The sycamore tree of faith

POST BY PGallagher

Photo by Jeremiah Lawrence on Unsplash

We allow ourselves to be pulled up onto a higher branch from which we recognise, as if for the first time, God-made-man walking on the paths on which we make our way all the time.



Hurry because I must stay at your house tonight.[1] Jesus intrudes on our life. He comes home with us. How welcome is he? Zacchæus might not have wanted to go so far as to receive Jesus under his roof. He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was.[2] He found a place from which he could observe how the Lord behaved. When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him.[3] Zacchæus had climbed the sycamore to find a vantage-point, not to attract attention. The Lord sometimes chooses to interpret some sliver of interest on our part as the radical openness to him which he desires to find. In the case of Zacchaeus, we are told of the tax farmer’s prominence in Jericho and of his wealth.[4] We learn also that he had been dishonest: if I have cheated anyone I will pay them back four times the amount.[5] We are not meant to be in any doubt that he had embezzled. Rich, shady and unpopular, Zacchæus was certainly not expecting to entertain Jesus in his house. Nevertheless, he wanted to know more about the remarkable new teacher who was passing through Jericho. The visit of his saviour to Zacchaeus’s house and the conversion of heart which took place in him were consequences of his showing some interest in Jesus by climbing a tree to observe what he would do.

We too have surely sought and found a vantage-point from which to see the Lord better. We are always seeking to know more about Jesus Christ. Our desire for knowledge is in some respects different from the curiosity of Zacchæus. We are not having our first encounter with the person and teaching of Jesus. We have met him and his wisdom on other occasions. Our sycamore tree, our observation post is that seriousness in us which seeks to understand in a deeper and more God-focused way. Like Zacchæus, we need access to Christ. To see the Lord we too have to climb. There is an ascent to be made. Jesus meets us where we are but something in us seeks the perspective and distance of our crow’s nest. We must go higher up than where we usually stand if we are to discover the truth of who Jesus is. We are hampered perhaps by the burden of disappointment at the failure of previous attempts to be in a right relation to God. We have been diminished, at least in our own estimate, by earlier set-backs. Like Zacchæus, however, we discover that a modest expression of interest on our part is met by Jesus with an infusion of strengthening grace. He announces his intention to come closer to us. This can appear to be a disconcerting intrusion. We do deny that we are interested. Our discrete presence in the branches of the sycamore makes apparent our wish to know more. That the Lord should come home with us and stay with us is, however, not yet part of our plan! By showing the interest that we have demonstrated we are however already welcoming Jesus into our life. He makes no secret of his desire to be with us in our house, at our work and among those we love or might learn to love. We are aware that Lord always seeks to increase his stake in our life. He gives us great freedom but he cannot conceal his love.[6] The intrusion, if that is how it feels, does not compromise our liberty but it reveals the unconditional quality of God’s attachment to us.

The sycamore tree is where we perch to keep an eye on Jesus Christ. This vantage-point is our life of faith. We glimpse the Lord in our sacramental encounters, in our prayer and in our loving service of others. This glimpsing from the sycamore arises from our dissatisfaction with our relationship with God in the past and from our gratitude, no doubt easily forgotten sometimes, for everything we have received from him through all our days. We look at Jesus from a standpoint of questioning, of repentance and of thanksgiving. From our perch on the sycamore of faith we meet the gaze of one who seeks to reveal to us the mystery, to forgive our sins and to share with us a life of grateful love of the Father. The implications of a modest inquiry are indeed very great. By scaling this tree we embark on a complete change of how we live.[7] The one who declares to our surprise that he will come home with us will alter everything. Zacchæus began by being curious about Christ and then in a moment of conversion understood his teaching and embraced it. We are not mere observers. We allow ourselves to be pulled up onto a higher branch from which we recognise, as if for the first time, God-made-man walking on the paths on which we make our way all the time. Climbing the sycamore has already changed us. No ascent of this sort is entirely casual. We are already some way along the way to being able to receive Jesus properly when he addresses us, renewing an old acquaintance.

Zacchæus hurried down and welcomed Christ joyfully.[8] Are we the same? Do we hurry to obey the commands of the Lord? Do we welcome him into our life with joy? Our familiarity can tell against us here. We are not Zacchæus meeting Jesus for the first time. We may have lost the habit of hurrying to obey God. How strange that we should accept the Lord of the universe into our life routinely. We acknowledge, however, that we are still among the lost whom the Son of Man has come to seek out and save.[9] We are not, however, found in quite the manner of Zacchæus. He listened to Jesus. He understood his challenge. He sincerely repented of his sins. He set about amending his life. We are going through that process too, as any disciple does over and over again. The hostile observers in Jericho were on to something. The Lord is to be found among sinners.[10] In that condition, we too receive him with delight. We have forgotten all sorts of important things. We have blithely stopped living as Jesus teaches us. Our being found by the Lord has this humbling quality such that we are reminded that we have been in this fortunate place many times before.

Perched where we are on the sycamore tree of our faith we rediscover Jesus Christ, no stranger but our brother and dearest friend. Once again he says, hurry because I must stay at your house today. We pray to hasten without stumbling to receive the things God has promised.[11] Our life can be understood as a rush towards God. The time passes quickly. There is a lot to be done. We hasten, but cautiously, because we know what it is to stumble.[12] Yet such is our appreciation of what the promises hold for us that we cannot but run. If we fall, God will pick us up.[13] The promises of Christ are his assurances of our deliverance from sin and death. How could we not make haste to believe? We hurry to be with our saviour. We hasten in order to allow him to bring us to God.

For Zacchæus, other people were, at least at the beginning, in the way. They were blocking his view. Their low opinion of him, no doubt justified, also constituted an obstacle to his conversion. Surely Jesus would not wish the company of so great a sinner.[14] The sycamore lifted Zacchæus above the crowd. However, the Lord invited him to come down from his perch. Once transformed, the repentant sinner sought to make amends to those whom he had earlier hurt. Others were no longer preventing him from understanding what he needed to know. For us, if our faith, even imperfectly practised, is our vantage-point then other people are already part of what enables us to see the Lord. We pray with them, sacramental life is shared with them and our life of charitable love is mixed up with theirs. If gratitude is part of the strength of the tree up which we ascend, then our thanksgiving to God is very often for what he has given us through others. Nevertheless part of our blessed hurry to welcome Jesus into our life is a certain independence from what other people think. He will stay at our house regardless of public opinion and he encourages us to share his freedom from subservience to the opinions of others. Like Zacchæus we have to accept that some will prefer to dwell on our earlier mistakes. Efforts to make amends can founder on the bitterness of those we have hurt. The Lord is merciful but not all his brothers and sisters imitate him. Jesus’s saying to us hurry is not so much a call to carelessness as a reassurance that it is his judgement which counts. The Lord is taking possession of our life, whatever anyone else thinks. Our rush to welcome him is a flight from fear. His intrusion on our life, so surprising, so welcome, banishes the old obstacles to faith.

[1] Luke 19.5

[2] Luke 19.3

[3] Luke 19.5

[4] Luke 19.2

[5] Luke 19.8

[6] Wisdom 11.26

[7] 2 Thessalonians 1.11

[8] Luke 19.6

[9] Luke 19.10

[10] Luke 19.7

[11] Collect for the Thirtieth Sunday, the Roman Missal

[12] 2 Thessalonians 2.2 and Psalm 144.14

[13] Wisdom 12.2

[14] Luke 19.7