we learn to surrender all to Him in love.

Notice Zacheus' response to the encounter with Jesus on the road. He was converted. He changed the way he lived. He gave back to the poor and made reparation for what he had done wrong. He went beyond what the Law required (Exodus 18-20) His life conformed to His vocation to follow the Lord whom He had encountered on that road.Think about it. The crowd would never again see him the same way. His profession probably suffered. His reputation was changed. In fact, the crowd was angry at his audacity and also angry at the Lord's response! They did not "get it". Do we?

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The Christian calling is about ongoing conversion, holiness and living differently. One of the Greek words for conversion is "metanoia". It does not translate into an equivalent English word. Often it is translated repentance, but it means much more. It means to turn, to change our perspective and to act in an entirely different way. Zacheus found the meaning on that street in Jericho where He encountered God Incarnate, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. That encounter opened up a road upon which he would walk for the remainder of his days on the earth. It became the narrow way that would lead him to eternal life.

To see Jesus is to make Him Lord of all. An old friend of mine puts it this way, "If he is not Lord of all, He is not Lord at all".

4) Choose to live in the Sycamore tree.

For some of my readers this concluding insight may sound odd. What do I mean? Well, the Sycamore tree created a clear line of vision for Zacheus. It helped him to rise above the crowd and see the Lord clearly. It placed him in the right position for the invitation that would follow. Jesus told him to come down for he was coming to his house! Imagine the thrill. For us, the Sycamore tree is a symbol for that place which enables us to have a clear vision of Jesus.

Zacheus did not hesitate. With the same lack of caution which he had demonstrated in climbing the tree, he came down to stand in the presence of God Incarnate. There he heard the call that would forever change his life. So may it be with all of us. When God calls we have only one choice, to respond without reserve.

Zacheus looked foolish that day. Especially to a crowd that was so quick to judge him. It did not matter to him. In fact, looking foolish to the crowd is "part of the program". Are we willing to do so? St. Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians in his first letter: "God has chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise..." 1 Corinthians 1:20-27 The Corinthians lived in a City that prided itself on its great accomplishments. It was also drunk on its own debauchery. The early followers of Jesus did not and could not "fit in." They had to be willing to look foolish. In our own day, we share a similar plight. In the midst of a culture that has seemed to have forgotten God, we are called to live differently.

Deacon Keith Fournier Hi readers, it seems you use Catholic Online a lot; that's great! It's a little awkward to ask, but we need your help. If you have already donated, we sincerely thank you. We're not salespeople, but we depend on donations averaging $14.76 and fewer than 1% of readers give. If you donate just $5.00, the price of your coffee, Catholic Online School could keep thriving. Thank you. Help Now >

Where is Jesus passing through, right now, in our own personal lives? He always shows up for those who have their spiritual eyes opened to see Him. How about in our workplace? How about in our relationships? How about in our families? Are we running out to meet Him? Or are we afraid? Are we wondering.... "if we see Him, what will He ask of us?"

The invitation found in this story is to climb that Sycamore Tree; to find the place that will make it possible for us to see Jesus, unimpeded, so as to hear Him call our name. He still comes to seek and to save what is lost. He still comes to the homes of all who open their hearts wide to his presence and are willing to live lives bathed in the light of His refining fire.


It was the late, "great" (though he would reject the accolade) Henri Nouwen who once warned of the "lure of upward mobility"; he referred to it as the greatest sin of the age. He spoke of God's extraordinary love, revealed in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, as an alternative, a "downward mobility."

How extraordinary is this wonderful love of God and how hard it is to comprehend its invitation. The God of the entire universe came among us as a man to show us both the love of the Father and how we are now invited and empowered, through His life, death and resurrection, to live in this world and prepare for the next. Will we allow the truth revealed in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ to become our pattern for daily living? Zacheus shows us the way. Will we cooperate with the grace of conversion and be emptied of ourselves for others?

We are invited to experience this mystery of faith and to make it real. When we empty ourselves, He comes and takes up His residence within us. Then, we become His arms, embracing the world; His legs, still walking its dusty streets; and His Heart, still beating with the Divine Compassion manifested in Jesus Christ, the One who became the "least of these" in order to bring us all into the full communion of love.

Like Zacheus, let us choose to seek God without reserve. When we hear His voice, let us quickly obey and open our "homes", our entire lives, to His presence. Let us live our lives in the Sycamore tree, always looking for Jesus!

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Deacon Keith A. Fournier is a Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia who also serves the Melkite Greek Catholic Church with approval. He is a human rights lawyer and activist. Deacon Fournier is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville (B.A., Summa Cum Laude), the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University (M.T.S., Magna Cum Laude) and the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Law (J.D., Law Review). He has an honorary Doctor of Letters (LLD) from the St Thomas University for his pro-life work and will receive an honorary Doctor of Divinity (D.D.) from the National Clergy Council and the Mid Atlantic Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church U.S.A. on January 23, 2005, for his ecumenical work. Deacon Fournier is the Senior Editor and Correspondent for Catholic Online.


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