That’s a line from the (frankly awesome) 99% Invisible, a podcast about design’s hidden stories. It appeals to me because I love stumbling across obscure historical markers, quiet monuments to near forgotten episodes of our past. A good plaque makes you see the world differently.
If the tree climbed by Zacchaeus was still around, it would deserve a plaque. Because although this encounter between Jesus and a corrupt tax collector is easily in the Sunday School Top Ten, that tree is hiding in plain sight.
There’s no obvious reason for Luke to point out the kind of tree Zacchaeus climbed to get a better view of the Messiah, but he mentions it all the same – a sycamore-fig tree. We tend to just assume this is a nice bit of description.
What if it isn’t?
It’s the word ‘fig’ that sets off alarm bells, because fig trees are a biblical metaphor for the people of God. Looking at the story through that lens starts to put a different slant on things, because Zacchaeus absolutely, positively, is not seen by the crowds as a man of God. Far from it – he’s a traitor, a thief, and when Jesus invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s place, the locals don’t like it. A famous teacher hanging out with a sinner? What a disappointment.
But Zacchaeus emerges from the fig tree both literally and symbolically. One meal with Jesus and he repents of his past crimes – “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”, he cries, and that’s important because suddenly the fig tree is bearing the fruit it’s supposed to – Zacchaeus is now obeying rules laid down in Exodus and 2 Samuel. It’s probably safe to assume that this put a dent in the little guy’s bank balance. Jesus affirms this, telling everyone that, despite his colourful past, Zacchaeus is also a “Son of Abraham”. He’s part of the fig tree too, and Jesus’s role is to restore people like that.
But the context gives an edge to Jesus’s words, because the money issues, the fidelity to the Law, remind us of another episode that happened not long before this. Jesus encounters a rich young ruler, who wants to know how to inherit eternal life. He makes a big show about how he’s kept the Law all his life, but when Jesus tells him to give away all his riches, the guy just can’t do it. The disciples are shocked, because here was someone who should have been getting the executive limo to the pearly gates; instead it appears that the rich young ruler was further from God than the swindling cheat who’s just given away most of his fortune.
Zacchaeus’s tree pointed to his identity, but the choices and attitudes on display here are still relevant. The broken, the lost, the sick, the venal are pursued by God and restored to his Kingdom – their lives can be changed, their souls can be healed, Jesus and his mission of resurrection leaving new life wherever he goes.
But the moment you find your security in a rulebook, the second you get comfortable in your own righteousness, beware – it doesn’t matter how many laws you keep, or which tree you fell out of, the important thing is what’s in your heart.
Do we turn our backs on Jesus?
Or do we buy him dinner?