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The path we must take

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This Gospel records the conversion of the tax collector Zacchaeus from a life of treacherous fraud to a life of humble and generous poverty with Christ. This is a powerful episode, giving hope to any sinner that they, through meeting the Lord, have the opportunity for change and salvation. If Zacchaeus, who betrayed his own flesh and blood for personal gain, collaborating with foreign authority to extort his countrymen, can leave behind the world of idolatry for love of God, then surely anyone, by God’s grace, can turn from vice to a life of virtue.

As with all Scripture, we learn more than just the morale of the historical event. Each passage of the Gospels contains allegorical meaning that offers significance beyond the literal sense.

The ancient Christians would describe the deeper meaning of this episode according to symbols. Jericho, deep in the valley near the Dead Sea and a historically pagan town, served as the symbol of a life without God, far beneath Jerusalem, which was God’s holy city and the image of his kingdom. The crowd between Zacchaeus and Jesus represented the tax collector’s many sins, blocking his way to the Lord. This was the same crowd that just a few verses before also tried to silence the blind man as he cried out to Christ.

The most important symbol, however, was the sycamore tree. Preachers and commentators made much of the fact that among the Romans, the sycamore was often called the “foolish fig tree,” and so connected it with the cross of Jesus, following St. Paul who wrote: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews, and folly to the Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). Thus, that tall tree by which Zacchaeus rises over the crowd to finally see the Lord face to face is the cross of Christ. 

With these symbols in hand, we may read the passage of Zacchaeus’ conversion this way: Zacchaeus is a soul in a state of sin. It is small and weak, trapped in the midst of a crowd of vices in the middle of Jericho, the city far from God. Christ comes to visit this soul, even though it is far from the kingdom of the Lord. He seeks it out, even though it is hidden. The soul, crowded out by sin and the voices accusing it of everything it has done, cannot see the Lord, despite the fact that he has come close. It needs some way to rise up over the crowd, but cannot do so under its own strength. It must climb the tree of the cross, and by clinging to the Lord’s passion, finally catch sight of the savior. When the soul, now freed from sin by the power of the cross, meets the Lord, it throws away everything else with joy in order to invite him into its home.

This is, of course, the path that we too must take. If we wish to rise above sin and indifference in our own lives, and so see the Lord, we also have to cling to the cross, whether through receiving its power in the sacraments, particularly confession, or through meditating on the Passion as a source of strength and consolation. Every time we do this, we climb the tree the Lord has given us, and if we persevere in holding fast to his help, even our little souls can reach the heights of salvation.

Fr. Rampino is chaplain at Marymount University in Arlington.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019