I used to love climbing trees. Now, I’m scared of heights and get dizzy climbing stairs. But when I was young, I loved climbing as high as possible. One house I lived in as a child had a large tree in the front yard. I spent a lot of summer afternoons sitting high atop that tree, listening to my transistor radio. At another house, during another stage of growing up, I hid in a tree in my backyard for hours because I was mad at my brother. I would like to think that back in the day, I was a pretty decent tree climber. Because of my love of climbing trees, I have always loved the story of Zacchaeus climbing a sycamore tree, “for the Lord he wanted to see.” Zacchaeus’ story is fascinating all by itself, but when you put it into the context of Luke’s narrative, it becomes even more interesting.
Remember, at this point in Luke’s narrative, Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Passover and to offer Himself as the Passover Lamb. Luke 19:1 tells us that He has finally “entered Jericho.” A city about 20 miles east of Jerusalem. But let’s back up just a little. In Luke 18:18-30, Jesus confronts a rich ruler who asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). After a brief conversation about keeping the commandments, Jesus says to the man, “You still lack on thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor…then come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). The rich ruler refused to do so, and thus, went away sad. Now, as we shall see, Zacchaeus, a very wealthy man, vows to give half of all his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:8).
Furthermore, on the outskirts of Jericho, a blind beggar called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). Jesus replied, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41) The blind beggar said he wanted to see. Jesus then said, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you” (Luke 18:42). The blind man was healed and followed Jesus, praising Him, along with the growing crowd (Luke 18:43). With the rich man and the blind man as a background, Jesus now enters Jericho to encounter another rich man who could not see.
Zacchaeus Climbs a Sycamore Tree
Even though it had a checkered past, by Jesus’ day, Jericho had become a wealthy city on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The roads to and from Jericho were dangerous, but the city itself was a thriving commercial center. The city was also known as “the city of priests” because of the high number of priests, who ministered in Jerusalem, but lived in Jericho. Jericho was also the home a very wealthy “chief tax collector” named of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus’ name is quite interesting given the flow of Luke’s story telling. His name means “pure” or “innocent.” Quite the irony, since we will see he is neither. Luke has introduced us to other “tax collectors.” Levi (also known as Matthew) being one (see Luke 5:27-32). But Zacchaeus is the only “chief tax collector” we will meet.
Jericho was located to the east of Jerusalem, near the Jordan River. It was strategically located as a major stop on the trade routes between Jerusalem and Judea and other cities. The city was known for its fine buildings, wide streets, public squares, and luxurious homes. As a major commercial city, it was also an important customs and tax center. Tax collectors were known for their dishonesty and thievery. The entire tax system in the Roman Empire was corrupt. No one liked tax collectors. Tax collectors, who were also Jewish, where the lowest of the low. They were seen as traitors by other Jews. Jewish tax collectors were viewed as having sold out their heritage in order to be partners with the oppressive Roman government. They were so despised by their fellow Jews that they were forbidden to enter the Temple. The only person more hated then a tax collector would be a chief tax collector. A chief tax collector was responsible for an entire area. Every tax collector was answerable to, and paid fees to, a chief tax collectors. As a result of the corruption, chief tax collectors were extremely wealthy.
Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus, and wanted to see Jesus, but could not because of the large crowds and his small stature. “So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see Jesus” (Luke 19:3-4). It’s quite possible that the crowds knew who Zacchaeus was, but because of their disdain towards him, they did not allow him to push his way to the front where he could see. It would have been quite the sight to see this wealthy man, swallow his pride, and climb a tree.
There is no evidence in the text that Zacchaeus wanted to actually meet Jesus. He just wanted to see Him, and so he was as surprised as everyone else when Jesus stopped at the tree, looked up, and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). This sudden stop was totally unexpected. There were no plans for Jesus to stopover in Jericho. Luke said He “was passing through” (Luke 19:1). Also, it was against all culture norms for a person to invite himself to stay at another person’s house. Whatever the reason, if Zacchaeus was not looking to meet Jesus, Jesus was looking to meet Zacchaeus. Jesus was adamant about visiting his house. Think about that for just a moment: Jesus is the One who initiates a relationship with us. We don’t pursue God as much as God pursues us! This is the beauty of the gospel, and the uniqueness of Christianity. In all other religions, it is your responsibility to reach out to God. Only in Christianity does God reach out to men. If it were not for God’s grace, we would have no way of even knowing our sins could be forgiven.
Even though Jesus initiates the relationship, it was still up to Zacchaeus to respond. Jesus initiates, but He never forces us to act against our will. The rich ruler, rejected Jesus and went away sad. Zacchaeus “came down at once and welcomed him gladly” (Luke 19:6). But not everyone was glad. Luke continues, “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner’” (Luke 19:7). Once again, we are reminded of just how despised tax collectors were in that society. They were the worst of all sinners! How could Jesus associate with so a person!
Here is another lesson: Saying yes to Jesus may damage your reputation. At times, following Jesus means you go against conventional wisdom. It means you eat with the wrong crowd, love the wrong crowd, assist the wrong crowd, advocate for the wrong crowd, and heal the wrong crowd. Saying yes to Jesus means you dive head first into the messiness of life. If you are afraid to get dirty, stay in your tree and don’t come down when Jesus calls you.
In response to the critics, and as a demonstration of his repentance, “Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount’” (Luke 19:8). Zacchaeus clearly sees who Jesus is. Like the blind man earlier, he too has received sight. Unlike the rich ruler who refused to sell anything, Zacchaeus commits to giving half of all he has to the poor. He also commits to paying back those he cheated according to the laws of restitution spelled out in the Torah. True repentance is always followed by a change of actions.
In response to his confession of faith and repentance, Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). Jesus could not make it any clearer. Zacchaeus is now saved, and his new-found faith positively impacts his entire household. As a tax collector, he was not allowed into the Temple, now, he is completely restored. He is a “son of Abraham.” A child of God.
Luke 19:10 summarizes Jesus’ mission in one sentence: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” As His followers, that is now our mission. This is what Luke has been telling us throughout his entire gospel. Our target audience is not the up and coming, but the down and out. That person you know believe is too far away from God to be saved, is the person God is asking you to pursue for Him. The greater the sin, the greater the grace. Earlier, at the home of another tax-collector, accused of eating with sinners, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).
As a writer, Luke gives details because they mean something. In this story, he writes that Zacchaeus doesn’t just climb a tree, but he climbs a “sycamore-fig tree” (Luke 19:4). The sycamore trees in the Jordan Valley belong to the same family of trees as the mulberry and other fig trees. The sycamore tree was more like a large, overgrown bush. The limbs of the tree were so low that even a child could climb to get a better view of the surroundings. The fruit of the sycamore tree was bitter and unpleasant to eat. Only poor people ate the fruit of the sycamore tree. The irony of a wealthy person climbing the tree of the poor to see Jesus was not lost on Luke, neither was it lost on the first readers of his gospel.
In closing, let me make four applications. To help us remember these applications, I will use the word T.R.E.E. as an acrostic. The applications answer the following question: What happens when Jesus calls your name?
T – Time and place are irrelevant.
Zacchaeus was not expecting Jesus is know his name. But when Jesus decides to call your name, and get your attention, where you are, and what you are doing are not important. God called Moses while he was at work, tending sheep. He called Samuel when he was boy. He called David while he was playing music. He called Jonah in the belly of a great fish. God even called a thief while He was being executed for his crimes. Right now, Jesus is looking for you, pursuing a relationship with you. The time and place of His call in your life is irrelevant. He knows where you are. You cannot hide from His voice.
R – Repentance is the natural response.
When God Jesus you, one way you know it is Him, is that you are convicted of your sins. Maybe in the past you have been hard headed. Maybe in the past you have rationalized why you can’t follow Jesus or why your sins are not really that bad. But when Jesus calls your name, His holiness shines on your sinfulness and all you know to do is repent and believe. Don’t ever forget that true repentance results in a drastic change in lifestyle.
E – Expect criticisms from others.
This is an unfortunate reality. When you decide to come down from your loft and follow Jesus, people will question your motives, and they will watch your every move, hoping you will fail. Misery loves company. Your critics will say, “There is no way you can really change.” Don’t listen to them. Listen to Jesus! He is the one who has called you and He is the one who will change you. Remember these words from the Apostle Paul, whom God called while he was on his way to persecute Christians, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
E – Eternal life is yours.
The very moment you respond to Jesus’ call, you are saved! “Today salvation has come…” (Luke 19:9). The very second you repent and believe, you become a “son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9), a child of God.
Today, Jesus is calling your name. It is time to climb down from your perch and follow Him.
 Some of you may have to explain what a transistor radio is to your children. Or, you may have to google it to find out for yourself.
 I’m trying hard to refrain from singing the children song that goes like this: Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as that Savior past that way He looked up in the tree; and He said, “Zacchaeus! You come down! For I’m going to your house today.
 You can learn a lot about Jericho in the story of The Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.
 An acrostic is a series of lines or verses (or applications) in which the first, last, or other particular letters
when taken in order spell out a word or a phrase.