Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. Luke 19:1-4
Zacchaeus was not a nice guy. Tax collectors were not the most cherished of people in society and Zacchaeus was chief tax collector. But something stirred inside of him on that day when he heard Jesus was coming to town. Something touched his heart and he needed to leave his work and go and see this man he had heard so much about.
Zacchaeus arrived at the spot but he was late and he was at the back of the crowd. He needed to do something so he could see for Scripture tells us, “he was short” and he could not see over the crowd. He looked around and found a tree rising above the crowd at the side of the road. He ran to the tree and climbed up just as Jesus passed bay. The next verses of Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus saw Zacchaeus, told him to come down, and invited himself to his house for dinner.
When Jesus went to the home of Zacchaeus the righteous in the community castigated him because he dared to enter the house of a sinner. No rabbi would have dared to do this but Jesus was different. During the meal this happened:
Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Luke 19:8-9
This story is important to us in so many ways but we have to drill down a little to see the meaning. The crowd symbolizes the things that crowd us in. Zacchaeus, and us, are crowed in by a multitude of passions and worldly affairs that keep us from seeing Jesus not only in the world around us but in those around us.
It is pointed out in the story that Zacchaeus is short. Sometimes we can be short on faith and virtue and that blind us again to what is right in front of us. Zacchaeus must climb a tree in order to see Jesus and we must do the same as no one attached to earthly matters can hope to see Jesus. If we are held back by earthly cares then we cannot focus on the spiritual life. Zacchaeus took the effort to climb the tree as a sign that he was willing to do whatever it took to change his life. If we are willing to do as Zacchaeus has done then Jesus will walk with us as we work to make the change necessary.
In the end Zacchaeus repents of his past dealings with people and Jesus declares that salvation has come to him and his house. Jesus reached out to Zacchaeus, accepted him as he was where he was on his journey and pointed out a new way. In the end Zacchaeus not only pays back those he has cheated but goes a step further by helping the poor. His life has been transformed simply because he listened to the voice calling him to climb a tree.
So, let’s go climb some trees!
This essay originally appeared in the Bethany Beacon the newsletter of Bethany Congregational Church in Quincy, Massachusetts.