March 19th, 2018

Up a Tree

Is there anyone you think Jesus can’t save?

Luke 19:1-10


Why the title

The first reason for the sermon title today is so that Jeffrey White will have to fork over $20 to John Moretz. As I was ending my men’s Bible study Thursday morning, John said, “I have a theme for your sermon on Sunday – one time or another we’ve all found ourselves up a tree.” I immediately said, “I like that. I’ll title the sermon ‘Up a Tree.’” Most of the guys in that group think my brain does a somersault between what we talk about Thursday and what comes out of my mouth. So Jeffrey quipped, “Twenty bucks, John, if that’s still the title Sunday.” Jeffrey, pay up.

Jeffrey is still going to feel vindicated, though, because I’ve done a lot of thinking about this passage since Thursday. I spread eighteen yards of mulch over a ten-hour period on Thursday afternoon and Friday, and I used most of that time to listen to YouTube sermons on Luke 19. As I was doing so, I looked over the fence where my neighbor, Arnie Cogswell, was up a tree. Seriously. I couldn’t help but ask why. He said their daughter had asked everyone in the family to take a picture doing something they did as a kid. Climbing a tree is not something grown men typically do.

Luke 19:1-10 is among the most familiar stories in the Bible, but there’s always something to learn. Let’s start with how to pronounce this tree-climber’s name. It’s not Zak-EE-us. It’s Zak-AY-us. Look at the spelling.

But there’s so much more, so let’s dig in. It’s possible Zacchaeus is not the only one up a tree.

Zacchaeus (1-4)

Verse 1. Jesus entered Jericho, and was passing through. Where is Jesus, where has he been, and where is he going? Context is critical.

18:35ff. First, look back to chapter 18. As Jesus approaches Jericho in a large and noisy crowd, a blind beggar catches Jesus’ attention by persistently shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He is healed.

18:31ff. Before that, Jesus takes the Twelve aside and reminds them what he has told them twice before – “We are going up to Jerusalem” where the Son of Man will be mocked, insulted, flogged, and killed – and then will rise again.” If you look ahead to chapter 19, Palm Sunday is right around the corner. This also means the crowds traveling through the city are pilgrims headed to Passover.

18:18ff. Before that, a “rich young ruler” asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life? “Sell everything and give it to the poor,” Jesus tells him. The man goes away sadly and the crowd wonders, “Who then can be saved?”

18:15ff. Before that, Jesus rebukes those who rebuked the parents bringing little children to him. “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” he says.

18:9ff. Before that, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying at the temple. The self-righteous Pharisee brags to God that he’s better than the tax collector, while the tax collector prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Over and over in Luke’s gospel, the most consistently responsive group is the tax collectors.

Luke strings these stories together for layered shock value about who Jesus cares for. Zacchaeus’ story is actually not only the final, but the most outrageous of them all.

Jericho is where “Joshua fit the battle.” It was first century Palestine’s Hickory. If you want to get to Asheville from the Triad, or Blowing Rock from Charlotte, you’re going through Hickory. Jericho was a crossroads, east-west and north-south.

Because of its location, Jericho was one of three major tax centers – Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea on the western coast, and Jericho on the eastern edge. Merchants bringing their goods from Moab or Perea or Persia or Arabia had to stop in Jericho to pay import taxes.

Jericho means “perfumed city,” probably from its fragrant balsam plantations. Herod had built forts on the four corners of the city, a brand new theater and amphitheater, and magnificent rose gardens, and a new palace. Feathery palms lined the streets. Alfred Edersheim called Jericho “the Eden of Palestine, the very fairyland of the Old World.”[1]

All of that is important as Jesus, flanked by not only his disciples but throngs of Passover pilgrims, is passing through wealthy, beautiful Jericho toward Jerusalem where he will first be welcomed as king on Sunday, then die the following Friday.

Verse 2. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was chief tax collector and was wealthy. The NIV omits one of Luke’s favorite words: “Behold!” (or, “Look!”). Pay attention here to “a man called Zacchaeus.” His name comes from a Hebrew word that means “pure.” Jews used “Zakkai” for someone of pure Israelite blood.

The irony is that this insider is “chief tax collector and wealthy.” In the Jewish mind, he’s a traitor. He’s sold his soul to the occupying Roman army. The tax collector was required to submit a certain amount to the Romans, but he could add a commission. His constant contact with Gentiles makes him perpetually unclean, unfit for worship. Jewish contempt for tax collectors extended to their families.

Zacchaeus isn’t just a tax collector, though, he’s the “chief tax collector” in Jericho. In the eyes of everyone, he was wealthy because he was at the top of a pyramid scheme that preyed on the common man to help the enemy and line his own pockets. He lived in a gorgeous home and had little contact with the common people.

Verse 3. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short, he could not see over the crowd. Literally this verse says, “And he was seeking to Jesus, who he is.” This wasn’t an impulsive act just because he heard Jesus was in town. It’s personal. Jesus defends tax collectors, attends dinner parties in their homes, spends time with them. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus doesn’t think tax collectors should be shunned. Quite the opposite. One of his disciples is a former tax collector.

Many people say that Zacchaeus was lonely, that he had no friends. He had lots of friends – but they were other tax collectors, other Jericho snowbirds, maybe even Romans. There was a whole set of people he socialized with, but it was different than the common Jewish society in the street, and certainly didn’t include the Pharisees.

Hearing that Jesus is coming through town, Zacchaeus leaves his luxury home and heads into the crowd to get a glimpse. But he can’t. Don’t think “orderly parade” here, as if the crowds are held back by barricades while Jesus and the Twelve march down the middle of the street. Think of a chaotic but mobile mob, with people pressing in and all around. Zacchaeus is in the throngs, but he’s never going to get even a glance because he is “small in stature.”

This “uniquely Luke” story is the only place in the entire New Testament where a person is described with the phrase, “small in stature.” The Greek word for “small” is “micron.” Zacchaeus is a micro-person, maybe a dwarf. The word is used of children.

Little guys get bullied, they get picked on, they get beaten up. To survive they have to be smarter than guys who are bigger and stronger. But there’s more. Leviticus actually bans Levites who were short from the service of the priesthood.[2] His extremely small size is noted because in the eyes of the Jews of his time it was a religious problem. People see him as a “small man” literally and figuratively.

Luke is definitely setting you, the reader, up with a very negative view of this man whose name means “pure.” As Mikeal Parsons writes, “Luke has spared no insulting image to portray Zacchaeus as a pathetic, even despicable, character. He paints a derisive and mocking picture of a traitorous, small-minded, greedy, physically deformed tax collector.”[3]

Verse 4. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. Zacchaeus is literally up a tree. Knowing the city as well as he does, he knows the route this pilgrim throng will take. He forgoes all his dignity as a man of wealth and power to run ahead of the crowd and shimmy up the sycamore fig tree. Only kids climb trees – and my neighbor Arnie. Zacchaeus has one thing on his mind that day, and he has the kind of determination it takes to get it. He wants to see Jesus, who he is.

Jesus (5-7)

The second person up a tree in this story is Jesus. Not literally, in his case. To be “up a tree” is to be cornered, to be in a tight spot. That happens to Jesus frequently… but intentionally. When Jesus is up a tree, he always escapes, except once.

Verses 5-6. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. From Zacchaeus’ standpoint, this is the shock line of the story. All he wanted to do was catch a glimpse. But Jesus (a) calls his name, (b) stops the procession to call Zacchaeus out of the tree “immediately,” and (c) invites himself to “stay” at the chief tax collector’s house. The British version of the kids’ song is, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house for tea.” Sorry, Brits, but it wasn’t for tea and it wasn’t even just for dinner. He’s going to “stay” there. He’s going to leave the pilgrim throng and hang out for a while, maybe overnight or even longer.

Furthermore, Jesus uses another word common to Luke’s gospel especially:  “must.” I must stay at your house today. This is the divine imperative. The encounter with Zacchaeus was Jesus’ God-directed necessity. There were throngs of people traveling with him and hundreds or thousands more filled the streets and joined them, at least for this part of the pilgrimage. Jesus had stopped to answer the cry of a blind beggar on his way into town, but he made a beeline through the town to get to a predetermined appointment with Zacchaeus. I’m sure he could have known his name supernaturally, but I think Jesus had heard about him in the usual way – by reputation with other tax collectors, including Matthew. So the tiny tax collector scrambled out of the tree and joyfully welcomed Jesus into his home.

Time passes without a specific record of what happened. What we do know is that the crowd Jesus left behind – the pilgrims headed to Jerusalem as well as the locals who had joined them – were not happy. Thousands of people that day “wanted to see Jesus,” and of all the people Jesus chose to stay with, why Zacchaeus?

Verse 7. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” Now Jesus is up a tree, and it’s his own fault. He’s going to need friends, you know, but he’s turning the vast majority off. You would think that at least someone – maybe his disciples – would defend him? There is awkward silence, until Zacchaeus speaks, for the first time in this story.

The crowd (8-10)

Verse 8. But 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.” What I’m getting ready to say to you is a minority view among translators, interpreters and preachers, but hold on. We think this was the moment Zacchaeus determined to give away half his stuff. Look again.

The verbs Zacchaeus uses are present tense. What Zacchaeus says is, literally, “Look! Half of my possessions, Lord, I am giving to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I give it back fourfold.” In other words, he says to the Lord in front of the crowd, “I am not the kind of person you think I am. I give half of my income to the poor. And if I am ever found to have taken what doesn’t belong to me, I pay it back 400%.” That’s not what he’s going to do, it’s what he already does.

You say, “Well, wait a minute. Didn’t Zacchaeus get rich by defrauding people? That’s what the crowd thought. But the Roman tax system was a tax farming system. People literally bought the franchise for overseeing taxes in a given area. Nobody was handed the job of Jericho’s chief tax collector on the promise that he would work his way up. You wouldn’t say, “Whoever buys the Carolina Panthers is going to become rich.” Whoever will buy the Carolina Panthers is already wealthy. Zacchaeus was independently wealthy before he became chief tax collector or he couldn’t have bought the contract. Sure, many tax collectors were money-hungry swindlers who used their power to defraud. Is it possible that Jesus brought him down from the tree to publicly challenge the assumption that tax collectors were incapable of faith or of faithful living?

You never know what God is already doing in the lives of other people. And you should never make assumptions that he isn’t at work or can’t bring people to himself that you would never consider to be kingdom possibilities. You would never have imagined that Zacchaeus would run ahead, climb a tree, or welcome Jesus to his home.

After Zacchaeus’ speech, the crowd is up a tree. They’re cornered. Besides the fact that he was different than they thought, he knows who Jesus is. He called him “Lord.” Whether you buy my theory about verse 8 or not, how Zacchaeus addresses Jesus is the critical point. A chief tax collector follows Jesus as “Lord.”

Verses 9-10. Jesus said to him, “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 to save the lost.” Zacchaeus is Jesus’ answer to the question of the crowd in chapter 18, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus demonstrates what he had said: “With God all things are possible.” That day salvation showed up at Zacchaeus’ house, in the person of Jesus.

That’s what Jesus does. That’s why Jesus came. This story is firstly about who Jesus is. It is secondly about spiritual prejudice. You think this vile “tax collector” can’t possibly be a “son of Abraham.” He can, and he is. Jesus’ mission is “to seek and to save that which was lost.” What is yours? Sometimes people are lost because we assume they cannot be found so we avoid and exclude them.

You and me

Zacchaeus’ story takes me back to my freshman year at Columbia Bible College. In a prayer meeting, I asked prayer for a friend back home who was obviously backsliding in his faith. I said, “He’s even dating a cheerleader.” The cheerleaders at my high school had a reputation as bad girls. “Cheerleader” was my sneer word.

Another freshman in that prayer meeting took exception to the comment. She wanted me to know that I shouldn’t judge all cheerleaders. Cheerleaders don’t have to be immoral to get on the squad. Her name was Linda Rohrer. Yes, the woman who would later become my wife had been a high school cheerleader.

You know the reputation that sailors have. And you’d never think that the Lord could get a hold of a Navy guy and turn him into a pastor. But there’s Pastor Bill Howell, and you heard his story earlier. Is there anyone you think Jesus can’t save? Anyone Jesus doesn’t want to save? Anyone you don’t want him to save?

Never, ever assume that God cannot and will not go to great lengths to save the lost. What will Jesus do to save them? He will go up a tree, literally. He will be crucified to bear the sins of cheerleaders, sailors, tax collectors, and you. That’s where he’s headed from Jericho. There is no one he can’t save. Amen.

[1] The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, chapter 24.

[2] Leviticus 21:20.

[3] Body and Character in Luke and Acts, 107.

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