Story 157: Zaccheaus and the Glorious Indignity of Tree Climbing

Luke 19:1-10

Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall

It was the time of the Passover Feast for the nation of Israel. Over two thousand years before, God had brought the Hebrew people out of their slavery to the Egyptian Pharaoh. The Pharaoh had been given chance after chance to set God’s people free, but he had refused. The Lord sent frogs and gnats and hail and boils, but still the Pharaoh’s heart was hard against the will of the King of Creation. And so God brought the final judgment… God declared that He would reclaim the life of every firstborn son in the nation of Egypt. It was life that God had given in the first place, gifts of deep joy to the citizens of the nation who were oppressing His own chosen people. In response to the Egyptian king’s continued refusal to let the Hebrew people go, the Lord would withdraw the life He had given to sustain their firstborn sons.

In many ways this was a great reversal. The Pharaoh had been taking the lives of the firstborn sons of Israel so that their population would stay small and under his control. The difference was that he had no right to take these lives. It was murder, pure and simple. But the Lord, the Author of Life and the King of Eternity, sits in a very different position than that of a human king. The way we respond to God is supposed to be very different from how we think about human rulers. If we truly believe that He is Lord, if we commit to trust in His Word, if we recognize that there is a Creator who is the definer of wisdom and truth, then the only right response is to respect His choices and honor Him with obedience.  As He wisely governs over kings and nations, He can see things that we cannot, and His choices are beyond our comprehension. Our role is to simply trust Him.

In many cultures of the world today, it is taught that the human mind is the highest form of intelligence in the universe.  It becomes our job to figure out God, to decide if He is right or wrong, and if  He doesn’t measure up to our standard, we are taught we are wrong to believe in Him. While it is true that God has made humans in His image and that we are responsible to use our minds to discern right from wrong, the way we understand this has to come from God.  There is only One True Lord.  Humanity is far too messy, far too captive to their own needs and the power of their culture to be the final arbitrators of absolute truth.  The only Being great enough for that role is God Himself.

As we look out at all the other options in the world, there are many things we can put our faith in.  We can trust in our own abilities, in other people, in wealth or power, in our leaders or our nation, or in any one of the many religions that claim they are showing the way.  Or we can pray and ask the true and living God to reveal Himself to us and show us how to follow Him.  The Bible is where He tells His side of the story for humanity.

One of God’s major movements in history to bring us salvation came when He set the Hebrew people free from slavery to the Egyptian Pharaoh.  The night that the Lord would claim the lives of the firstborn sons of Egypt, He told the Israelites to sacrifice a  lamb and share it as a meal with their families. They were to take the blood of the lambs and put it on the doorposts of their homes. This act of faith would tell the Lord to pass over their homes and keep them safe from judgment (see Exodus 12).

The judgment of God came on the nation of Egypt in that long, dark night, and all the firstborn sons lost their lives…including the son of Pharaoh, the future king. In his grief, the Pharaoh finally agreed to let God’s people go.

God told Moses that His people were to commemorate that remarkable release from bondage every year in the great Feast of Passover.  And they did.

Over 1,500 years later, Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to celebrate that great Feast. Only this time, He would be the firstborn son who would bear the brunt of the judgment brought by the sin of humanity. He would be the Passover Lamb whose blood would bring protection from judgment for all who respond to God by faith. God had already planted deep in the heart of His people the images of and understanding of sin, judgment, and grace…images that would find their final resolution in the Person of Jesus Christ. The images that pointed to the coming of the Son of God were in their history…they were in their beloved symbols of faith and rituals and the pilgrimages that marked their calendar year.   Would the people of Jesus’ time have eyes to see what was unfolding before them?

As Jesus headed towards the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem, He was flanked by crowds of people. When they passed through the city of Jericho, a 45-mile distance from Jerusalem, everyone must have stopped to see what all the ruckus was about. The rumors of Jesus’ coming had probably preceded Him for days. Everyone wanted a peek at the Miracle Worker who was turning the nation upside down.

One of the men of Jericho was named Zaccheaus.  Zaccheaus was a tax collector, which meant he was doubly despised by the Jewish people. He was a pawn in the hand of the Roman government, collecting taxes for them from his own countrymen. Not only that, but he overcharged his fellow Jews, collecting more than necessary to line his own pockets. Zaccheaus’ work was especially wicked because he was chief over the other tax collectors. He oversaw the corruption that put heavy burdens on the people. Jericho was a major city on a major road, and he could demand a heavy toll.

But Zaccheaus had heard things about Jesus that were curious. It was said that the tax collectors and sinners were flocking to Jesus, and that He wasn’t turning them away. What could it mean? Was there hope for Zaccheaus, in spite of all that he had done?

As the crowd moved down the road, Zaccheus, who was very short, realized he would never get a good look at Jesus unless he got himself to a higher place. So he ran ahead of the mob and found a sycamore tree. He scrambled up onto the branches just as Jesus was about to pass by. When the Lord got there, He looked up and said, “‘Zaccheaus, hurry up and come down, for today I must stay at your house.’”

Wow! Can you imagine? With all the people around Him, and with all that was going on, Jesus was compelled to stop.

Have you noticed how often Jesus was moved by boldness? Whether it was the crying out of Bartemeaus, the bleeding woman who reached out and touched His cloak, the centurion who trusted Jesus to heal from miles away…or Zaccheaus casting aside his dignity to climb a tree…Jesus seems to have been compelled by those acts which fell outside the norm, those moments where someone’s need and faith compelled them to move past their usual ways, often at the risk of looking foolish.

When Zaccheus heard the words of Christ, he wasted no time.   He clamored back down the tree and welcomed Christ to his home joyfully.

When the Jews saw who Jesus was going to spend the evening with, they all began to grumble. How quickly their mood changed from praise to complaint! They hated Zaccheaus! “ ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,’” they said.

They could have asked Jesus why He was doing something that was so far from what their own religious convictions would tell them to do.  They could have waited to see what He was going to do.  But they didn’t.  Instead, they gossiped.

Jesus was not interested in obeying the crowds. He was loyal to the will of His Father, and God the Father knew a great work was happening in Zaccheaus’ heart.

Zaccheaus stood before Jesus and declared, “‘Look Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’”

Wow! What a beautiful picture of true repentance. Zaccheaus had turned completely around.  Imagine it. He was going to give away half of everything he owned…that might include selling houses and farms and gold. Imagine the wonderful things he would do for the poor.  Imagine how it would change their lives!

It was not only the poor whose lives would change.  Anyone that had felt the bite of his corruption was going to be blessed now...four times over.  This is the beauty of salvation at work.  This was the repentance Christ had been looking for as He traveled around the nation of Israel.  Zaccheaus’ heart was transformed by the Good News.

Jesus declared to Zaccheaus and the crowd, “‘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 save the lost.’”

Wow.  It might be easy to miss the power of what Jesus was saying here.  The Jewish people were very proud to be the descendants of Abraham, and rightly so.  It meant they were a part of God’s chosen people. This is the greatest honor that has ever been bestowed upon a nation.  But they did not consider tax collectors a part of their family. Zaccheaus showed by his repentant faith in Jesus that he truly was a member of Abraham’s family. And Jesus showed the Jews in a bright and beautiful way that God has a wealth of compassion and grace for all who believe.

You will notice that Zaccheaus did not tell Jesus, “I believe, but I’m not going to change anything. I’ll just keep right on robbing the people and living in sin.” When we come to the Lord, we need to come with humility and repentance.

Imagine how the world changes when we do that. Imagine how it blessed the poor and the people that Zacchaeus had once overcharged? They could pay their debts, feed their children, take care of their homes. They didn’t have to live in fear of the new tax season. The men that worked under Zaccheaus would learn to do their work without corruption. All that had been crooked and deceitful, the sin that caused so much damage, would become untwisted and straight. Greater peace would be brought to the people of Jericho and everyone that passed through.

This is one of the powerful ways that the Kingdom of God is established on earth.

It is easy to think of Jesus as serious and intense…because He often was. But imagine His joy at the party as they celebrated the change in the life of Zaccheaus.   In just a few days, Jesus would be heading for the cross, yet He took the time to celebrate this one transformed life.

In Hebrews 12:2, the Bible says that Jesus endured the cross and despised its shame because of the joy set before Him. On the other side of the cross, Jesus would be raised up to sit at the right hand of the Father, on the Throne of Heaven. And because of His sacrifice, people like Zaccheaus and you and me will be able to join Him there.  Our salvation was part of the joy that was set before Him.

Was the incredible gift He was about to win for Zaccheaus on His mind as they celebrated? Was the beauty of Zaccheaus’ transformation a comfort to Jesus…a reminder of the beauty of what He was about to do?

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