He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. (Luke 19.3-4)
Climber of a Different Sort
All we know of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who scampers up a tree, is squeezed into 10 verses from Luke 19. We don’t know why his story doesn’t appear in other gospels. Perhaps the writers deem it non-essential—one of so many life-changing encounters with Christ that occur on His travels—or they’re squeamish about reporting it because it’s politically loaded. That Matthew, a former tax collector, omits it leans toward the latter explanation. Today, this little tale of a little man endears us. Children especially love Zacchaeus; they relate to his vertical challenges. And if we first hear of him when we're little, lifelong fondness for him makes us reticent to plow under the storybook sheen to dig out ugly bits Luke plants to justify its inclusion. What we have to work at uncovering in the tale ancient readers automatically grasp. The situation is highly charged for them, making Zacchaeus’s stature a minor detail explaining why he’s up a tree. Whether he’s four-six or six-four, they see him as a climber of a different sort—a politically wired, morally bankrupt, social deviant with no right even attempting to mix among faith seekers. He’s a huge problem his community can’t eliminate, as he typifies one of many irreligious, insensitive policies Rome shoves down its conquests’ throats.
Little Big Man
Luke’s deft peeling of layered information results in a masterwork of suspense. He intentionally plays on his readers’ prejudices so they’ll blindly follow him down a path that ends in two startling twists sure to test their perceptions of Jesus and Zacchaeus. He starts with the scriptural equivalent of “It was a sunny day in Spain:” “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.” (v1) All is calm and quiet. No Pharisees and lawyers confront Christ at the gates. No demoniacs or lepers rush Him. He has no agenda. Jesus is just passing through. We assume there’s a crowd, since one always forms wherever Jesus goes. But letting us infer this suggests it’s unremarkable. Then verse 2 indicates trouble afoot when Luke spots Zacchaeus, a wealthy chief tax collector. What’s so unusual about that? Jesus often draws tax collectors, social outcasts, and religious pariahs. He even hangs out with them. “Chief” is the tip-off. Zacchaeus isn’t your garden-variety traitor breaking his countrymen’s backs with Roman taxes while lining his pockets with overcharges. He’s the boss, a political appointee. And since Jericho’s a big town, height notwithstanding, he’s a big man who brings home a big paycheck. One doesn’t land a lucrative job like his without serious connections and cunning—which Luke confirms straightaway.
What brings the little big man out of his corner office? “He wanted to see who Jesus was.” (v3) Christ’s reputation precedes Him as a Friend to all and Zacchaeus is very interested in this rabbi who bucks popular opinion. He doesn’t need anything from Jesus. He wants to gauge Christ’s usefulness to him. Now is when Luke discloses Zacchaeus’s diminutive size. It’s a perverse joke—the pipsqueak publican sizing up the supreme Savior—and Luke pays it off after reinforcing his readers’ disdain for the tax man’s shameless cunning: “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see Him.” (v4) Zacchaeus runs ahead to get ahead. He climbs the tree because he’s a climber. He’s unconcerned how he’s seen as long as he can see.
Zacchaeus discovers Jesus sees him unlike everyone else. Before he can explore whether or not knowing the famous Preacher is useful to him, Jesus calls him by name and orders him out of the tree for His benefit. “I must stay at your house today,” Jesus says. (v5) The joke's on Zacchaeus. The climber comes down. The political beast heels. And the berated pariah watches in awe as his surprise Houseguest brushes off criticism to socialize with an undesirable. Every prejudice against Zacchaeus is debunked. The short man reduces his tall fortune by half, with the balance going to the poor. And on the chance he’s cheated anyone—which is unlikely, given his position and pay—he promises to quadruple repayment. The story ends with a truly uplifting coda. Jesus restores Zacchaeus’s status as a valuable member of society and reveals why finding the little big man in the tree caused Him to stop: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (v9-10)
Our Best Option
It’s a neat little story for kids because their lesson is easy: you’re never too small. But when we read it as adults, the neatness goes away and it’s not at all easy. Luke constructs it to require two readings. On the first go-round, he lures us into the popular mindset to view Zacchaeus as he’s seen. Then, after showing how Jesus sees Zacchaeus—that is, as he truly is—we reread the story and realize how quickly we misjudged him. What looked like cunning is resourcefulness. What appeared to be calculated ambition is intuitive courage. Zacchaeus could have leveraged his status to reach the front of the crowd; a big reason why they hate him is for holding that kind of power. Being part of the crowd, however, isn’t useful to him. He just wants to see Jesus. So he runs ahead of the rest to rise above them. It looks silly to others. But their opinions are irrelevant. His needs are what matter. His honesty—if you will, his shamelessness—recommends him.
Those of us misjudged as problems in our communities can learn from Zacchaeus. Being part of the crowd isn’t the objective. Seeing Jesus and being seen by Him are the goals. Running ahead to rise above those who disdain us is our best option. We advance our knowledge of Christ through His Word, not leveraging influence to access Him. We don’t wait for the crowd to part. By the time they come to understand Christ is a Friend to all, we’re there. Prayer is our tree. It lifts us to see the Living Word and positions us to answer His call. He knows us by name. He needs us. When we lower ourselves to honor His desire to reside with us, He makes the truth of who we are evident. We are valuable to society. We are vital to Him. Jesus came to seek and save us. Running ahead of the crowd to rise above it is how we're found and redeemed.
Running ahead to discover Jesus through His Word and lifting ourselves in prayer may look silly to those who disdain us. But that’s how we're found and redeemed.
Postscript: Sunday School Nostalgia
In a previous Zacchaeus post, Out on a Limb, I mentioned a Sunday school ditty many of us learned to seal his story in memory. One comment and a couple emails remarked on it as well and I imagine some of us reading today’s post felt a twinge of Sunday school nostalgia. So, here’s the song, delightfully rendered by Reuel.