Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Up A Tree”
Rev. Art Ritter
November 3, 2019
He 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. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
If you attended Sunday School classes in the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, you probably learned the song well. “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” That is how and what most of us learned about Zacchaeus. He was vertically challenged
I have a colleague who suffers from the same affliction as Zacchaeus. One day he shared with me some of the hazards of life that short people encounter. As a person of average height, I had never thought about some of these things. You notice people bending down to speak with you. You get to hear every short joke ever written. He mentioned that being short makes it harder to reach things on high store shelves but also harder to be seen, to be heard, and sometimes to be included. Group photos always require special attention. You need to be very aware about where you stand or you won’t even be seen. Concerts are you worst nightmare. People at concerts tend to stand for the whole event and as a short person, all you see are their sweaty backs. Your shoulder sometimes get used as armrests by taller people, as if it is a handy piece of furniture. You have to be careful when you hug people because your hands and face may end up in unintended and embarrassing places. Finally he told me that his job requires him to visit many churches and to talk from many different pulpits and lecterns. He has learned to call ahead and ask about the level of the speaking platform and the height of the microphone and to not be too embarrassed to ask for a step or riser to stand upon.
Certainly the lack of physical height was a challenge for Zacchaeus but he also fell short in a couple of other important areas of society. He was a tax collector. He made himself rich at the expense of others. New Testament scholar Anselm Grun theorizes that because Zacchaeus felt so small and unnoticed, he attempted to compensate for his feeling of inferiority by earning as much money as possible. He took tax collecting seriously. He wanted recognition. He wanted to stand out. Because he felt so small, he tried to set himself above other people. Certainly Zacchaeus was not a well-loved man. He served the needs of the government, collecting taxes from people whether they could afford the taxes or not. He was a tool of the establishment, holding a position which the people resented. People didn’t want to hang around with tax collectors. Strike two for Zacchaeus.
And finally Zacchaeus must have been good at his job. Scripture says that he was rich. In those days wise tax collectors carefully skimmed off a portion or what people paid before sending the money along to the government. He was wealthy and his wealth came from the burdens of the common folk. How could anyone love such a man who took advantage of them for his own advantage? His wealth was strike three. Author Frederick Buechner described Zacchaeus with this sentence, “a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job.” Certainly not a very flattering description!
On the day in which Jesus came into Jericho, a crowd of people gathered to see the man who had gained a reputation for some as a miracle worker, a preacher of great wisdom, and a possible messiah. Yet Jesus was also thought of as a troublemaker by others. Certainly Jesus was someone about whom lots of people had clear opinions and nearly everyone in Galilee and Judea was interested in seeing him.
That was the position of Zacchaeus. We have no evidence to think he regarded Jesus as a Savior, or as Lord, or any other positive thing. He simply wanted to know who this Jesus was and what the fuss was all about. And so he climbed a sycamore tree to better see him. There was something within Zacchaeus that moved him to start scaling those branches. I always thought it was for purely physical reasons. Zacchaeus wanted to see and this was the only way he could do it. That answer always made a lot of practical sense. Yet some scholars take a more skeptical view. Alyce McKenzie writes that by climbing the tree, Zacchaeus was merely thinking of himself again, setting himself above everyone else, and flaunting his sense of self-importance one more time. Other scholars are a bit kinder in explaining Zacchaeus’ motives. Perhaps he wanted to be there that day to see Jesus but also wanted to go unnoticed. He thought he could somehow blend in with the leaves and branches of the sycamore. He was hiding in the tree. Or maybe Zacchaeus was just plain desperate and was actually looking for some answers. He was living his life on the margins, without respect and without love. He was in a state of some personal anguish. He was searching for forgiveness and for meaning and he hoped he might find a source of it in this traveling teacher. He risked his dignity climbing a tree to see this person that everyone else was talking about. Surely something more than curiosity would drive him to go to such lengths. But there is nothing in Luke’s account of that day that indicates Zacchaeus was looking for a change in his lifestyle or fiscal practices. Perhaps the best explanation is that he was just curious, and that’s all.
Then the parade stopped right in front of him. Jesus looked at Zacchaeus and the rest of the crowd followed suit. Can you imagine how Zacchaeus felt? Busted! Scott Hoezee writes that he must have felt like the 7th grade boy caught trying to peek into the window of the girls’ locker room! Jesus tells Zacchaeus to come down from the tree for it is in his house that he will spend the rest of the day. And from that moment on, everything changed.
Despite appearances, Zacchaeus did not have his life altogether. Yes, he was rich and had everything he wanted or at least knew how to get those things. But while he was up that tree, at the moment Jesus looked at him, he became a different person. He starting wondering how it had come to this. How was he living his life in this shady manner? How had he lost the respect of people around him? How had he misplaced the priorities of his life? He realized that he was lost. And with the words of Jesus he knew he had been found.
We can debate how Zacchaeus got up the tree. But have you ever thought about how hard it might have been to get down. Perhaps climbing down from the tree was even a greater risk. Now that everyone’s attention was upon him, how would the people of Jericho react? Will the crowd become angry with him for stopping the parade? Will they take the opportunity to lash out with verbal or even physical abuse at this despised tax collector? The writer of Luke records some grumbling going on. “Why is Jesus eating at the house of this sinner?” Certainly a lot of the crowd wondered why this sinner was getting so much of the honored guest’s attention. And while Zacchaeus gladly accept the presence of God’s grace and forgiveness in Jesus, there must have been some real courage involved in climbing down that tree. At Jesus’ side, he must see things differently. At Jesus’ side, the view of life was much different than it was up that tree. At Jesus’ side he was challenged to think differently, act differently, and be different. He had to know that Jesus would change his priorities on the world and his place within it.
I read a rather sad story this week about a man in the Philippines who climbed a 60 foot tall coconut tree near his home in 2014. He pledged to stay up the tree for the rest of his life. Evidently he had been struck on the head during a physical altercation and was now afraid that someone around him was trying to kill him. He believed that the only way he could stay alive was to climb the tallest tree and stay there. And he did so for three years, surviving only on the food and water his mother brought him every day, pulled up with an improvised rope. He would relieve himself from the top of the tree and not even raging storms or blistering heat or ruthless insect could get him to come down. He was that afraid of the world and of his place in it. Finally, a team of 5 people arrived with a chainsaw and began to take down the tree carefully. Everything went as planned and the man was rescued safely and was immediately presented for a doctor’s care. He did not recognize the source of salvation and healing but at least his life was saved.
The end to the Zacchaeus story was much more satisfying. While he may have ascended the tree in fear or shame or regret, it was joy and not chain saws that brought him down. Indeed, in climbing down his joy knew no bounds. He offered restitution to his financial victims, payment well beyond what was expected. Zacchaeus the wealthy tax collector, changed by the presence of God in the person Jesus, saw his life differently with a new set of priorities. He made himself poor in material things so that he could now be rich in spirit.
The lesson of this story comes in our choices of life. Are we up the tree, stuck in judgements that bar us and others from discovering the good news? Are we up the tree to lift our own needs and desires above the needs of the world, making ourselves so exclusive that we shut out others? Are we up the tree, playing it safe with our gifts and talents and money? Or are we up a tree, ashamed and hiding or proud and arrogant?
Can we recognize the grace of God that walks before us and demands that we climb down that tree? Can we respond to our acceptance and our forgiveness with the grace and mercy Jesus offers to us? Can we stand beside Jesus, accepting the challenge to think differently, to be stewards or our gifts rather than users, and to give up whatever it might be that keep us from following faithfully? Like Zacchaeus, the moment we leave the tree and our feet first hit the ground, everything changes.