About Veronica Lawson
Veronica Lawson RSM PhD is an Australian Sister of Mercy and the first woman to be elected to the presidency of the Australian Catholic Biblical Association (1988-89). She is probably best known for her online Sunday gospel reflections which have a global circulation. Her recent publication, The Blessing of Mercy: Bible Perspectives and Ecological Challenges, has been widely acclaimed as a significant resource for the Jubilee Year of Mercy.
Source: The Australian Institute of Theological Education, 2019.
IN 2015, A little book came my way and proceeded to turn my world upside down. The author of that book was German forester Peter Wohlleben, its title The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World. I have long mourned the destruction of trees, local and global, including the threatened trees of the Amazon. I grew up loving, valuing and sometimes climbing the trees of the Macedon Ranges. I now live among the trees on the outskirts of Ballarat. Wohlleben’s book brought home to me how much I had still to learn about these precious gifts of life and love.
Luke’s story of the toll-collector Zacchaeus provides me with yet another opportunity to give thanks for the wonder of trees, their intrinsic beauty and the life they sustain. A sycamore tree is at the heart of this story. Once I would have thought of this tree simply as one of the props in the human story that unfolds, providing as it does the platform for a height challenged would-be disciple of Jesus to “see”. The human encounter with the holy is foregrounded in this story and is in no way to be discounted. But let us not relegate the tree to the status of prop. As I write this reflection, the Synod on the Amazon is underway in Rome and the tropical forests of northern Australia are threatened by fire. The planet cannot breathe without its trees. We might keep this in mind as we turn to the human elements in the story of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus is a wealthy man, a chief tax collector, possibly responsible for overseeing the activities of other tax collectors. He wants to see what Jesus is like and he lets nothing get in the way. He runs ahead and climbs the sycamore tree. Jesus looks up and tells him to come down quickly, “for I must stay at your house today.” Zacchaeus offers hospitality “joyfully”. Hospitality, joy, haste to respond to divine visitation: these are constant themes in Luke.
“All those who see” complain that Jesus chooses to stay with a sinner, no doubt considering themselves more worthy hosts for God’s prophet. There are clues in the text that Zacchaeus has already changed his ways, however. The future tense in translations (‘I will pay’) obscures this important element. He gives half his property to the destitute and, if he has cheated anyone, he pays them back four times the amount. Jesus looks at Zacchaeus and assures him that salvation has come to his house. He then acts to restore honour to Zacchaeus in the eyes of those who hold him and his kind in contempt. Zacchaeus is affirmed as a true descendant of his forbears in faith. Salvation for our house, our “common home”, will only come with comparable attention to what we have despoiled.
Luke 19:1-10 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Human One came to seek out and to save the lost.”