“Down From the Tree Branches”Dr. Ben Wagener Luke 19:1–10 Year C: Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
Born in Sweden in 1833, Alfred Bernhard Nobel became a brilliant chemist and inventor. In 1867 he invented a new explosive by incorporating the unstable nitroglycerin into an absorbent inert substance, rendering it safer and more convenient to handle. He called this new mixture “dynamite,” drawing on the Greek word for “power.” This new substance was used extensively in mining and building, as well as in weapons.
When in 1888 his brother Ludvig died, several newspapers published obituaries of Alfred in error. Nobel shuddered as he read the headline in his morning paper, “Alfred Nobel Dead,” with a subtitle “Dynamite King Dies.” Other descriptions targeted him as “the Merchant of Death” and “Inventor of Destruction.” Nobel was severely shaken, imagining that he was likely to be remembered as the cause of death through explosives.
Determined to leave a different kind of legacy, Nobel pondered what kind of radical transformation it would take to be remembered for a life-affirming action. After much thought, he signed his last will and testament designating the bulk of his fortune to establish five Nobel Prizes honoring those who “confer the greatest benefit on mankind” in five areas: chemistry, literature, peace, physics, and physiology or medicine. After Nobel died in 1896, these prizes were first awarded in 1901.
In its 118-year history, the Nobel Prizes have brought worldwide recognition to men and women from 75 different countries, but perhaps none has captured our imagination to the extent that the Nobel Peace Prize has—the very antithesis of the destructive work for which Alfred Nobel was known during his lifetime. Recipients have ranged from American presidents to international organizations such as UNICEF to young Middle Eastern women such as Malala Yousafzai and Nadia Murad.
Incentive to change
You and I are not likely to experience seeing a premature negative obituary of ourselves in the media, so what might prompt us to make a transforming new start in the face of simple inertia or possibly difficult consequences? We can learn from the experience of a man in Jesus’ time who was also living with a negative reputation: Zacchaeus.
This man’s story appears only in the Gospel of Luke. Sometimes called the “City of Palms,” Jericho was the site of one of the earliest continuous settlements in the world, in a very fertile land fed by perennial springs. In this significant city, Zacchaeus was head of the local taxation department and was involved in contracts with Roman businesses. Tax collectors worked directly for the Roman occupation and were allowed to collect extra sums from their countrymen to line their own pockets; thus, they were detested by the Jewish citizens as traitors.
So far, the system had worked for Zacchaeus’s personal benefit. He was at the pinnacle of his profession and he had become very rich. Why would he want to change? We can make some guesses.
Imagine living in a city where all your neighbors despise you for your work. Zacchaeus was probably very lonely, with almost no social life except for contacts with fellow tax collectors. Perhaps his conscience was nagging at him for the impact his greed was having on his own people. Or maybe he had heard about Jesus’s influence on a fellow tax collector named Levi (Luke 5:27–31).
We usually don’t change our attitudes and habits unless we are unhappy with the way things are, or we are hurting sufficiently, or we have looked in the mirror as did Alfred Nobel and wondered what negative impact our life is having on others. Sometimes, just at the point when we feel we can’t go on as is, we meet someone who can challenge us to make a fresh start.
Jesus’s call for change
Zacchaeus had heard Jesus was coming and was motivated to see him. Given his diminutive stature, Zacchaeus could not see over the crowd—who probably did not mind turning their backs on him anyway. So he got creative. He ran ahead of the crowd and climbed a sycamore tree (actually a sycamore-fig), where he had a better view of Jesus but would probably have been hidden from his neighbors. Luke doesn’t say he wanted to be noticed by Jesus, just that he wanted to see who he was.
Don’t we sometimes place ourselves strategically before an event? Maybe it’s a parade route, a big concert, or a celebrity golf tournament. We scope out the best location, arrive early, and wait.
So, Zacchaeus placed himself in this tree, watched, and waited to see what would happen as the throng approached. When Jesus approached the tree, he saw the tax collector up in the branches and must have realized how strongly Zacchaeus wanted to see him, risking his dignity by climbing above the crowd. Jesus shocked everyone—the crowd and Zacchaeus alike—by calling out: “Hey, Zacchaeus, come down and let’s do lunch at your house! Hurry!”
The nearby listeners were not happy that Jesus had chosen to invite himself to the “home of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus didn’t hesitate. He could have said “No thanks” and stayed up in the tree, but he was evidently ready for a new beginning.
Can we see ourselves in some way like Zacchaeus? What kind of courage would it take for us to let go of whatever branches are propping us up, whether they are destructive personal habits or addictions to positions of privilege, prestige, pride, and power?
One of my favorite high school teachers called me down many years ago. As a sophomore at Daniel High School in Clemson, S.C., I wanted to keep my grade-point average high enough to stay in the honor society known as the Beta Club. I knew that one day I would need good grades to get into a college of my choice.
But then I faced a very tough test in Algebra II. Our teacher, Mrs. Reddall, had given us the types of questions that would be on the test ahead of time. During the test, I sat next to the window where I was not easily seen, and I secretly referred to some copied notes from under my desk to complete the exam.
That night I struggled with myself. Who would know what I had done? I had not cheated before. However, who was I to take advantage of my notes? What if others like me cheated to get by, then what damage could be done in a career? I began to feel guilty.
So, later that week after everyone else had left her class, I went up to Mrs. Reddall’s desk and said sheepishly, “I want you to know I cheated on your last test.” Looking up through her glasses, she simply grinned and replied, “Well, Ben, you made one of the worst grades in the class.” I immediately froze, expecting a scolding or even a suspension. But, with a wave of her hand, she continued, “Go, and sin no more.” And I never cheated on another test. Mrs. Reddall gave me a fresh start when she called me to come down from my tree of cheating. “I believe in you” was the message I heard and felt.
Answering the call for a fresh start
Jesus is always seeking us wherever we hide in our trees of refuge: “Come down, Ben, Susan, Miguel, Denisha, and let’s see how we can start afresh.”
Coming down for you and me may be finally coming to terms with an addiction to work, pursuing it to maintain a wealthy and prestigious lifestyle but avoiding intimacy with family. It might be that your temptation is the overuse of your cell phone, video games, Facebook, or Instagram as a substitute for face-to-face relationships. Or your temptation might be to hoard your financial resources for yourself and your family, rather than opening your hands to share generously with others in need.
Is it not time to come down to the One who comes to seek and rescue the “lost”—those of us who have lost control of our declining health, poor decisions, and broken relationships?
Beyond our personal and private addictions, Jesus also calls us to confront our harmful public and economic practices. I believe, for example, that Jesus calls us to come down from our indifference about what is happening on our country’s southern border, to stand up for thousands of helpless would-be immigrants in the face of current national policies that are needlessly cruel and foster unspeakable, inhumane conditions—where children and teens experience malnutrition, dehydration, lack of medical care, sexual abuse, and psychological trauma.
Beyond our own country, I believe that Jesus calls us to take action to sustain our planet from the ongoing destructive effects of global warming that is due to human choices. You can name your own private and public inadequate and sinful habits. Both our personal and corporate misuse of time and privilege need painful repentance to bear fruit for health and wholeness.
For Zacchaeus, the major issue was the misuse of his position to accumulate wealth. Yet once Jesus called him by name and invited him into a personal relationship, he decided to make a new start. None of his neighbors would have expected that, and probably Zacchaeus“Down From the Tree Branches” surprised himself! Out of his wealth he determined to give one-half to the poor, and he went far beyond the requirements of restitution to those he had defrauded. The generous and unexpected grace of Jesus prompted a transformation in Zacchaeus’ life that would affect everyone around him.
Jesus must have been very pleased when he responded to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” The fresh start of one man influenced his entire household, which would have included his wife, children, and servants, not to mention the citizens of Jericho who had dealings with him as the chief tax collector.
Who might we influence as we experience the grace of Jesus and began to live out transforming and grace-giving practices? In the area of our resources alone, Jesus challenges us to be good and generous stewards as a sign of whom we worship. I believe giving regularly and sacrificially through the ministries of our churches—and beyond them to other causes that bring justice—is not an option. Isn’t it time to come down from our branch of giving just our “leftovers”?
For the Human One came to seek out and to transform the lostness in us. Salvation is not a once-and-for-all thing, but a lifelong process of making new beginnings. Are you ready for a fresh start, or are you still clinging to branches of refuge that resist the call of Jesus to come down and start again?
Let us join Zacchaeus and let go of our branches of false security. Let us sit at the table with Jesus and abandon ourselves to him, because he loves us and calls us to be transformed.
About the author: In 50 years of ministry, Dr. Ben Wagener has served pastorates in Kentucky and Virginia, including eight years as founding pastor of a covenant church in Richmond, Va., modeled on the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. His most recent full-time position was 12 years as pastor for spiritual formation at the Vienna Baptist Church in Vienna, Va. Recently he “flunked retirement” after moving to Winston-Salem, N.C., when Knollwood Baptist Church called him as part-time minister of welcome and engagement, to work with visitors and new members.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ben grew up in Clemson, S.C. He holds degrees from Furman University (B.A., history), Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Princeton Theological Seminary (D.Min.), and is a certified life coach. He is married to Dorothy, a retired nonprofit magazine editor and church communications specialist, and together they have a son, daughter, and son-in-law. For relaxation, Ben is both active—doubles tennis, senior softball, and golf—and reflective, participating in an Anam Cara (“soul friend”) group and a dream group.
Scripture and Music:
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
For All the Saints
Faith of Our Fathers
How Firm A Foundation
My Hope Is Built
Be Thou My Vision
Be Still My Soul
When We All Get to Heaven
Shall We Gather at the River
When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder
Psalm 84 (Cantique de Jean Racine) Faure
How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place (Brahms)
Souls of the Righteous (T.Tertius Noble)
Sing Me to Heaven (Gawthrop)
Ride the Chariot (William Smith)
Be Thou My Vision
Pie Jesu (Faure, Webber, or Rutter)
Agnus Dei ( Bizet)
Shall We Gather at the River (Copland)
On Eagles Wings (Joncas)