Why a sycamore tree?

Why would Luke, in the Gospel pericope we heard this Sunday, bother with such a detail as Zacchaeus climbing a sycamore tree? Why a sycamore? This, one of the fondest stories in Luke’s encomium of Jesus Christ, relates Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus “who was seeking to see who Jesus was but could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature” who thus “ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus” (19:3-4). This is one of those stories, Fr Jerry Neyrey, sj would remind us, that can only be apprehended by acute attention to the details. Some years ago, I wrote about the significance of the sycamore tree (read past the coat-of-arms bit) which in this Sunday’s Gospel, I would contend, serves as a marker of Zacchaeus’ desire to be close to what Jesus desires, the kingdom of God. Therefore his willingness to ascend the tree in order to gaze upon the face of Christ is itself a statement of faith that to encounter Christ is to enter into eternal life. Moreover, if we allow that the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden makes most symbolic sense when understood as a sycamore/fig tree1 we can see this story of Zacchaeus is like a miniature diorama of salvation history. By attaching himself to this Tree of Life, as Jesus himself would later do when he is at his lowest point, fully self-emptied upon the Cross so that we might eat of him as the new fruit of enlightenment, Zacchaeus too is indicating that he is seeking after the original position of innocence and, at the same time, willing to embrace that self-sacrifice, the metanoia/conversion, that path of humility/humiliation with trust in God, which alone makes such possible. By forsaking and making amends for his former ways in a manner that breaks himself open, literally breaks his bank (:8), Zacchaeus gives life to others and his own is redeemed (:9). Zacchaeus thus is a witness to the Paschal Mystery: precisely because he is the lowest of the low (short in stature, the chief sinner as his name itself implies) who is down (in Jericho, the lowest town in Israel and which Jesus “intended to pass through” prefiguring his own Paschal Mystery :1) and out(cast) his being lifted up to full in stature (an image Paul and the Church use for our conformation to Christ in baptism) gives true testimony and prophetic witness to the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the person of Jesus who then comes to dwell with Zacchaeus. We too recognize our own unworthiness, not as some act of personal excoriation, but so that we might, like Zacchaeus, descend in humility/conversion so that we might be be filled up with the desire to ascend to the kingdom of God in encountering Christ, preparing for Christ who passes-through in order to come to dwell within us and in our house enter as salvation, that is, come under our roof in the Eucharist, the ongoing participation in the Paschal Mystery. And all this from a tree, a sycamore/fig tree by whose presence Luke indicates the ironic forthrightness and fidelity of Zacchaeus—you know what you’re getting without any pretense—who thus announces the day of the Lord and receives that salvation of rest beneath the abundant Tree of Life.

1 The Greek sycophant, literally a ‘shower of the figs,’ is one who perverts the system of justice or brings a false case for personal gain, which fits well within the Eden story and the cunning/naked/unveiled snake later identified as Satan, “the accuser of our brothers” of Revelation 12.

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