Those Who Climb Trees

I find some of the best cartoons in The New Yorker magazine.  One day they print a cartoon about God.  God is a small, balding, middle-aged, skinny white guy in a loincloth sitting on a throne beneath a sign that says “God.” A puzzled middle-aged white guy dies and goes to heaven.  He stands in front of God and stares in a very unbelievable fashion.  Finally, he says to God, “You know, you don’t look anything like your picture.”

Do you look anything like your picture?

Wisdom tells us wonderful things about the relationship that we have with God.  God creates us.  God loves us.  God fashions us.  God names us as his.  God spares us and therefore loves our souls.  Made in God’s image, we too love.  Created as God’s handiwork, we model God to the world.

Take the person of Zacchaeus as an example today.  He is short and rich.  He is a tax collector, and, he is Jewish.  Does he look anything like his picture?  Does Zacchaeus fit the picture of a short rich Jewish man who makes up for his size by robbing his constituents and dominating other people? Does he fit the stereotype?

Zacchaeus knows well what the crowd thinks of him.  They do not allow anyone of his kind to mingle with holy people.  So, Zacchaeus runs ahead of the crowd.  He breaks away from mediocrity.  He separates himself from “group-think.”  He wants to see Jesus for himself.

What a surprise!  This little man whom the crowd believes to be a cheat and a thief wants to see Jesus.  He hears of miracles.  He knows stories.  What better way to find Jesus than to run ahead, climb a tree and wait to catch a glimpse of the wonder-worker.  And in the end, not only does Zacchaeus not look like his picture but also neither does Jesus.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says that a person of Zacchaeus’ stature would never climb a tree.  St. Augustine says that the only way to see Christ is to get away from the crowd; it tends to get in the way.  And as Zacchaeus goes out on the limb of the sycamore tree Jesus knows that Zacchaeus does not look like his picture.  Chief tax collectors do not climb trees to see itinerant preachers.  He does not look like his picture, and, that is why salvation appears.

Can I look at you right now and know for sure who you are; what you are; what you do; what you say and how you act?  Can you do the same with me?  I doubt it.  I doubt that I can walk up to you right now and speak your life history.  And that is the point that I want to make today:  we dislike when people turn us into caricatures but we waste no time in turning other people into cartoons.

If Jesus passes through our little community today where would we find him?  I think that we might find Jesus with one group of people:  those who climb trees.  St. Augustine says that Zacchaeus climbs the sycamore tree, a tree with that foolish fruit.  While the tree bears this ugly ball of seeds, Augustine speaks spiritually.  In Christian terms, that foolish fruit is going out on a limb. That foolish fruit is separating one’s self from “group think” to see Jesus.  And when we go out on the limb that is when salvation appears.

As I look around the chapel right now, I hope that we do not look like our pictures.  Behind every face is a story.  Inside every person is a struggle.  Some of us mourn.  Some of us suffer.  Some of us are always sad.  Some of us are always happy.  Zacchaeus did not allow his size or his reputation to prevent him from seeing Jesus.  So what if we use walkers.  So what if we are older.  So what if we are retired and we slowed down.  So what if we are smaller.  We can still climb the sycamore tree by what St. Paul calls, bringing to fulfillment “every effort of faith.”

Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd and climbed the sycamore tree with that foolish fruit.  As he looked down, Jesus looked up and salvation entered his life.  If we desire this same salvation, we need to climb to be in communion with Jesus.

The Rev. Fr. Dr. T. Becket A. Franks, O.S.B.

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

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