Here’s something interesting I learned recently about the sycamore fig tree. In Jesus’ day, the sycamore fig tree was considered a “sin-spreading tree” because of its wide canopy. Indeed, trees with dense foliage, like the sycamore fig tree, were often seen as a kind of tent under which sins could spread. As Kenneth Bailey has noted: “if any form of ceremonial uncleanness occurred under the tree, the uncleanness was automatically transferred to anyone under any section of the tree. An unbroken canopy formed by trees touching meant that the sins of one household could travel to another household under a shared canopy of leaves and branches. People who had such trees on their property were obliged to cut all branches that overhung a property-line wall so that sins couldn’t travel from one household to another”. (Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 178) We know the disputes that happen today between neighbours over trees. Imagine how much more tension there would be if touching trees meant the spread of sin!
It’s ironic that Zacchaeus the “sinner” was hiding in the “sin spreading tree” on the outskirts of town to get a look at Jesus. Then Jesus stays in the house of the notorious sinner—he stays at Sin Central. But instead of sin spreading from house to house, with Jesus, the opposite is true. Where he goes, goodness spreads. We should have a goodness spreading tree in this story. Wait! Maybe that’s a good way of thinking of the cross. Because notice what Jesus is doing. In declaring that he would stay with Zacchaeus, Jesus redirects the hostility of the crowd away from Zacchaeus and towards himself. In a sense, he absorbs their hostility. This act of costly love foreshadows the cross, especially as Jesus draws near to Jerusalem.
And we can see the goodness starting to spread with Zacchaeus. During the banquet, Zacchaeus gets up and makes a speech. He’s so moved by the act of costly love Jesus has shown him by crossing the picket line, so to speak, that he commits to righting past wrongs by redistributing his wealth. He declares: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Zacchaeus is prepared to make reparations. Saying sorry isn’t enough. He recognises that his wealth has come at the suffering of others. And so Zacchaeus responds to Jesus’ act of costly love by an act of costly love himself.
It can be telling to try to place yourself in this story. Where are you in this story? Maybe you’re like Zacchaeus, feeling ostracized, marginalized, isolated. Perhaps it’s because of something you did or didn’t do. And there you are, trying to keep a safe distance from everyone else. You’re up in the tree, trying to hide, but wanting desperately to see Jesus. Or maybe you want to see Jesus but the crowd is preventing you. How long has it been since you noticed the crowd? The busyness, the obstacles, the distractions, the old assumptions…anything that blocks out your vision of the divine? If you feel like Zacchaeus, know that Jesus sees you. And he chooses you. Your desire to see him, to draw near to him, is sure proof that Jesus is already drawing near to you. He invites himself over to your place before you’ve done anything, said anything, before you’ve even repented. How does that make you feel? And just so we’re clear, Jesus is the kind of guest who will absolutely have a look in the medicine cabinet. When did you last host Jesus in your own home — allowing him to open closed doors, see your intimate places, touch your prized possessions, and explore those grimy corners he deliberately didn't give you time to clean up before he visited?
Or maybe you feel like someone in the crowd, muttering and bent out of shape. You’re angry that that person gets to be part of the family, that that person receives forgiveness, healing, and grace. Jesus sees you too…you who are scandalized by God’s grace. He calls you by name and asks you to come down…out of the place you’ve been hiding. God knows that some of us hide behind the sycamore leaves of legalism, judging the sins of others to take the spotlight off of ourselves. Some of us hide behind the line in the sand we draw to separate ourselves from others. As Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “Every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.” Who is on the other side of the line for you this morning? Who is it you need to show costly grace to?
In our own day, we as a human race need to extend costly grace to more-than human creation. Just as Zacchaeus got rich off the backs of the poor, we in the West have enjoyed an unprecedented standard of living, but it’s come off the back of the rest of creation and the poor. As I write this, COP27 is underway, and the rich countries that have contributed most to the climate crisis are discussing financial measures to help poorer countries cope with an increasingly unpredictable climate. The question is: Will we embody a collective repentance that manifests as generous and costly help to those most in need? The jury is still out on that one.
Jesus told Zacchaeus to come down out of the tree. I think he’s asking us today, his human image bearers, to come back down to earth, back down to the reality that we are a member of the community of creation, called to care for the land and her creatures in sacrificial ways, so that we can flourish together. As we come down out of our tree, let’s keep our eyes on Jesus, who’s being lifted up onto his own tree… a tree of torture, the hostility of the world redirected towards him on the cross. As we remember the ultimate demonstration of costly love, may we find shelter under that goodness spreading tree.
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We have invited these writers to share their experiences, ideas and opinions in the hope that these will provoke thought, challenge you to go deeper and inspire you to put your faith into action. These articles should not be taken as the official view of the Nelson Diocese on any particular matter.