Climb – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Luke 19:1-10, 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ah, Zacchaeus, one of my favorites. I wonder why (!) You should hear the Gospel in Tagalog. “Pumasok si Jesus sa Jerico…May isang tao roong ang pangalan ay Zaqueo, pinuno ng mga maniningil ng buwis at napakayaman. Sinisikap niyang makita si Jesus, ngunit sa dami ng tao, hindi niya ito makita dahil sa siya’y pandak.” How brutal ‘no?

That sycamore Zacchaeus was on, that must have been only one of the many things he had had to climb so he could to get to be where he wanted to be, what he wanted to be. But Zacchaeus was already a full-fledged, card-bearing, dignified Jew. He was healthy; no illness or debilitating deformity. He was smart; he certainly knew his percentages. He was Jewish, albeit working for the Romans. And he was male. So he had quite enough going for him. But, as life would have it, he didn’t turn heads because he was healthy, smart, a Jew, or male—but because he was pandak. And a tax collector at that. “How worse could a man get?” people must’ve snorted. “Pandak na nga, buwaya pa!” But much deeper still, Zacchaeus must’ve always had to climb the hard way to get to where he was now, to climb many such “sycamore trees” so he could be head and shoulders above the rest in some desperate way; above the mocking, prejudicial lot of them! For he must have always come up short and diminished and made to feel like “damaged goods.”

Ah, but the best “sycamore tree” Zacchaeus had thus far climbed was being tax collector for Rome. And excuse me, chief tax collector; really up there, rich, powerful. You could almost hear him say, “Sure, go ahead, mock me for being short, for being a systematic thief, a traitor to the nation, sleeper with the enemy, bloodsucker extraordinaire. But whom do you run to now when you need a swift capital? Who ransoms you from your despicable arrears? Who funds your pathetic shortfalls and saves your lousy necks?” His existential sycamore couldn’t grow high enough to counterweigh the depth of damage he harbored in life. No one could make him get back down now.

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And one day, Jesus walks into his life, or from under him for that matter. After the Lord must have spoken to a faceless, nameless crowd, and was on his way again, he cares enough to stop, raise eyes and face to this little monkey and calls him by name! “Hey, Zacchaeus,” which in Hebrew, means pure, innocent, unblemished; can you imagine? “Come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Not just “eat” at his house today, not just “drop by” his house today. Stay. Which should come as no surprise to us, brothers and sisters, because whenever Jesus demonstrates the quality of God’s forgiveness—quantity is quality! Divine forgiveness is scandalously extravagant. “I’m staying at your house today, your home. Bring us there, where you are truly yourself, where you are loved and not judged, where you truly are a ‘Zacchaeus’ in the eyes of those who love you.”

Dear sisters and brothers, like Zaccheus, we are all somehow “damaged goods,” too. Almost all of us bear deep scars from the injury that’s been dealt us, especially while we were growing up. At some point, we felt short-changed. We were short on the love of people who were supposed to protect and love us. As we grew up, we were short on respect because people seemed to look at what we lack instead of what we could offer. We weren’t talented enough, weren’t beautiful enough, weren’t wealthy enough. We grew older still, we came up short on opportunities because people preferred some other guy and they did so with a different metric, but on that never measured from our head up. No wonder, when are the worst of ourselves, all this damage starts talking and taking over.

So, when we found our sycamores, we started climbing. Some of us started to think that people are mere branches upon which to leverage our dream-catching. So we grabbed at them and climbed all over them, including even our loved ones. In our desperate ascent, we became injurious. But we shrugged off our casualties as “collateral damage.” After all, we were someone’s collateral damage ourselves once upon a time.

The Lord never thinks we’re beyond repair, that we’re beyond forgiving. And incidentally, you never hear the Lord say, “You see my kingdom up in the heavens? Well, way up there is also my metric, my standards. Now, until you reach that kind of perfection, you will not reach me, nor me you. So, get busy. Work your way up there and only than shall I grace you.” (Believe it or not, to this day, there are religious congregations that still teach and live by that grandiloquent, counter-Incarnational theology. They think they’re building up God by putting humanity down.)

No. “Come down from the tree and meet me down here, where I am,” Jesus tells Zacchaeus. Funny, but do you notice that when Jesus calls someone to follow him, it’s the Lord who first follows the person back to where that person lives? He did this with Matthew too, another tax collector. “Come to me,” Jesus always says, which really means, “Let me come with you. Let’s walk to your home where you cannot pretend, where you don’t have to. Let’s walk home where you can tell me how you feel life has short-changed all these years—so I could restore to you everything about yourself that you’ve sold out, just to feel that you’re not a nobody.”

Dear sisters and brothers, it’s not that we don’t like to climb back down from our sycamores; I don’t think so. Maybe we just don’t know how to do it anymore. We’re not even sure if it’s safe down on the ground where we perceive life has sold us short and caught us flatfooted after all. But see, sisters and brothers, our God is and has always been the God of descents. He begins his work of salvation by coming down to us, meeting us where we are, where bare feet press upon bare ground, where, in fact, God loves us for who we are and from there, transforms us towards salvation.

At the end of that happy day, Zaccheus welcomes Salvation come down to his home. Jesus, the tall and mighty sycamore, is what he has been searching to embrace all his life. Now, he is borne safe and high upon his branches!

Help us come down and come home to you, Lord, so you can lift us up and back to God.

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