up a tree

You know the story of today’s gospel reading:  Jesus meets Zacchaeus.

Jericho is the place where it happened – the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.  It is the site of many great Old Testament losses and conquests. Yet in this encounter between Zacchaeus and Jesus something happens that is more significant than any of of the previous triumphs and disasters.

Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus reveals a remarkable turn-around in the method of God’s relationship with humans. This shift has been revealed to us before, but it takes us a while to get the message.

What is the shift?

Throughout the Old Testament we see people doing their best to please and appease a God whom they perceive to be distant. A god who lives in the heavens. A god with whom they could communicate with by getting the holy person to take a message up a mountain (since if the heavens were in the sky a mountain top was closer to God) and perhaps returning with a response from God.

However when God took on human form in Jesus Christ, previous perceptions were shattered by a new reality. Now God who (almost by definition) to that point was distant living in far-off heavens rewarding the good and punishing the bad, was with us in the most tangible and fragile of forms, taking on the human condition.

God was now one of us, speaking with a human voice, seeing with human eyes and feeling with a human heart.

Our challenge is perhaps that God is now too accessible for those of us who might prefer a distant and controllable God. Now God is walking our streets and eating at our tables, wandering into our towns and inviting himself into our homes.

But Zacchaeus is ready.

Zacchaeus knows his human limitations. On the physical level he is short and can’t see Jesus because of the crowd. More significantly he is the chief tax-collector which means that he would have been the most unpopular of a pretty unpopular profession.

Zacchaeus was full of desire and curiosity. He “was wanting to see who Jesus was… so he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus who was about to pass that way.”

This is where we witness the new divine method as Jesus notices Zacchaeus. Jesus walked over to the tree, stopped, looked up and called Zacchaeus by name. Perhaps the crowd surrounding Jesus had already warned him about this bad rich man?

And, then Zacchaeus’ whole life changed. Jesus noticed him and called him. ‘Zaccaheus, I want to go to YOUR house NOW.’  Note that Jesus is expressing his own need, his own desire which perfectly matches the inner desire of Zacchaeus who wanted to see Jesus.

In that encounter the life of this little man was changed for ever.  Zacchaeus, who was used to living on the fringe of the group, was now the centre of a new story forever. Two thousand years later whenever people hear the name of the town ‘Jericho’, they think ‘Zacchaeus’! All these years later this guy is the greatest money earner for the city (due to tourism including my own coffee when I took the picture above) and everyone is grateful to him.

But Zacchaeus did NOTHING except follow his desire to see Jesus and climb a tree.

Jesus did the rest!

How little Jesus needs from us! I recall Pope John Paul II writing to priests Holy Thursday (2002) saying that a more accurate translation of this story is that Jesus said to Zacchaeus: “I NEED to come to your house today”.

Mutual need is what leads two humans to relationship. We can speak of Jesus’ ‘need’ since he seeks to be in personal relationship with each of us.

It is Jesus’ willingness to enter into relationship with me that provides for every need I have. All I need to do is to, like Zacchaeus, live with my desire to see Jesus.

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