When I heard the words from our 1st Reading “the whole world is like a drop of dew” (Wisdom 11:22-12:2) I immediately wondered how this ancient writer managed to realise what we have only just discovered scientifically : that once we travel out into space, as the Voyager spacecraft did into the immensity of the Universe, and look back from over 400 billion miles away, only then can we see that our world is simply like a dewdrop, a tiny dot of blue in the vastness of space.
I discovered this by watching a great TV programme called “The Forces of Nature” in which Prof. Brian Cox illustrates the amazing way in which the expanding Universe threw up this tiny planet where life as we know it was possible. He points out that all life forms, including us humans, are made out of the basic chemical elements present in the earth. We are then, in one sense, no more than grains of dust. It reminded me of the words of God spoken to Adam that we use on Ash Wednesday “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19)
The programme however also showed how the amazing miracle that is life gradually developed as these chemical elements in the dust of the earth combined in certain ways to make the earliest forms of life, from which we evolved. The stories from Genesis are not science, and the writers were not aware how long this process from dust to humanity took, but they did get the basic point right, that we come from the dust.
The programme went on to show that the power within us, of these elements reacting with one another, the miracle of how life comes from the dust of the earth, is as great as a lightning bolt. In one sense all we are is dust, and yet in another sense the particular combination of the elements that make life, is amazing and wonderful. For me, the wonder of all that science has discovered about this, simply emphasises that there must be a power behind all this, the power that in English we call “God”.
But what has all this got to do with Zacchaeus in our Gospel? More, I think, than one might realise at first glance. You see, as a chief tax-collector, Zacchaeus is a man of immense power surrounded by an army of thugs that would make sure everyone paid up. As a collaborator with the Romans, the foreign power, he would have been hated and despised and feared by almost everyone, like a Drug baron or a Mafia chief. So when he wanted to see Jesus, he could have easily got his thugs to clear a path for him through the crowds, and got a view from right at the front. But he doesn’t.
Instead Zacchaeus climbs a tree! Now this is quite astonishing, because rich powerful men in that world did NOT climb trees. It was slaves who were sent up a tree to pick the fruit or prune the branches, so in that sense he was acting like a slave, like a piece of dirt, just like Jesus would do later on when he washed his disciple’s feet! But I don’t think Zacchaeus had that in mind when he climbed that tree. I expect he feared that if insisted on going to the front of the crowd, Jesus – this holy man he wanted to see – might have picked on him, and told him off for his evil ways. I guess that by climbing up a tree he wanted to get to SEE Jesus, without being SEEN! A tree is a great place to hide, as our English King Charles II discovered, for people rarely look up.
This story then reminds us that we cannot hide from God. We may be dust, but God cares about each one of us, even if we are as bad as Zacchaeus. So notice that Jesus see Zacchaeus hiding in the tree, but he does not tell him off. Instead, he simply says that he will come and eat in his house. He does not say “If you change and become good then I will eat with you.” He recognises the man of dust calling out to him by climbing a tree, and he simply shows that he loves him, that no-one is excluded from God’s love.
Yes, Zacchaeus decides to change his life, but he does that AFTER he has been recognised and loved; and we must see that we are the same. In one sense we are merely dust, and yet and yet… each one of us, and each one of them out there, whatever we are like, whatever they are like, are all precious to God, are all loved by God. So although in the physical sense, when we die we return to dust, in another way beyond our understanding, we have the opportunity of letting God love us eternally, and in God we remain who we are and precious to him for ever.