The Sycamore in Jericho
<b)Jesus at Our House
Paris, October 31, 2013 (Zenit.org) Monsignor Francesco Follo
1) The humble desire for God leads to conversion
This Sunday as well the Gospel presents us a tax collector as a co-star. Today we read not about a parable, but a true episode of Jesus’s life. Let’s recall briefly the encounter of Jesus with a man named Zacchaeus the head of the tax collectors and a very rich man. Because he was short, he had climbed a tree to be able to see Christ. Then he heard the words of the Master “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Jesus had taken notice of Zacchaeus’ action, understood his desire, and anticipated the invitation. The fact that he decided to visit a sinner caused surprise. Zacchaeus, happy for the visit, “received him with joy” (Lk 19:6) and opened the door of his house and of his heart to the encounter with the Redeemer. Pope Francis, when he was still the Bishop of Buenos Aires wrote, “As soon as Zacchaues hears that Jesus has entered his hometown, he feels that the desire to see Him has awoken and climbs the tree. His faith will stop Zacchaeus to be a “traitor” at the service of himself and of the Empire and will make him a citizen of Jericho, establishing a relation of justice and solidarity with his fellow citizens”.
The Gospel today presents us Zacchaues who, even if he is a rich man, is missing the meaning of life. The poverty of spirit pushes the wealthy tax collector to climb a sycamore tree to see the Messiah. Material goods didn’t satisfy his thirst of infinity; he became a “beggar of God” and received the gift of living in the grace of the One who, in entering his house, brought him eternal and full life.
Men and women are seekers of the Absolute. Even if they advance with small and unstable steps, they are always on the lookout; they have a “restless heart” as Saint Augustine wrote.
It is significant that at the beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find the following consideration: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for”. (nr.27). In today’s secular thinking this statement is considered a provocation. Many of our contemporary fellow men and women could say that they don’t feel this desire. In many areas of the secular society He in not anymore the expected, the desired one, but it is a reality that makes us uninterested and that is not even worthy to be considered.
Actually this “desire for God’ has not disappeared and surfaces even today in many ways in the hearts of men and women. The human desire is always seeking tangible and often mundane possessions. However these possessions are not sufficient. They search for the “Good” that will fully and forever satisfy them.
How can this “Good” fully satisfy the desire? In today’s Gospel we find the answer, and I’d like to anticipate it: “The desire, to be satisfied, must be educated”.
2) The desire for God must be educated
God is in the High and man is dust that walks on Earth, but between God and man there is love which saves. God has compassion for all because he can do everything; He closes his eyes over men’s sins waiting for their repentance (see Wis 11:22-24). As in this Psalm: “Who is like the LORD our God, enthroned on high, looking down on heaven and earth? He raises the needy from the dust, lifts the poor from the ash heap” (Ps 113:5-7)
As to Zacchaeus twenty centuries ago, also today Christ comes to us and to every one of us says “Today I must stay at your house” (Lk 19:5) Zacchaeus ran home to prepare the welcoming for Christ and received him with on open heart. We must do the same.
Christ educated Zacchaeus’ heart (and ours as well) first by making it learning again the taste of the real things of life, in this case a meal among people that have become friends. “Instilling in someone from a young age the taste for true joy, in every area of life – family, friendship, solidarity with those who suffer, self-renunciation for the sake of the other, love of knowledge, art, the beauty of nature — all this means exercising the inner taste and producing antibodies that can fight the trivialization and the dulling widespread today. Adults too need to rediscover this joy, to desire authenticity, to purify themselves of the mediocrity that might infest them. It will then become easier to drop or reject everything that although attractive proves to be, in fact, insipid, a source of indifference and not of freedom. And this will bring out that desire for God of which we are speaking.” ( Benedict XVI – General Audience- November 7, 2012) This is what will surface the desire of God of which we are talking about.
Secondly Christ educated Zacchaeus’ desire by opening not only the sinner’s house (and ours too), but also his heart. It is not enough to answer to the question, “how to educate the desire?” There is another pressing question, “Who is able to satisfy the desire?” The answer is Jesus, who shows the good aspect of the Mystery by revealing that the Infinite is Love that gives himself.
It is always Jesus that takes the initiative and He does it for free. He does however insert himself into man’s availability. The encounter with God is at the same time a gift and a fulfillment of a search, the granting of a desire. Zacchaeus desires to see Jesus and then, when called, is ready to welcome him, “he came down quickly and received him with joy.” The encounter with Jesus changes Zacchaeus’ life. In reality Jesus doesn’t say anything to Zacchaeus, He looks at him with love and the tax collector understands and says: “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.” The tax collector becomes the Christian disciple that doesn’t abandon everything, like others are called to do. He or she remains in his or her house, continues with his or her job, but is a witness of a new way of life: he or she doesn’t considers anymore profit above everything, but justice (“I shall repay it four times”) and sharing with the most in need (“half of my possession, I shall give to the poor”). There is the disciple who leaves everything to become a full time missionary of the Kingdom, and there is the one who lives the same radicalism remaining where he is. It is possible to part the heart from possessions without having the obligation of getting totally rid of them. The most important thing is to trust God that enters into our house bringing salvation.
Without doubt the ones who do as the consecrated Virgins do are a clearer testimony that God is the only Good and that we are the good of God. In fact we are the witnesses of the infinite Love of God. The consecrated Virgins testify that it is possible to give to God all we have and all we are, and by doing so, we receive what He is and we take Him to the entire world. These women live showing that it makes sense to give everything to the Love.
Saint Augustine of Hippo – Sermon 174
3. But you’re going to say, “If I become Zacchaeus, I won’t be able to see Jesus.” Don’t let that get you down; climb the tree on which Jesus hung for you, and you will see Jesus. And what kind of tree did Zacchaeus climb? A sycamore. It doesn’t grow at all, or very rarely perhaps, in our part of the world. But in those parts this kind of tree and fruit is very common. Sycamores are what a fruit is called that is like figs; and yet there’s a definite difference, which those who’ve seen or tasted them can tell. However, as far as the meaning of the name goes, sycamores translate into English as “silly figs.”†9 Now look at my friend Zacchaeus, look at him please, wanting to see Jesus in the crowd and not being able to. He was lowly, you see, the crowd was proud; and the crowd, as is the way with a crowd, was hindering itself from seeing the Lord well. He climbed away from the crowd and saw Jesus, without the crowd getting in his way.
The crowd, you see, says to the lowly, to people walking the way of humility, who leave the wrongs they suffer in God’s hands, and don’t insist on getting their own back on their enemies; the crowd jeers at them and says, “You helpless, miserable clod, you can’t even stick up for yourself and get your own back.” The crowd gets in the way and prevents Jesus from being seen; the crowd which boasts and crows, when it is able to get its own back, blocks the sight of the one who said, as he hung on the cross, Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing (Lk 23:24). So this was the one then, the one in whom all the humble are represented, that Zacchaeus wanted to see; and so he ignored the crowd that was getting in his way, but instead he climbed a sycamore tree, a tree so to say of silly fruit. We, you see, as the apostle says, preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block indeed to the Jews; now notice the sycamore; but to the Gentiles folly (1 Cor 1:23). Finally, the wise of this world jeer at us about the cross of Christ, and say, “What sort of minds have you people got, who worship a crucified God?” What sort of minds have we got? Certainly not your sort. The wisdom of this world is folly with God (1 Cor 3:19). No, we haven’t got your sort of mind. But you call our minds foolish. Say what you like; for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus. The reason, after all, you can’t see Jesus, is that you are ashamed to climb the sycamore tree.
Let Zacchaeus grasp the sycamore tree, the humble person climb the cross. That’s little enough, merely to climb it; we mustn’t be ashamed of the cross of Christ, we must fix it on our foreheads, where the seat of shame is;†10 yes, there, there above all where our blushes show, that’s where we must firmly fix what we should never blush for. As for you, I rather think you make fun of the sycamore; and yet that’s what has enabled me to see Jesus. You, though, make fun of the sycamore, because you are just a man; but the foolishness of God is wiser than men (1 Cor 1:25).
4. And the Lord saw Zacchaeus too. He was seen, and he saw; but unless he had been seen, he wouldn’t have been able to see. Those whom he predestined he also called (Rom 8:30). He’s the one who said to Nathanael—who was in a way helping the proclamation of the gospel by asking, Can anything good come out of Nazareth?; so the Lord said to him, Before Philip called you, while you were under the fig tree, I saw you (Jn 1:46.48).
You know what the first sinners, Adam and Eve, made themselves aprons from. When they had sinned, they made themselves aprons from fig leaves, and covered their shameful parts; because it was by sinning that they caused themselves to feel shame about them. So if the first sinners made themselves aprons, the couple from whom we derive our origins, in whom we had got lost, so that he would come to seek and to save what had got lost;†11 if they made them out of fig leaves to cover their shameful parts; what else could it mean, When you were under the fig tree I saw you, but “You wouldn’t have come to the cleanser of sin, unless he had first seen you in the shadow of sin”? In order for us to see, we have been seen; in order for us to love, we have been loved. My God, his mercy will go before me (Ps 59:10).
5. So now then the Lord, who had already welcomed Zacchaeus in his heart, was ready to be welcomed by him in his house; and he said, Zacchaeus, hurry up and come down; since I have to stay in your house (Lk 19:5). He thought it was a marvelous piece of good luck to see Christ. While imagining it was a marvelous piece of luck, quite beyond words, to see him passing by, he was suddenly found worthy to have him in his house. Grace is poured forth, faith starts working through love,†12 Christ who was already dwelling in his heart is welcomed into his house. Zacchaeus says to Christ, Lord, half my goods I give to the poor; and if I have cheated anyone of anything, I am paying back four times over (Lk 19:8). It’s as if he were saying, “The reason I’m keeping back half for myself, is not in order to have it, but to have something to pay people back from.”
So there you are, that’s really what welcoming Jesus means, welcoming him into your heart. Christ, I mean, was already there, he was in Zacchaeus, and through him was saying for himself what he was hearing from his mouth.†13 That, you see, is what the apostle says: For Christ to dwell by faith in your hearts (Eph 3:17).
6. So now, because it was Zacchaeus, because he was a head tax collector, because he was very much of a sinner; that crowd being, so it would seem, of sound mind and good health, though it was preventing people from seeing Jesus, that crowd was astonished and expressed disapproval of Jesus entering the house of a sinner. This amounted to disapproving of the doctor entering the house of a sick person. So because Zacchaeus was scoffed at as a sinner, scoffed at though by those of unsound mind after being restored to sound health himself, the Lord answered the scoffers, Today salvation came to this house (Lk 19:9). There you are, that’s why I entered; salvation came to this house. Clearly, if the Savior hadn’t entered, salvation wouldn’t have happened in that house.
So why are you astonished, sick man? Call in Jesus yourself as well, don’t regard yourself as being in good health. It’s with hope that a person is sick who welcomes the doctor; but desperately sick indeed is the one who in a frenzy beats the doctor. So what sort of frenzy must possess the person who kills the doctor? And on the other hand, what must the goodness and power of the doctor be, who from his own blood made a medicine for his crazy killer? After all, the one who had come to seek and to save what had got lost didn’t say in vain as he hung there, Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing (Lk 23:24). “They are in a frenzy, I’m the doctor; let them rave and rage, I bear it patiently; it’s when they’ve killed me that I will heal them.”
So let us be among those whom he heals. The word is human and worthy of total acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tm 1:15); whether great or small, to save sinners. The Son of man has come to seek and to save what had got lost (Lk 19:10).