You may be unsurprised to hear that I have a certain sympathy with Zacchaeus. Not just because – like me – he is ‘short in stature’ but also because, trying to see Jesus in the crowd, he climbs a tree. I have always loved climbing trees. As a child I spent a lot of time up trees and one of the things I loved about being up a tree, among the branches, was the hidden-ness of it. I could look down and watch other people, but they couldn’t easily see me. I wonder whether for Zacchaeus, as well as being a handy vantage point, the tree was appealing because it gave him the option of seeing without being seen?
Or so he thought. But Jesus does see him. Because the truth is, encounter with Jesus is never a spectator sport. And so Zacchaeus has a choice: stay safely in his tree, unchanged by this strange encounter, or come down and open himself up to whatever might come from it.
I wonder if you can remember from childhood the feeling of being up a tree – or any high place – and preparing to jump? Perhaps you have butterflies in your stomach, or your heart is beating faster. Once you push off and let go, there is no going back.
And so it is for Zacchaeus. And so it is for all of us. Opening ourselves up in relationship with Jesus – as in any relationship – is a risky business, and there is no going back. Once we know something, or someone, we cannot un-know. For me, as a White Christian, that has been my experience of engaging with the experiences of my Black siblings in Christ, and the work of Black theologians. I cannot un-know what I now know about the racism which has pervaded, and continues to pervade, the churches and theological traditions which have formed me. I cannot un-hear the stories of pain and struggle which my Black sisters and brothers have been generous enough to share. I cannot – and I would not want to – go back to being oblivious to the unearned and unjust privilege which my Whiteness confers on me, in the church and society I inhabit.
“The truth,” Jesus said, “will set you free.” And so it will, but perhaps not without a struggle. To quote the feminist writer Gloria Steinem: “the truth will set you free… but first it will piss you off.” And so it should, when that truth is the pervasiveness of the sin of racism, and all the ways that we who are White have – knowingly or unknowingly – benefitted from it. So it should, when that truth is that the church has again failed to keep vulnerable children safe, as we learned in last week’s IICSA report. So it should whenever we see – and cannot un-see – the truth of all the ways we have failed to love our neighbour as ourselves.
But the truth will set us free, however hard it may be to hear. The truth will transform us, as Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus transformed him, if only we – like Zachaeus – are brave enough to come down from whatever trees we are hiding in, to let go of whatever illusions we cling to about ourselves and our neighbours, and allow ourselves to be transformed by God who is truth and love.
This reflection is part of Hodge Hill Church’s ‘Trees of Life’ reflection series.