Nobody liked the tax collectors all that much, but if you were the “chief” tax collector – and wealthy on top of that – you were particularly shunned and reviled. Such was the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). I’ve always liked that “wee little man,” Zacchaeus. Maybe it’s because I’m convinced that the taller people wouldn’t let him stand in front so he could see. I tend to vote for the underdog.
Everyone knew Zacchaeus, because this was one of the three regional tax centers in the land of Israel: the northern one being Capernaum, the central one on the coast being Caesarea, and the southern one being Jericho. Caught up in his materialism, no doubt, Zacchaeus had a heart that was blinded by money. At least at first. That was before Jesus came to town. Jesus was headed through Jericho up to Jerusalem for the Passover. This would be His last time. So Christ arrived at the City of Palms, as it was called, six miles north of the Dead Sea and six miles west of the Jordan River.
In the Bible’s account of that day, it’s possible for us to read past what Zacchaeus did. After all, he’s most remembered for climbing a tree. And what’s the big deal about climbing some tree? In the culture of that day, what mattered most to people was a sense of dignity, honor, and respect. A grown man would never climb a tree. To do so would be saying to whole world: “Please ridicule me, starting now!” But height-challenged Zacchaeus didn’t care. He just wanted to see the Lord.
So there was high-profile (not literally, of course) Zacchaeus in a tree. Meanwhile, all the religious people were looking on – already ready to pounce on this notorious “sinner” if given even half a chance. So Jesus chose Zacchaeus as the one to whom He would extend friendship. That’s what staying with someone meant – even just sharing a meal – it meant relationship. This offended everyone. Except Zacchaeus. And that’s usually how grace works. The recipient is blown away by the absolutely undeserved joy of it all, while the religious hypocrites – who seem always within arm’s length – have some version of a fit (at least internally).
As for Zacchaeus, his life was changed forever. That’s also how grace works. We are saved “for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). In the case of Zacchaeus, some of those works included giving 50% of his income to the poor. And paying back everything he had ever stolen with 300% interest. Now that was radical, especially for a guy who – ten minutes ago – loved his stuff more than anything else on Earth. This man, who had made a fortune at the expense of others, had to become poor. So that he could become rich. Again, all of grace.
Pause and rewind. Back to that tree. I want you to picture little Zacchaeus up in that tall tree. He must have looked something like an animated Christmas ornament! And what was happening there? Hated Zacchaeus was beholding, with his very own eyes, Love. Love was passing by. And the town reject – that despicable and despised dude who was regarded by the crowd at Jericho as inferior to a prostitute – enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the Son of God who had come “to seek and to save the lost.” For a moment in time, that tree – which may well have become somebody’s firewood soon thereafter – must have sparkled with the brilliance of a thousand diamonds. Verdant beauty? I don’t know. But beauty for sure. And in my mind’s eye, Zacchaeus is precariously perched there, grinning from ear to ear!
When it was all over, Luke recorded these words of Jesus: “Salvation has come.”
Maybe the first Christmas tree was a sycamore.