A Tree, a Tax Collector, and a View of God

27 Nov

zacchaeus-1

“How high does the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down then you’ll never know.”
~
Stephen Schwartz, “Colors of the Wind

Back before Rotten Tomatoes was a wireless ubiquity, my family depended on paperback movie guides, and our go-to was the one edited by Mick Martin and Marsha Porter. Like similar resources, Martin and Porter used an easily decipherable rating system, but since their tastes so often matched our own, they became our cinematic oracles when we made our own selections at Blockbuster or the library.

However, there’s another reason we liked their guide so much – one that has lasted into the internet age: the turkey reviews. Instead of assigning a single star (out of a possible five) to the worst of the worst, Martin and Porter substituted a tiny turkey graphic. It was easy to spot as you flipped through the pages, and the associated reviews often made for highly entertaining reading.

That was especially the case when a turkey review was brief – in fact, the shorter the better. “They don’t make them any worse than this,” reads the Martin and Porter review of The Eye of the Snake (1990), and, for The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1981), they wrote that the “only good thing about this film is the title.” Sometimes you’d luck out and come across a turkey review amounting to a single word – “Incoherent” captured up their thoughts on Streetwalkin’ (1985).

Then there’s my all-time favorite turkey, Mr. Sycamore (1975). “A mailman decides to turn into a tree,” Martin and Porter explained. “Peculiar and pointless.” So succinct and evocative, it’s all you need to know. Indeed, it almost makes you want to track down Mr. Sycamore to watch, doesn’t it?

Well, maybe not (and I never have), but it does make you wonder what the filmmakers had in mind – what were they thinking? If you look up the Tomatoes synopsis, it tells of a protagonist postman who chooses arboreal transformation over a dismal future with his domineering wife. Weird, I know, but somebody must’ve thought it was a good idea, and that somebody decided that a sycamore tree was a decent symbol for psychic withdrawal and insulation.

Biblically speaking, that filmmaking somebody couldn’t have been more wrong – that is, if St. Luke has anything to say about it.

Luke’s story of Zacchaeus made an appearance in the liturgy earlier this month, and it got me thinking about Mr. Sycamore. As you’ll recall, Zacchaeus was somewhat diminutive, and so he had to resort to humiliating measures in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus strolling through Jericho. Leaping up and down behind the crowd apparently wasn’t enough, and if he attempted to push through to the front, he probably met with elbows in the face from those who reviled his traitorous tax-collecting occupation.

Nevertheless, Zacchaeus refused to give up, and he scaled a nearby sycamore tree in the nick of time. His eyes and the Savior’s met, and an extraordinary encounter ensued. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly,” Jesus insisted, “for today I must stay at your house.” Joy and conversion followed, and the tax collector’s life was changed forever. “Today salvation has come to this house,” the Lord declared. What’s more, as if to rebuke the crowd who “grumbled” at his choice of pals, Jesus explained that “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”

So, why a sycamore? Was Luke making a symbolic point? Not necessarily. It’s likely one of those lovely details in the Gospels that indicate that a recorded event was an actual occurrence – not just a figurative fiction or a clever analogy invented by the evangelist. That is, it wasn’t just “a tree” that the tax collector climbed, but a specific tree – a particular sycamore in fact, or rather a “sycamore fig” to distinguish it from the non-fruit bearing tree that our postman friend probably turned into. Not surprisingly, the actual tree of Zacchaeus became famous, and there’s an old sycamore in Jericho that locals associate with the Gospel story.

All that falls under what the Catechism calls the literal sense of Scripture, but we’re further invited to consider the story’s spiritual sense. “Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs” (CCC 117).

In this regard, I’ve always appreciated the Ignatian approach to Biblical meditation (especially the Gospels) in which we put ourselves into the scene we’re reading about – and not just the character we might naturally gravitate to, but perhaps all of them in turn. In the case of Luke’s narrative, it’s desirable to take up the mantle of Zacchaeus, to picture ourselves surrendering to Christ and radically reforming our lives, but we should also consider ourselves in the guise of the rabble, who block the publican’s line of sight and who dis Jesus when he elects to dine with the despised.

Then there’s that sycamore, almost a character unto itself. I picture it in the backdrop of the narrative, off to the side and part of the scenery – nothing special, just another tree. Up in front, the incarnate deity is passing by, and everyone’s attention is riveted on him. Meanwhile, stage left, there’s the little tax collector, jumping for the tree’s lower branches, and then ascending high above the mob. Far from being a metaphorical hideout as in Mr. Sycamore, the tree of Zacchaeus was a launch pad, lifting the outcast to new heights of levity and love.

That tree is us, I think – it’s the Church – and the sycamore’s humble part in the Zacchaeus story parallels the hidden role we often play in helping others to see Jesus. We’re always on stage when people know we’re Catholic, even when we’re not consciously being “religious.” Since our relationship with Jesus has ups and downs like any relationship, folks may not always see Christ clearly in our behaviors and speech – but that’s OK. We needn’t be spiritual superstars all the time to witness to the Lord. Sometimes (often?) the very human you-cant-take-it-with-you-groupordinariness and frailty of our faith life is just enough for others to clamber up for a vision of God.

Which brings me to one final sycamore reference – in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1936 stage play You Can’t Take It With You. Our kids’ high school put it on in October, and seeing it reminded me of how much I love Frank Capra’s ebullient film version (which garnered five stars from Martin and Porter). It’s a delightful comedy featuring the oddball Vanderhof/Sycamore family and a reassuring portrayal of how grace can operate in even the most turbulent, goofy circumstances.

There’s nothing chichi about the Sycamore household (like the tree they’re named for), and they’ve got internal troubles galore. Nonetheless, they’re a beacon in their community, a ladder of optimistic vision. Theirs is a domestic church that spills over with joie de vivre, and their example of mutual love and loyalty are a healing balm for those around them. It’s as if the Sycamore’s shortcomings are themselves transformed into a source of hope – a persistent hope, as reflected in the concluding dinner prayer uttered by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore):

Well, sir, here we are again. We’ve had quite a time of it lately, but it seems that the worst of it is over. Course, the fireworks all blew up, but we can’t very well blame that on you. Anyway, everything’s turned out fine, as it usually does…. We’ve all got our health; as far as anything else is concerned, we still leave that up to you. Thank you.

Deference. Trust. Gratitude. Peace. These must be among the lofty “ways” and “paths” Isaiah was talking about in yesterday’s Advent kickoff reading (albeit the prophet admittedly draws on a geological image rather than a tree):

The mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills…. Many peoples shall come and say: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain…that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”

As we begin walking the Advent path of discovery, let’s remember that we ourselves are the Lord’s house – that we are that mountain raised above the hills, regardless of our inadequacies. Like Grandpa Vanderhof, we needn’t worry, for it’s the Lord who does the establishing and saving. All we need to do is make way for those who’ll scramble over us for a better view.
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  1. A Tree, a Tax Collector, and a View of God | One Thousand Words a Week - November 27, 2016

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