The importance of sycamore trees
Before I became a Catholic, reading and reflecting on Scripture, hearing the Word expounded, meeting with other Christians for prayer and praise, and praying on my own, were all important things I did in the practice of my faith. And when I did became a Catholic they remained just as important to me, although I also began to appreciate the reality of the Mass much more than I had before. I encountered some more things people did, such as the Stations of the Cross, saying the rosary, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, honouring Our Lady and the Saints and asking them to pray for us, and going to places like Lourdes. I now understand some of these practices more than I did and am much the better for doing so. The others I may come to understand more fully one day in the future when the Spirit leads me in that direction. But I see them all as part a fascinating spiritual landscape to be explored. A corporate distillation of 2000 years of shared spiritual reflection
But how many hours a day should I spend in prayer, or in reading the Scripture or in saying the Office, and how often should I say the rosary or go to Mass during the week, and how much of my money and time should I give away to those in need? The answer could well be ‘a lot more than I do’ but, apart from the useful discipline of the Sunday obligation, it’s the S word – the should word that often indicates that the cart is before the horse and that there is a major loss of the plot. St Paul (1 Corinthians13:3) went as far as saying ‘and even if I give up my body to be burned – if I am without love, it will do me no good whatever’. What St Paul (and, indeed, St Thérèse of Lisieux) meant by ‘love’ was inseparable from an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Originally the word ‘charity’ meant this kind of love (derived from the Latin caritas), but somehow the ‘should’ type of do-gooding gave birth to the unpleasant expression ‘as cold as charity’.
Zacchaeus (Luke chapter 19) was a rich man but his riches did not win him any friends. His neighbours hated him as a tax-collector and a collaborator with the Roman army of occupation, and they suspected him of ripping them off. When Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was coming, the crowd would not let him get through to the roadside as Jesus came along. Being, like me, vertically challenged, he couldn’t see what was going on. But Zacchaeus had one quality that was to prove the gateway to life. He knew that he wanted to see Jesus very much indeed. He was so determined that he single-mindedly climbed a tree*, perhaps spoiling his expensive clothes in the process and causing some loss of dignity. But he wanted to see Jesus more than anything else. And not only did he see Jesus but Jesus looked up and saw him. And Jesus honoured him beyond his wildest dreams – he chose to come eat with him in his house. Here was totally undeserved and freely-given grace that filled him with joy. We are not told whether Jesus told him that he should clean up his act or even ‘should’ give up being a tax-collector. But when so much love is freely given there isn’t any ‘should’ about it. Zacchaeus reacted to the grace offered by Jesus by repenting and wanting to make amends to anyone he had defrauded by misuse of his office.
Religious practices are good sycamore trees if they help us to see Jesus and to reach out to him. If we let them become ends in themselves they are sycamore trees on the wrong road into Jericho. But if we let the living Holy Spirit lead us to the ways of organising our spiritual life according to where we are at the moment on our faith journey, the Lord will be spending more time at our house.
*The sycamore of the Bible is not the familiar Acer pseudoplatanus, (a kind of maple) that is so common in Britain but the Sycamore Fig , Ficus sycamorus . The tree Zacchaeus climbed would be much smaller than the ones around Wuthering Heights!