Abbot Brendan Coffey OSB
For most of us, Jericho is synonymous with the collapse of its famous walls – with trumpet blast and a great shout the walls came crashing down. But did you know that Jericho is very possibly the oldest city on earth? It is certainly the lowest city on earth, 846ft below sea level. Zacchaeus lived in this city of Jericho and this is the scene for our Gospel.
Before Jesus headed up to Jerusalem, 2,474ft above sea level, he turned towards the lowest place on earth, Jericho, and it was there, in the depths, that he found our friend Zacchaeus. He literally descended as far as it is possible to descend on earth to find him. As our First Reading from the Book of Wisdom tells us, “you are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent… you correct little by little those who trespass, and you remind and warn them of the things through which they sin, so that they may be freed from wickedness and put their trust in you, O Lord.”
Jericho was known as the ‘city of the palms’, because of the abundance of palm trees in the region and yet Zacchaeus ended up climbing a sycamore tree. This should not be confused with our European sycamore trees. Zacchaeus’ tree is a species of fig, a sycamore fig. Adam and Eve used the leaves of the fig tree to clothe their shame after the fall. Zacchaeus is clothed in this sycamore fig as he tries to catch a glimpse of Jesus. The sight is rather comical; this highly respected chief tax collector, somewhat vertically challenged, runs ahead of the crowd and gets himself, somehow, up into a sycamore fig from where he can see Jesus as he passes. He must have looked pretty ridiculous.
Zacchaeus was a local celebrity, he was rich, important, the chief tax collector no less. He was, we can assume, none too popular with his neighbours as a result. Then the unthinkable happens, Jesus speaks directly to Zacchaeus. He even calls him by name. Down he comes, probably with a thump, and the Gospel tells us that Zacchaeus was happy to welcome Jesus into his house. This is his salvation, the supreme moment in his life and everything changes.
From this, the lowest place on earth, Zacchaeus is raised up. But his neighbours are not one bit happy – they grumble. Perhaps they are jealous. Why is Jesus wasting his time with Zacchaeus of all people? However, that day Zacchaeus stood tall, perhaps for the very first time in his life, and the walls of Jericho fell a second time. He promises to make restitution for any wrong he has done and more, four times more! This is real conversion, not just words, actions as well.
Where is my Jericho? What lurks in the lowest part of my life? Where is my sycamore fig, the tree of shame, so I can climb it and be recognised by the Lord, called by name, my name! How do I bring down the walls of Jericho that surround my heart and mind? Opening my heart to conversion, generosity, restitution and right living. Opening my mind to understanding, justice, and right judgment. Seeing the world as it really is. Standing tall and speaking the truth in love.
Zacchaeus has a lot to teach us about real conversion, about courage, about standing up and speaking out at the right time. What would Zacchaeus say today if he lived in our world with its injustices, wars and brokenness? His words should be on my lips if I am to convert as he did, be happy to welcome the Lord into my house and bring crashing down the walls of Jericho.