From the Gospel according to Luke:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 19:1-4 (NRSV) – June 11, 2013.)
The sycamore which Zacchaeus climbed is not the tree known to Americans as a sycamore. The American sycamore (Platanus Occidentalis) is also known as the “Buttonwood.” It was under a buttonwood tree at 68 Wall Street, New York City, that the New York Stock Exchange was form in 1793; the founding terms are known as the Buttonwood Agreement. A very large buttonwood sycamore stood in the church yard of St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City until September 11, 2001. It is said that that tree shielded St. Paul’s Chapel from the destructive storm of debris from the fall of the World Trade Center towers, allowing the chapel to survive and become a center of recovery ministry during the clean-up in the weeks that followed.
The biblical tree, however, is a fruit-bearing fig tree (Ficus Sycomorus). (In the “anglicized” version of the New Revised Standard translation of the bible, the spelling of “sycamore” in this passage is changed to “sycomore” to conform with the scientific name and to distinguish the tree from other “sycamores.”) There are several references to the sycamore fig in the Old Testament, one of my favorites being Amos’s protestation when Amaziah addresses him as a prophet: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” (Amos 7:14) Knowing that the biblical sycamore is a fig tree makes being a “dresser of sycamore trees” much more understandable!
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Nathanael becomes a disciple when Jesus tells him he knew who he was when he saw him “sitting under the fig tree.” (John 1:47-50) It was probably a sycamore fig. “Sitting under the fig tree” was a colloquial expression referring to studying the Law. In later rabbinic commentary on the Book of Numbers, the Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah, the question, “Why is the Torah compared to a fig tree?” is answered:
Because most trees — olive, grape, date, have their fruit harvested all at one time, but the fig’s fruit is picked gradually. And so it is with the Torah: You learn a little today and more tomorrow, for you cannot learn it in one or two years. (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 12:9)
It was probably a sycamore fig that the Midrash writer had in mind.
I’m amused by the coincidence of this lesson with this date. In 1980, when I started law school, my wife and I bought a small two-bedroom bungalow in San Diego, California, on a street called “Sycamore Lane.” We lived there for three years. It was there (though not actually in that house) that our son was born on June 11, 1983. The next day, we brought him home to his first home on Sycamore Lane, and for the next six weeks he helped me study for the Nevada Bar Exam which I took that summer. We “sat under the sycamore fig” together, especially late at night, studying the law.
Thirty years later, I am no longer practicing law, and my son and I are both priests. In these thirty years, I’ve learned a lot and think he has, too. What the Midrash had to say about the study of Torah is true of all of life: you learn a little today and more tomorrow, for you cannot learn it in one or two . . . or thirty . . . years. Every day is a day to sit under, or to climb, the fig tree.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.
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