Come down from your tree

Homily for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Jesus looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Lk 19:1-10

Zacchaeus, the raccoon, not Zacchaeus the tax collector

Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector in Jericho when Jesus came to town. The gospel says that Zacchaeus climbed a tree because he was “seeking to see who Jesus was” (Lk 19:1-10).  That sounds like he was curious about this holy man coming through town.  It doesn’t sound like he wanted to touch him, be healed by him, or become his disciple.  He was simply “seeking to see who Jesus was.” 

Zaccheus wanted to observe from a distance.  Sometimes we like to observe from a distance. Zacchaeus, however, came down from the tree and it changed his life. The same can happen to you.

In the tree, Zacchaeus had a better vantage point.  He was above the crowds in a position of superiority.  He was above their scornful disdain of his occupation.  He was above their silent ridicule of his short stature.  He was above the loneliness of being aligned with the hated Romans. 

In the tree, Zaccheaus was above the press of the crowd.  He was distanced from their needs, their flaws, their selfishness, and their envy.  For Zacchaeus in the tree, it must have been refreshing to be high above the stagnant air of humanity, observing the masses from a distance while enjoying the sunlight and gentle breeze.  He just wanted a glimpse of Jesus.

Sometimes we like to observe from a distance.  We seek Jesus, not in the thick of humanity, but instead sitting high above on a branch in a tree.  When we sit in this lofty position, discipleship means watching Jesus, not following Jesus; looking down on others, not walking with others.

From the branch on the tree, we can critique and judge.  “These are the reasons the poor are poor.  The Church has it wrong on these issues.  The government is dysfunctional and can’t be trusted.”  Sitting in the tree, we are above all of these conflicts and debates because we’re alone, we’re higher than others, and we know that we’re right. 

In the tree, the pressing issues of the world like poverty, third-world debt, racism, environmental degradation, immigration, and injustice we view from a distance.  They can be dissected, analyzed, judged, and dismissed as not relevant to our world in the tree. 

In the tree, we see Jesus with the same calculated stance.  We don’t touch his tunic for healing, we don’t let him touch our eyes so we can see, we don’t drop to our knees and ask for his mercy, we don’t mingle with his disciples.  In the tree, we can conveniently ignore our own sins.  Sin belongs below in the crowds, not up the tree. 

Something surprising happened to Zacchaeus that day on the branch.  Zaccheaus was seeking to see Jesus.  Little did he realize that Jesus was seeking to save Zacchaeus. He just wanted a peek, but Jesus came into his home that day and changed his life. 

Jesus looks up and says, “Come down.”  Come down into the crowds.  Come down into the judging.  Come down into the grumbling.  Come down into the hostility.  You are no longer an outcast because I am calling you by name.  Come down, Zacchaeus.   The sting of their accusations has no bite.  The ridicule of your short stature can’t diminish your self-worth.  You belong to me.  “Zacchaeus, come down!  Come down quickly!” 

And Zacchaeus came down quickly.  Between the branch and the root of that sycamore tree, Zaccheaus had a major conversion.

When Jesus calls us to leave our branch of pride, self-righteousness, and control, how many of us come down?  Too often, we prefer to stay in a safe place, above the press and problems of the world.  Jesus said to Zacchaeus, “Come down.”  And he came down quickly.  Jesus says to you, “Come down.”  How do you respond?

Jesus then makes a most shocking comment.  “Today, I must stay at your house.”  It’s bold and impolite to invite yourself to another’s house.  Even worse, Jesus invites himself to the house of a notorious sinner. 

The people grumbled. But Zacchaeus stood there.  He pledged to bring about justice in his world and to do his part to usher in the Kingdom of God.  He pledged to give half of his possessions to the poor.  The law only required ten percent.  He pledged to pay four times the amount he owes in restitution.  On the branch, Zacchaeus is observing the kingdom of God passing him by.  By allowing Jesus to come into his house, he is helping Jesus usher in the kingdom, a kingdom that favors the poor and oppressed. 

Before Jesus entered Jericho he met another wealthy man.  The man said, “Master, what else must I do to inherit eternal life?  I follow all the commandments.”  Jesus told him, “Sell all of your possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow me.”  (see Lk 18:18-23) The man walked away sad.  He preferred to stay on the branch where there were only a few commandments to follow and no room for the ambiguities of discipleship. 

Once you come down off of the branch, Jesus is not going to stop there.  Jesus is going to want to come into your house.  He’s going to want to stay with you, to live with you, and to dine with you.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Zacchaeus joyfully received Jesus into this banquet.  Salvation came to his house.  What’s it going to be with you?

There seems to be a veiled warning in this gospel.  Jesus intended to pass through the town.  Jesus is not going to stand at the base of the tree and yell over and over again, “Come down, come down, come down.”  He is passing through.  Right here, right now, he calls you by name and says, “Scott, come down out of your tree.  Leave behind your judgments and critique, your mistakes of the past and your worries about the future.  Come down now.  Come down quickly.  I want to stay in your house today.” 

Will you come down?  Will you engage in the world’s most pressing problems, recommit your life to helping the poor and oppressed, take action on issues of justice, seek out those friends and family who are lost, and renew your commitment to living a life worthy of being his disciple? Will you work as if ushering in the Kingdom of God depends upon you?

Jesus wants to come into your house.  He wants to get to know you and wants you to get to know him.  But he can’t do that if you’re sitting on a branch. He says to you, “Come down quickly.”  How do you respond?