Maybe it was that sycamore tree that did it.
Maybe even before Jesus wandered by, Zacchaeus looked at where he was and wondered how it had come to this. What was it that had quite literally chased him clean up a tree? His nice Armani tunic had a chlorophyll stain or two on it from some sycamore leaves he’d smushed up against on his way up into the branches. He’d scuffed his Bruno Mali sandals and had chipped one of his nicely manicured fingernails on his left hand. And now there he was, hunched up in that tree like some schoolboy hiding from the teacher.
This was ridiculous.
What was a man of his social position doing in this silly position? Clettering up a tree like this was not one of the seven habits of highly effective people!
In fact, tree-climbing like that was something only a desperate sort of person would do—someone who knew deep down that he had gained the whole world but forfeited his soul; someone who knew that deep down in his heart he had a yearning and a hunger that not all the shekels in the Roman Empire was going to sate.
In the familiar little Sunday school song about this story, we are told that Zacchaeus climbed that sycamore tree “for his Lord he wanted to see.” And he faced the difficulty of being “a wee little man” who therefore needed some elevation. (I don’t know why but when I think of Zacchaeus, I picture Danny DeVito from his Taxi days!).
But we have no evidence that Zacchaeus’ curiosity toward Jesus had anything to do with his regard for Jesus as a Savior, a Lord, or any other potentially positive thing. “He wanted to see who Jesus was” is all the text says. That sounds pretty generic. It’s the kind of thing you say about someone whose character, identity, and physical appearance are all totally unknown to you.
Indeed, curious though he was, it seems very likely that Zacchaeus’ scramble up into that sycamore tree was not something he was eager to have his fellow Jerichoites witness. My hunch is that he was hiding up in that tree. He was not sitting there with his legs dangling inelegantly from beneath his tunic holding up some hand-painted “WELCOME JESUS!” sign like one of those eager people who daily mug for the camera and hold up “Hello!” signs in Rockefeller Center during the “Today” show. Instead Zacchaeus was likely well ensconced in the foliage of this tree, peering out from behind the leaves and branches and hoping that as the parade passed by, the crowds (and Jesus himself) would be too preoccupied by what was going on at street-level to notice him up there in that tree. It was, after all, such an undignified position to be in.
So when the parade stops, when Jesus looks right up at him, and when the rest of the crowd follows suit, I imagine that Zacchaeus’ first reaction was a deep gulp and a rush of blood to his face. But Jesus speaks kindly and says that it is his house where Jesus will stay for the day. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus fairly tumbled out of the tree and welcomed Jesus “with joy” (see the Textual Points below for the significance of that word “joy”). Something about the very presence of Jesus changed this sawed-off little crook. Luke 19 makes clear that Zacchaeus really did not climb up into that tree looking for a change in his lifestyle or outlook or fiscal practices. He had not set out from his house that morning hoping to have a 180-degree turnaround. He was just curious, that’s all.
Ah, but sometimes curiosity is the outward manifestation of an inward emptiness and restlessness. On the surface of Zacchaeus’ life, he had it all. He probably even told himself that he had it all. He strutted around Jericho giving off the vibes of a man who had it all. Zacchaeus was not one to appear shaky or uncertain. There was a steely glint to his eyes, a certain set to his jaw, a certain jutting forward of his chin that was all semaphore of a man who had it all together, who knew what he wanted, knew how to get it, and who had as a matter of fact mostly acquired what he wanted already.
But despite all that . . . here he was, quite literally up a tree and wondering how it had come to all this.
Maybe it was that sycamore tree that did it.
Maybe up there in that tree he was wondering how it had come to this. Maybe at some point, looking around him that day, the thought occurred to Zacchaeus, “I am lost.”
And just then a voice said, “Zacchaeus!” and somehow he just knew he’d been found.
Two little words in the original Greek leap out at me in this text. The first is when Jesus says that he “must” stay at the house of Zacchaeus that day. The verb there is the tiny Greek word dei and this is the same word used so often in the New Testament when the writer wants to convey the necessity of the incarnation or the utter necessity of Jesus’ death on a cross. “It is necessary” is the more typical translation of dei and it ties in just often enough to the utter necessity of God’s way of doing salvation that its use here in Luke 19 tells you that this business about Jesus’ wanting to stay at that particular house was in the end going to be a matter of redemption, of salvation itself.
The other word is the one that describes Zacchaeus’s reaction to Jesus: he received Jesus chairon, “with joy.” Flash back 4 chapters in Luke and read how this kind of joy and rejoicing was the bottom line of all three of the parables of lost-and-found in Luke 15. The “joy” with which this little tax collector received Jesus is the very joy that always crops up when salvation is in the air! “Joy/Rejoicing” in Luke is always semaphore for salvation.
Oh, and the fact that this joy/salvation was present BEFORE Zacchaeus did any of his subsequent actions of giving money back to the poor and the defrauded is further proof that Zacchaeus was saved not by those works but by the grace that came FIRST and that then overflowed into those later deeds.
From Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who by Frederick Buechner. Harper & Row San Francisco, 1979, pp. 180-81.
In this book, Buechner presents from A-Z several dozen character sketches of well-known (and sometimes not-so-well-known) biblical characters. The last entry in the volume under the letter “Z” is, not surprisingly, Zacchaeus. What Buechner shares about this man, and how he lets Zacchaeus be a summary for all the other folks in the Bible, is as delightful as it is instructive! Buechner observes:
“Zacchaeus makes for a good [character] to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest [of the characters in Buechner’s book]. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds you of all the others, too. There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father. There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition, and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring Job to death if Yahweh had not stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even. Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them somehow treasured, too. Why? Who knows? But maybe you can say at least this about it—that they’re treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them at their best to be because ultimately, of course, it’s not the world that made them at all. “All the earth is mine,” says Yahweh, “and all that dwell therein” adds the 24th Psalm, and in the long run, presumably, that goes for you and me, too.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 3, 2019
Luke 19:1-10 Commentary