When you’re a kid, the presence of a great tree with lots of low branches was a certain invitation to climb up and see the world from a greater height. Of course, falling from that great height often leads to one of the first childhood trips to the emergency room and a cast on a busted arm or leg for the elementary school class to sign. Such a diversion, however, rarely becomes a deterrent for the determined child adventurer as there will always be another tree beckoning to be scaled.
Adults, on the other hand, usually have a more strained approach to being “up a tree.” Usually, being “up a tree” means that one is stressed and at wit’s end (As in, “Timmy fell out of the tree and needed a $250 trip to the ER. Now I’m up a tree!”).
Trees are often unpredictable. As living things they are constantly changing. That branch that looks strong may have rotted underneath the bark. The trunk may be waiting for that next strong gust of wind to finally give up holding on. Climbing a tree can be dangerous as well as fun, which makes it all the more enticing!
Danger and excitement are both on order in today’s text from Luke. If we back up a bit, back to 18:31, we hear Jesus once again tell his disciples that they are on the way to Jerusalem where “everything written about the [Son of Man] will be accomplished. It is in Jerusalem that danger awaits—where Jesus himself will be “up a tree” in a very literal sense. Indeed, he will be nailed to one.
But notice what Luke tells us in verse 34—the disciples understood “none of these words.” They still didn’t get it. On some level, there are blinded to the danger by their excitement, thinking that this was the time that Jesus’ kingdom would be established and, by extension, they would become famous.
As they enter Jericho, however, we read about two people who see Jesus for who he really is. Ironically, one of them is a blind man. He refuses to be quiet when Jesus passes by, shouting out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” “Son of David” is a Messianic term. It’s this revelation that gets Jesus’ attention—“What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man says, “Lord, I want to see.” In many ways, he sees already who Jesus is. And once he is healed, he joins the entourage on the way up to Jerusalem. Luke tells us in 18:43 that the people “praised God, too” but they didn’t follow. They are admirers but not followers. They will not go out on a limb for this would-be Messiah.
And that leads us to perhaps the most famous tree climbing story in the Bible. Zacchaeus (whose name, interested, means “innocent”) was a chief tax collector—a local entrepreneur who employed other tax collectors to collect all the tolls, tariffs and taxes in the local area, in this case the town of Jericho. We’ve talked a lot about tax collectors in our journey through Luke’s Gospel. The tax collectors could charge the people whatever tax bill they wanted so long as their Roman overseers got paid the appropriate share. Whatever was left over got pocketed by the tax collectors as profit, and no one in that system would have profited more than a man like Zacchaeus. It’s no wonder, then, that tax collectors were among the most hated people in first century Israel. They were the ones who often left their fellow Judeans “up a tree” over their heavy taxes and shrinking incomes.
Jesus, however, seemed to gravitate toward these nefarious entrepreneurs. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, we’ve seen several incidences where the religious establishment repeatedly mocked Jesus for being a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (5:27-32; 7:34; 15:1-2). Maybe that’s why Zacchaeus wants so desperately to see Jesus — the tax collector doesn’t have any other friends, only enemies among the townspeople.
Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus so badly, in fact, that he “ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him because he was going to pass that way” (19:4). First century readers would have understood that Zacchaeus was really acting like a little kid. Running and a climbing a tree were both considered to be undignified and an embarrassment for adult males in that culture. You can almost imagine the crowd snickering at the sight of that little weasel Zacchaeus running and climbing like some scared little boy to get above and away from the crowd. It was an act that would have pushed him even lower on the social scale, even though he was now taller than the crowd while lodged up in the branches of the sycamore, which can grow to more than a hundred feet in height.
As Jesus came into town, he noticed Zacchaeus there, up a tree in more ways than one. For Zacchaeus and for many people who find themselves on the margins of society, being up and away from the crowd can be a safe refuge. Zacchaeus might have taken his child-like actions to the next level and built a tree house up there when none of his many enemies could get to him. In the end, however, living in the trees doesn’t work. Eventually, you have to come down and, when you do, it’s better to have someone there to catch you.
Jesus looked a Zacchaeus hanging on a sycamore branch and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (v. 5). Jesus invites himself to the tax collector’s home, another double social no-no. Jesus calls him down from being up a tree, out on a limb, and hanging on to life by his fingernails. In doing so, Jesus continues to be guilty-as-charged for hanging out with all the wrong people. Indeed, the crowd began to “grumble” saying, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner” (v. 7). Well, actually, Jesus was acting more like the host than the guest, which was often the case when Jesus came to dinner.
Zacchaeus had gone up a tree seeking Jesus, but it was Jesus who came seeking Zacchaeus on his way to Jerusalem. “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost,” says Jesus, and showing up in the house of this tiny tax collector demonstrated to everyone in the crowd that those who were up a tree in their lives were the ones Jesus was an is seeking.
Interestingly, that last statement of Jesus in this passage has most often been used to suggest that saving “the lost” is all about private and personal conversion which results in getting someone’s soul into heaven at death. What happens to Zacchaeus, however, is a much more comprehensive kind of salvation — a salvation that comes to the whole “house” and results in a transformative healing of the whole person in the present, not just the future. The salvation that Jesus offers changes Zacchaeus’ life through and through and, as a result, it benefits those around him. The poor benefit from Zacchaeus’ change from greed to generosity, receiving half of the tax collector’s possessions, which would have been substantial. Those who have been defrauded by Zacchaeus’ corrupt actions will receive a four-fold restitution, making them suddenly solvent and secure again (v. 8). When Zacchaeus is saved, the whole community benefits. When the lost are found, the trees get shaken and everyone enjoys the “fruit” that comes from repentance (3:8).\
Jesus came looking for people who were up a tree. Indeed, we’ve all been up a tree ever since that day in the garden when our spiritual ancestors went up a tree looking for something other than God (Genesis 3). Jesus has come to invite us down, to offer us a new life, to live lives that reflect the kind of healing, wholeness, and salvation his kingdom brings. And once we have encountered Jesus, once we have accepted his invitation, it will change us.
Contrast Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus with another wealthy “ruler” in the previous chapter (18:18-23). In that case, the rich man comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to obtain eternal life?” He’s kept all the commandments, which is good, but Jesus confronts him with “one more thing:” Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven and come follow me.
The rich man went away sad, Luke tells us, because he was very wealthy. For him, salvation was about moral and spiritual aptitude—Jesus confronts him with the realty that salvation, eternal life, is about a complete reorganization of priorities. Salvation, in fact, is about change. It’s not merely about being preserved for some future of eternal life after death, it’s about being set right in the present. Notice that when Zacchaeus promises to give half his possessions to the poor and pay back those he defrauded it’s in the present tense: “I give” and “I repay.” He does what the rich young ruler refuses to do. It is Zacchaeus’ declaration of change that causes Jesus to say, “Salvation has come to this household.” Jesus has invited him out of the tree and into a new way of life—a life of stewardship and care for God’s people.
It’s interesting to note that Zacchaeus doesn’t say he’s going to stop being a tax collector. As unpopular as it might be, somebody has to collect the taxes. Zacchaeus’ job probably remained the same, but his vocation changed as a result of his encounter with Jesus. He now saw his wealth and influence as being tools to help others and restore them. That’s the kind of vocation that God gave humanity from the very beginning—to be fruitful and be stewards of God’s creation and God’s resources. Salvation enables a person to get back on track with that vocation, no matter what your job may be.
It’s that embracing of vocation that really matters to Jesus. His grace enables us to embrace it and live it in the present in light of his return. In the next few verses, Jesus tells another parable to bring the point home. A man born into royalty goes to a distant land to “receive his kingdom” and then return. He gives ten of his servants some money to manage while he’s away. Meanwhile, we learn that the new king’s citizens “hated him” and didn’t want him to be king. When the new king returned, he called his servants for an accounting. Some had taken what they had been given and invested it, bringing a huge return. The king praised them for their investment. One servant, however, didn’t invest it and kept it under wraps. He produced nothing for the king, earning the king’s rebuke. What was given to the worthless servant was taken from him and given to the others. Oh, and as for the king’s enemies who hated him and refused his rule? “Bring them here and slaughter them before me,” said the king.
The point of the parable? Jesus, the king is coming into his kingdom. Now is the time to bear fruit and show a return on his investment. Are we going to be good stewards of the king’s resources, or will we hold on to them and do nothing? Will we take on the king’s agenda, or will we oppose him? What will we do in preparation for his return?
It’s no coincidence that the next scene finds Jesus riding into Jerusalem triumphantly—as her true king. Next week we will celebrate that on Palm Sunday. But his coming calls everything and everyone to account. Those who follow him, who invest their lives and vocation in his kingdom will, like Zacchaeus, find salvation and new life. Those who do not will find themselves on the outside. Salvation is not merely a product intellectual faith, it’s a matter of allegiance to the king!
Zacchaeus came down out of the tree at Jesus’ invitation. He took what he had and embraced his new vocation—investing his life for the king. Every one of us has the opportunity to invest ourselves in someone else’s life, offering them the kind of grace and love that Jesus has offered us. And when we invest ourselves with others that investment often translates to fruit that benefits the whole community. When the lost tree dwellers begin to come down, we begin to see the kingdom of God at hand. Salvation isn’t just about me—it’s about what God can do through me for a whole community.
Who do you know who’s up a tree right now? Maybe it’s that single mom in your neighborhood who is trying to hold down a job and care for a couple of kids. Maybe it’s that elderly person who sits alone in church and whom no one notices. Perhaps it’s that guy at work who struggles with an addiction, or the kid who has been abandoned by his parents. Chances are there are lots of people around you every day who are up a tree and needing an invitation to come down.
Or maybe you are the one who is feeling like you’re up a tree. Like Zacchaeus, you may be feeling on the outs with God and others. You might want to be up a tree, away from the crowd because if they knew who you really were they would hate you, too. Listen to Jesus’ invitation to the table—you are welcome. It’s ok to come down out of the tree. The king wants to be with you, to offer you a new vocation and new life. All you need to do is accept his invitation to come and receive the grace that he offers—the grace of the one who was nailed up a tree for us.
In the town of Jericho today there stands a massive sycamore tree that the Palestinian guides will tell is the real tree that Zacchaeus climbed up in as Jesus approached. Whether it is or not doesn’t really matter. It looks like a tree that would be fun to climb, but it’s no place to live. Zacchaeus came down and left the tree behind for a new life.
Will you come down from whatever tree you might be up today, and invite others to do the same?