Zacchaeus, the Silly Tree, and the Meaning of Life

On the Readings for Sunday, October 30, 2016

• Wis 11:22-12:2
• Ps 145:1-2, 8-9, 10-11, 13, 14
• 2 Thes 1:11-2:2
• Lk 19:1-10

“That’s a good question. I’ve never really thought about it.”

The remark was made a number of years ago by a forty-year-old relative who had been asked, “What do you think is the meaning of life? Why are we here?” His honest answer shocked me. After all, he was an intelligent and well-educated man; surely he had pondered the mystery of his existence at some point in his life!

Sadly, some people do not. Or at least try not too. But most people, in some way or another, do ask the big questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Why do I exist? The author of the Book of Wisdom certainly pondered these questions. We don’t know his name, but he was apparently a well-educated Jewish author living in or around Alexandria, Egypt, between 50 to 180 years prior to the birth of Jesus. He tackled big issues, including exhorting fellow Jews to live holy lives, defending the existence of a just and all-powerful God, and denouncing the materialism, skepticism, and idolatry so prevalent among the pagans (and some Jews) of his day. He was educated in Greek thought and rhetoric, and he often used Hellenistic terms and ideas of defend his beliefs in a Creator, providence, and divine judgment. 

In today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom, the author emphasizes two seemingly disparate qualities of God: His omnipotence, or all-powerful nature, and His love for His creation. On one hand the Lord is so great that all of creation is but a fleck of dust or drop of water; on the other hand, He loves everything that He has fashioned and He upholds it all by His loving will. He is, the author writes, both Lord and “lover of souls.” 

The author then makes a point that appears several times in the Book of Wisdom: man’s disbelief in God is not a matter of intellectual weakness as much as it is a matter of moral failure. Man is a creature with a built-in need to worship someone or something. The rejection of God means the acceptance of false gods. Even those materialists who say there is no God or gods end up worshipping false idols of one sort or another, including power, science, money, or pleasure. Or even themselves.

In the face of a vast universe, what is man’s response to his own existence? The author of the Book of Wisdom says that humility, thanksgiving, and right living are the only reasonable responses to the mystery of life. Likewise, the Psalmist declares, “Let your works give you thanks, O Lord, and let your faithful ones bless you.” The story of the chief tax collector Zacchaeus and his encounter with Jesus, found only in Luke’s Gospel, touches on similar themes. 

Like the rich young ruler depicted a chapter prior (Lk 18:18-23), Zacchaeus is rich and powerful. But as a tax collector, who practiced a profession known for corruption and injustice, it would have been difficult for Zacchaeus to claim that he had kept the Law perfectly, as the rich young ruler had. Yet there was something different about Zacchaeus, who “was seeking to see who Jesus was.” The crowds, it seems, were there out of mere curiosity, but Zacchaeus had a deep desire to truly understand and know Jesus. And in seeking Jesus, this wealthy man had no qualms about making a fool of himself in public. 

“He ignored the crowd that was getting in his way,” Augustine said in a sermon, “He instead climbed a sycamore tree, a tree of ‘silly fruit’.” After meeting Jesus, the tax collector promises to give generously to the poor and to repay fourfold anyone he may have defrauded.

What is the meaning of life? The answer is found when we acknowledge our Creator and seek the Savior. “Say what you like,” said Augustine, “but for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus.” That is something to really think about.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the November 4, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1191 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.