The Man Who Climbed a Tree

A Short Story About Zacchaeus

Connor Gwin / 10.28.22

The scent of balsam woke him up that morning, carried through the windows on the morning wind. As he turned and put his feet on the ground, he stretched his arms and turned his head to see his wife sleeping. In the silence before the day truly began — before she woke up, before the servants began to scurry around the house, before the life of this new day took shape — in this silence before anything and everything stirred he was able to breathe deeply. 

It had become his practice in these last few years. With each promotion, the amount of work and stress increased exponentially. His days were filled with minefields. This moment in the morning — this one deep breath — was enough to keep things on track for one more day. His mother had always told him to breathe when he was afraid or unsure, when he needed to come home to himself.

“Take a deep breath of pure air and remember who you are my son.” 

A smile danced across his lips as that memory floated past on the morning breeze. Within moments, it was over. The day had begun. If the past was any indication, there wouldn’t be another smile today. His work was not necessarily difficult. Important, yes. Prestigious, in some circles. But not demanding of physical strength or even skill. What it demanded of him was compromise. 

“But what is life if not compromise?” he would often say under his breath, convincing no one, not even himself.  He was hated by everyone. He was the face — or better the hand — of government control. It was his hand — or the hand of one of his subordinates — that reached into the pocketbook of everyone across town. It never mattered how much someone had. He could guarantee that some of it was owed. And he would always collect. 

There were radicals who protested. People painted him as demonic. Rabble rousers used his office as a stand-in for the Domus Tiberiana in Rome. 

What hurt the most was the religious opposition. He couldn’t go to the synagogue anymore. He hadn’t darkened that door in a decade, not since his second son was circumcised. Not that he wanted to attend anymore. Stepping through the threshold of that place was an attack on two fronts. 

First, there were the looks of scorn from everyone seated in the pews. The cold shoulders; the ignored glances. The last time he attended, holding his baby son in his arms, a man spit on his shoes as he walked to the front door. That sealed it. “Traitor,” the man said with disdain dripping from his lips. 

Of course, there was a second reason he stopped going — the more internal reason. On a good day, he thought of this as his competitive advantage in life, but in reality, it was a never-ending source of pain. 

The thought always followed the same pattern: “If there is a God, it seems that he is not interested in helping people get ahead. The most faithful people are the poorest, lowliest people in town. The most religious people are the most hypocritical, judgmental ones. Perhaps the best thing to do is to grab as much success as I can and let the chips fall.” He climbed the ladder easily. He was always willing to do what needed to be done. 

“But what is life if not compromise?”

It was paying off in some ways. The house he woke up in each morning was large and well-furnished. His wife was well cared for and supported. He likes to think that he has wrested some semblance of certainty out of this wildly uncertain world. 

Of course, there was the other side of the coin. That big house sits empty. The dining room has never hosted more than he and his wife. No one would dare be seen walking the stone path to his front door. In fact, most people refuse eye contact in public. He cannot even be in God’s presence anymore. If there is to be joy in the house, he must create it. If he was to find happiness, he would have to manufacture it himself. He would justify himself without God’s help or intervention. 

He was always exhausted. 

There had been rumors for days about something happening on the outskirts of town. Travelers and pilgrims talked of a teacher, a heretic, a prophet. 

There were always new prophets and politicians coming through on their way to Jerusalem. Each one promises the same thing: salvation. Freedom from the government, endless prosperity, a land flowing with milk and honey. He didn’t care for sweets. He was never impressed by their speeches. His concern was the bottom line. Do the numbers add up?

None had ever delivered on their promises — at least not for long. Most were killed or simply faded from the front page once people lost interest.

As he sat in his office on this day, he could hear a different tone from the crowd passing by outside. Was he imagining things? What does hope sound like? Why did today’s crowd capture his attention? He put down his pencil and left the spreadsheets strewn across his desk as he walked to the door. The crowd was sparking with conversation. He could only hear bits and pieces, “Healed,” “Son of David,” “Miracle.” 

Then he saw something that his brain could not — would not — compute. He saw a man he knew to be blind walking, unassisted, and shaking hands with people in the crowd. He had seen this man sitting by the road begging for years. He had walked past him, averting his eyes, as he scrounged a life out of the scraps of passersby. 

This man — this blind man — walked up to a flower booth and buried his face in the purples and reds and golds, studying the colors and textures on the petals as though they held the secret of everything. Then the blind man turned and the two men locked eyes. He had not shared eye contact on this street in years so his knees buckled under the weight of this blind man looking right at him — seeing him.  

From the murmurs through the crowd, he pieced together that a Teacher had healed this man and that this Teacher was entering the city. It sounded as though he was bringing a carnival with him. The noise of cheers and music and conversation bounced off the city walls. The sound of hope stirred everyone out into the street. 

He knew he had to see him. He couldn’t tell you where that urge came from but there it was. He must see this Teacher. But the crowd was swelling and he knew he would never be able to see anything safely tucked in the door of his office. 

He felt possessed — as though some otherworldly force had overtaken his body and was steering his muscles — and so he took off running. His robe drifting behind him like a banner, he got ahead of the crowd and found a tree that would give him the perspective he needed. 

He made quick work of climbing and perched himself in the tree. As soon as he settled in place, he thought better of this foolish errand. What a waste of time. He really should be working. What does he think he will find? Another politician promising the world? Another religious zealot predicting lighting and thunder from heaven? 

As the crowd approached the tree, he could feel the panic rising in him as it often did by this point in the day. What had he made of his life? The noise of the crowd was too much. The carnival crowd was surrounding the tree now. He felt alone. What had his compromises bought him? He couldn’t breathe. 

Suddenly, time stopped. His past and future collapsed together into one simple, holy Now. 

There was utter silence. Everything fell away. He was suspended in a womb of sycamore branches. 

When the sound waves vibrated his eardrums, something like an electric charge shot through his body and the lights came on. This Voice seemed to wake him up from his slumber, to call him back into Life. 

“Zacchaeus,” the Teacher said. 

He took a deep breath, deeper than he had ever breathed. The air felt new and pure and seemed to fill every part of his body. 

Jesus looked Zacchaeus in the eyes and with a most gentle insistence said, “Come down from there. I am coming to your house today.”

Zacchaeus emerged from the cradle of tree limbs, born again in the presence of this Rabbi. 

The noise of the crowd erupted around him, piercing his newfound peace. Shouts of disgust and outrage flew from the crowd — surely not this man, surely not this sinner — but the animus hit a wall of grace and fell to the dirt at the feet of Jesus who had not stopped looking at Zacchaeus.

This man, this sinner smiled and breathed deeply again. And suddenly the compromises he had worn for so many years felt scratchy and ill-fitting in the presence of such uncompromising grace. 

The scams and lies; the million, minute ways he had fallen short. With another breath, he let them fall, and they drifted away, carried off on the balsam-scented breeze. 

Zacchaeus, the pure one, was left empty-handed and justified standing before his Guest and his God.

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2 responses to “The Man Who Climbed a Tree”

  1. Kim H. J. says:

    So beautifully written. Thank you.

  2. Kirk Vandezande says:

    Zacchaeus exhibits poverty of spirit.

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