LESSONS FROM THE CROWD AND THE SYCAMORE TREE. HOMILY FOR THE 31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (YEAR C). Rev. Fr. Boniface Nkem Anusiem Ph.D.

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Have you ever encountered an overwhelming crowd? I mean a full crowd of people that could make movement very challenging. For individuals who are claustrophobic, being in a crowd can be devastating. Such an overwhelming and overpowering crowd was present on the streets of Rio De Janeiro on July 26, 2013, when Pope Francis visited Brazil during the world Youth Day celebration.

As the Pope rides through the street, he gets cheering accolades from the huge crowd. Meanwhile in the crowd, a nine years old boy, Nathan De Brito struggles to catch a glimpse of the Pope.He has to contend with so many “big people” in the crowd, but he did not give up because he didn’t see that as an option either. He weathers the odds and gets to a platform that gives him a better view of the historic event, but that was not the end of the story.

As the Popemobile approaches and cheers rent the air, our little friend made up his mind to break through the crowd and meet the Pope one-on-one! That is not going to be an easy one boy! With all the security and hurdles? Hell no! But Guess? He made it. He beat the security and from a vantage point he jumps onto the Pope who in turn catches him mid air. Clinging unto the Roman Pontiff with a passionate grip he tearfully tells him that he desires to be a priest of Christ, a representative of Christ. The Pope couldn’t stop tearing up. In response he tells Nathan he would pray for him and further says to him: “As for today, your vocation is set!”

Today, we are reflecting on a very familiar biblical story; the story of Zacchaeus and our Lord Jesus Christ. If we pay attention to the narrative very well, we can see some relationship it has with our opening story.Both Zacchaeus and Nathan have barriers on their way to their targets, and that is the crowd. Furthermore, both of them did not give up as they use various methods to get to their respective goals and both of them succeed in the long run. It is also important to note that their respective stories end well with uplifting statements. For Zacchaeus: “TODAY salvation has come to this house” and for Nathan “As for TODAY your vocation is set.”

Let us do a committed study and reflection on the Gospel Reading today (Luke 19:1-10). The narrative tells us that our Lord Jesus Christ continues to head to Jerusalem; this journey started from the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Luke.A considerably large crowd accompanies our Lord as he passes through the lively city of Jericho. Suddenly, a wealthy chief tax collector named Zacchaeus (“clean” or “pure” in Hebrew) emerges from his office. He notices the cheering crowd surrounding a figure he did not see very well because of his height. He becomes curious and instantly makes a decision to go closer and see him. It is possible that Zacchaeus have heard so much about our Lord Jesus Christ whose fame was spreading at that time. He could also have heard that one of his colleagues, Levi by name (Matt.9:9-13) had left their lucrative business to join the famous teacher. Zacchaeus earnestly wanted to get a real glimpse to feed his curiosity.

Zacchaeus steps out to see but the more he tries to see the more frustrated he becomes because of his height, and the overwhelming crowd. Like Nathan in our opening story, he refuses to give up and goes ahead to do something that takes the narrative to another level; namely, running ahead of the crowd and climbing to a Sycamore tree. Sycamore trees are known to be squatty in shape, easy to navigate and comfortable for sitting.

By climbing the Sycamore, Zacchaeus dropped his official status and position to catch a glimpse of our Lord. The act of climbing the Sycamore tree may appear childish, but in a sense, it is fitting as our Lord says that we have to become like little children to inherit the kingdom of God (Matt.18:3).

Arriving at the site of the Sycamore tree, our Lord Jesus Christ stops to have a life changing conversation with the occupant of the tree. Looking lovingly at Zacchaeus and admiring his unrelenting enthusiasm our Lord says to him:  “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” We can only imagine the overwhelming feeling of Zacchaeus. He was at the tree to see the passing Jesus, and the passing Jesus, in turn, comes searching for him, calls him by his name and goes further to invite himself to his house; this narrative is the only place our Lord took the initiative to ask for such a favor publicly.

Zacchaeus hurried down and brought our Lord Jesus Christ to his house. Our Lord could have gone to the house of  “righteous people” of the time including the Chief Priests, Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and others. Instead, he goes to the house of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector and presumably a chief sinner since tax collectors are sinners by the standard of the time.

The presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and his non-judging disposition brought transformation in the life of Zacchaeus. People were showing dissatisfaction about our Lord Jesus Christ’s decision to come to his house. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, accepts conversions and promises restitution for the financial damages he caused in the past. He further promises to divide his properties into two and give half to the poor. By these declarations, Zacchaeus becomes renewed, and he thus answered his name properly that is: “clean” or “pure.” By the words of his confessions and promises our Lord said: “today salvation has come to this house for this man too is a son of Abraham and the Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost!”

We shall, at this juncture, be looking at three important elements from this narrative as helpful guides for better application and understanding.

  • The Shortness of Zacchaeus

The description made it clear to us that Zacchaeus was a short man. His little height further made it impossible for him to see our Lord Jesus Christ in the midst of the crowd. Perhaps if he were of average height, he would have muscled it out with the other people in the crowd.

It is very instructive to note that Zacchaeus realized the nature of his predicament, accepted it and went ahead to do something about it.Often some of us live and perish in senseless denial of our overt ill situations, and we end up making more disastrous mistakes.

Beyond the physical, Zacchaeus was spiritually short just like all of us. We become short when we live and breed in sin. We become short when the glory of God is no longer with us and for us (Romans 3:23). In our shortness, we become disconnected from God, and He becomes very far from us (Isaiah 59:2).

If we pay attention to the narrative very well, we will discover after Zacchaeus came down from the tree, the issue of his height did not come up again. The conversation that followed in his house did not have the least indication about a short man. We have here a clear indication that Christ clears all forms of shortness from us and gives us a dependable spiritual height.God has a way of bringing out great things from little things. The prophet Zacharia says that we should not neglect little things nor despise the day of small things (Zech.4:10). The little cry of a baby could touch the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter (Ex.2:6).

  • The Crowd

In the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ, we often encounter various kinds of crowds. Often we hear about a great crowd following him in the Gospels.Most times a crowd is made up of an anonymous group without a defined direction. Sometimes a crowd could constitute a nuisance to some meaningful activities at other times the crowd could be a source of confusion or like in our context here, an obstacle. The woman with the issue of blood had to contend with the crowd (Luke 8:44). Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, also had a tough session with the crowd (Mark.10:46-52).

From the narrative, we learn that the crowd could not allow Zacchaeus to see Jesus Christ. But he did not give up! He refused to focus on the crowd but instead focused on seeing our Lord Jesus Christ. If we continue to pay attention to the crowd, we may run the risk of missing the mark. The crowd cannot lead you to God. The crowd will often discourage and even spite you.

Zacchaeus had to break our from the crowd to find meaning in life. He had to go ahead of the crowd to meet Christ. The crowd can be a disconcerting phenomenon, and we need to think outside and above the crowd. You cannot find salvation in the crowd but outside the crowd.

  • The Sycamore Tree

The Sycamore tree is essential in the entire narrative. In fact, without the Sycamore tree, the story would have ended with Zacchaeus getting frustrated and giving up. But the Sycamore tree brought the story to a grand ending. The Sycamore tree at the time of Jesus was a vital type of tree that served as shade and aesthetics. Here it represents a place of succor; in this context, we can call it a tree of faith, a tree of hope, a tree of divine assistance and a tree of salvation.

Climbing the Sycamore tree, Zacchaeus becomes taller than the crowd that previously blocked him. From the Sycamore tree, Zacchaeus could see Jesus Christ clearly, and Jesus could also see him and appreciate him. In fact, the Sycamore tree helps him to rise above the crowd as well as above all the obstacles on his way.

The Church is the new Sycamore tree with two principal branches namely the Word, and the Sacraments. From this tree, we can see and appreciate the beautiful words and saving works of Jesus Christ in the Word of God we hear. From this tree also our Lord Jesus Christ attends to us through the graces we receive from the Sacraments. The new Sycamore tree provides us with abundant saving graces. From the base, we receive the sacrament of initiation (baptism), and others follow accordingly.

The New Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus represents any thoughtful Christian that is on the journey of faith. You become an ideal Zacchaeus when you make a personal decision to go out from your comfort zone to encounter Jesus Christ. Ideally, most of us are dwarfs, (short men, and women), not physically but spiritually. Our spiritual dwarfism renders us incapable of seeing and encountering Christ personally and away from the crowd. Our dwarfism makes us helpless before the crowd.

As the new Zacchaeus’ there is a need for us to break away from our comfort zones and the crowd and run to the new Sycamore tree for a personal encounter with  Christ without whom our lives will turn into a crisis.You might be thinking that the crowd will not let you, you rather should believe like Nathan and Zacchaeus, that the crowd will not hinder you.You can indeed stand out of the crowd and turn the barrier into a banner of success. Moreso, our Lord Jesus Christ can stop his journey because of you, because you are also a child of faith; a descendant of Abraham. And when he passes through your life short things will begin to grow tall.

Have a beautiful Sunday and a great week ahead.

Fr. Bonnie.

2 Comments on “LESSONS FROM THE CROWD AND THE SYCAMORE TREE. HOMILY FOR THE 31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (YEAR C). Rev. Fr. Boniface Nkem Anusiem Ph.D.

  1. Bonnie, thanks for the reflection. It is revealing, educative, and inspiring. I appreciate the interpretation.

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