My husband and I embarked upon a Halloween adventure in Disneyworld this past week. This much anticipated gathering involved a large branch of our family tree –our three granddaughters, their parents and both sets of grandparents. Did you know that Halloween is the only day on which Disney villains are allowed to roam among the park’s patrons? All week long, our granddaughters made Grandpa and me aware of numerous important Disney details. As for me, I relished every minute of this precious time. As I watched our son and his wife ushering the girls this way and that, I saw glimpses of our own family tree growing… a much younger Grandpa carrying his first baby son; big brother and little brother playing in our sandbox; my delight the first time I heard “Mama” addressed to me. I thought of my own parents, too. This branch of our family tree usually resembled a circus thanks to their six children.
My extended family tree includes a variety of beloved souls. Though my loved ones have made a far more important impact upon me than they can possibly know, they also join me in bearing the sometimes troublesome burden of being fully human. This characteristic takes form in both our creative and mundane imperfections. Family members who have passed away and those still with us never cease to amuse and amaze me with the creative ways in which they respond to their shortcomings. They have taught me how to make the most of who I am, imperfections and all. Perhaps this is the reason I empathize with Zacchaeus today.
Luke’s gospel (Luke 19:1-10) tells us that, as Jesus passed through Jericho, Zacchaeus, a tax collector and wealthy man, heard that Jesus approached and wanted to meet him. Unfortunately, Zacchaeus’s short stature prevented him from seeing over the heads of those who gathered along the way. Rather than miss this opportunity, Zacchaeus ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree beside the path where Jesus walked. The people already viewed Zacchaeus with contempt because he cooperated with their Roman oppressors by gathering Rome’s taxes. Zacchaeus had long since disregarded what others thought of him, so he thought nothing of making a spectacle of himself as he sat on the limb of that tree. His only concern was to catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passed by.
Much to his good fortune, Zacchaeus received far more than he hoped for. When Jesus arrived at the foot of that tree, he called up, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” As the ecstatic Zacchaeus made his way down, the crowd grumbled. Jesus had requested the hospitality of a sinner and not just any sinner. Tax collectors gouged the people to make their own profit, and Zacchaeus’s wealth corroborated his guilt. Still, Zacchaeus recognized the possibility before him and responded to Jesus immediately. When they dined together that evening, Zacchaeus was so moved by this encounter that he promised Jesus he would give away one half of his wealth to the poor and he would return everything he had extorted fourfold.
It seems to me that Zacchaeus recognized that being short in stature was the least of his burdens. The lifestyle he had assumed at the expense of his neighbors was far more detrimental to his soul. So it was that Zacchaeus made the best of his shortcomings by using his ill-acquired wealth to turn his life around. This effort touched Jesus who proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.” When Jesus called Zacchaeus a descendent of Abraham, Jesus acknowledged to everyone that Zacchaeus had as much right to God’s mercy and love as they did. Yes, Zacchaeus, too, occupied a limb on God’s family tree.
I am drawn to Zacchaeus because he was as truly human as those who inhabit our family trees. Jesus’ willingness to dine with Zacchaeus reminds me that Jesus wishes to keep company with the rest of us as well. We can catch Jesus’ attention, perhaps not by climbing a tree, but through our own creative efforts to turn our lives around. As he did for Zacchaeus, Jesus proclaims that you and I also have places on God’s family tree. You and I are also the much desired objects of God’s mercy and God’s love.
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