When I was in college I made a tree house with some roommates that was about 45 feet up in an old oak tree. It was the kind of tree house that every little boy dreams of: something out of Swiss Family Robinson. We used rock-climbing equipment to rappel down to the ground below. Rope railings, a deck up in the canopy that was large enough to sleep 3 grown men.
It happened to be in a woods that was on campus property… and one day campus security found it, and that evening one of the security guards we were friends with came by to let us know that although for liability reasons he obviously could not ask us to take the tree house down, we would be able to avoid paying the cost of having professional foresters come in to remove it if it “had never existed.” The next day was a sad one.
Now, certainly there was risk associated with the tree house… especially given that it was on a college campus and who knows who could have tried to climb that some evening when they weren’t in their right mind or something…
But I had to think that of all the things that we could have been doing on Saturday afternoons – when so many of our classmates were out doing things that are not appropriate to mention from the pulpit – a tree house was a remarkably healthy diversion. It looked dangerous, and there certainly was risk involved. But there were so many other “harmless” activities, so many other “innocent” pastimes that I saw ruin the lives of people around me. The risk of the tree was visible, it was out in the open for all to see. But the risks that often really hurt people were those that were taken in dark rooms when no one was looking.
I bring this up because of this principle: often the things that seem most benign are the things that hurt us, and the things that sometimes seem most risky are actually quite safe. Driving is much more dangerous than flying. We are much more likely to get seriously hurt by tripping and falling down steps than by falling from some great height. And I could go on. We are often driven by irrational fears – we don’t have an accurate understanding of what will do us harm.
The Gospel today relates what must have seemed like a serious of risky maneuvers.
Zacchaeus climbs a tree. Now that was perhaps a slight physical risk to his health. But certainly it was a much greater risk to his reputation and credibility – there is no doubting that. How many grown adults climb trees? I wish more did, but they don’t. For some reason it is not socially acceptable. I would go so far as to say that it would be frowned upon. “What is wrong with that guy – he is 40 years old and still climbing trees!”
So Zacchaeus took more than his life in his hands: he took his reputation in his hands when he climbed that tree.
And then Christ took a risk: he invited himself over for dinner at this guy’s house. “He has gone to stay in the house of a sinner.” Christ knew they were going to say that. He had no guarantee that things would work out as well as they did, that Zacchaeus was going to change his ways – maybe he would turn out to be an egotistical eccentric, maybe he just wanted to use Jesus to make a name for himself, maybe his house would be filled with a pack of Herods trying to bribe him into doing some miracle or other for them.
This is one weekend where we know that lawyers did not write the Gospel. No way. No one would have climbed any trees or gone into the houses of strangers without hold harmless agreements and legal counsel. This Gospel has risk written all over it. But at the end of the passage, what does Christ say? “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Salvation is risky business. It is a matter of tree climbing – and not just nice gentle sycamores either. Sometimes it is a matter of being nailed to rough and unforgiving trees.
Salvation is not something you can figure out with actuarial tables. The probability that Christ would rise from the dead was 1 in infinity times infinity and then some. The probability that Zacchaeus would be converted along with his household because of his interaction with Christ? You can’t plug that in to a set of variables and come up with a cost-benefit analysis. The outcome cannot be secure or guaranteed because it is a matter of God’s grace and human freedom – and neither can be predicted with any accuracy.
Following Christ is not a matter of trying to figure out what will be safe, what will avoid risk. We cannot be motivated by fear or a desire for security. Following Christ is risky. There are no guarantees. Why? Because we are not in control. We cannot guarantee anyone’s salvation. Christ alone can save. Our first reading makes this so clear: “Before the Lord the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.” God is in control, not us. And as much as we might like to be able to describe and predict everything that happens in this world, we cannot. If we try – if we refuse to believe, to act until we are sure of the results, until all is secure, the irony is that we risk everything.
Like Zacchaeus, we must let a certain humble abandonment characterize our faith. A willingness to do what is right, to seek after God, to follow Christ, even when the actuarial tables are inconclusive, even when nothing is guaranteed. All the possible outcomes, all the what ifs, the coulds and shoulds and woulds… sometimes these are the tools that the evil one uses to keep us stuck. At a certain point we must act. Christ is walking by. Our time here is short. Are we going to climb the tree or not?