Ripe for the Plucking

I’m in San Antonio posting the website at an internet cafe after a weekend retreat at Camp Capers. Oh. I love San Antonio! I led my first retreat at Camp Capers in 1979 for the Women of the Diocese of West Texas – the prototype of the retreat I gave this weekend – for the Women of the Diocese of West Texas. Many old and new friends. And the hot Texas wind racing across the grasses and against my face reminds me of the Holy Spirit …

Anyway. Here’s a reflection on Sunday’s Gospel lesson:Luke 19:1-10   Proper 26, year c
text and meditations at

How did Zacchaeus come to be so very ripe for the picking? Imagine an epic 19th century Russian type story with labyrinthine twists and turns, complex sub-plots with convoluted relationships and coincidences, hints and clues and foreshadowings like a mystery novel. The protagonist’s very weaknesses will bring salvation to his soul. Finally, after this complicated set up, the rich man Zacchaeus wants to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Why? (Everything in the novel so far leads up to answering that question).

Because he is small of stature Zacchaeus can’t see over the crowd. Perhaps the crowd won’t let him look at the holy man for the same reason he’s barred from the synagogue. A son of Abraham gathering taxes for the Romans and profiting from this evil! So he runs ahead of the crowd and scrambles up a sycomore tree. Surely, in this novel, the sycomore carries some significant symbolism. We’re seen that sycomore before, or its fruit or bark or wood. Perhaps Zacchaeus made dirty deals while drinking thick black coffee in the shade of the tree. Perhaps, as a young man, the former tax collector recruited him there, or blackmailed his family so that Zacchaeus had no choice but to enter this most despised, compromised and compromising profession.

Detail, Jesus' Entry Into Jerusalem, Duccio, 1308-11

Jesus approaches, stops, looks up into the tree and calls up to our little anti-hero, “Zacchaeus! Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” From previous chapters we already know this house and household – the estranged but well adorned wife and unhappy grown children, slaves, hangers-on, despised and resentful tax-collectors working for their own despised boss. What kind of disrupting upheaval of ironies does the reader predict of such an encounter under that roof? Imagine the tension!

But wait… Zacchaeus hurries down the tree and “was happy to welcome him.” Well, the reader thinks, how many more pages are left? Will Zacchaeus turn this event to yet another profit?

The crowd grumbles. Everyone in Jericho owes money to the hated Zacchaeus – some lost everything they owned to his merciless lackeys. Others seethe with envy only because Zacchaeus cleverly exceeded their own capacities for ruthlessness. And Jesus! At this instant the celebrated prophet loses his credibility. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” And the worst of Jericho’s sinners at that! The once celebratory crowd begins to turn away.

But in this thrilling denouement, Zacchaeus faces Jesus, speaking to him alone, but in hearing of the other characters beneath the Sycomore tree. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Imagine the bureaucratic nightmare of false claims, accusations, old stories stirred up by cashing in on Zacchaeus’ radicalization. But as Jesus once said in Galilee, “let tomorrow’s problems take care of themselves.” Let’s eat.

So Jesus goes to the unhappy home of Zacchaeus. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Who knows? Maybe Zacchaeus disappears from Jericho the very next morning leaving the reconciling of debts to a well paid aide. At the end of the novel, some traveler to Jericho mentions that a short, clever man joined the disciples fifty days after that Passover, and he, too, appeared drunk with the Holy Spirit. An epilogue relates a final testimony, added to the martyrology of disciples: in some far country toward the ends of the earth, a devout Christian sang on his way to the gallows, hanged from a sycomore tree.

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