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Finding Jesus in A Tree

Zacchaeus come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.

Luke 19:5

Jesus enters the town of Jericho and is met by a throng of people. As he walks into the town, he passes under a sycamore tree. He looks up and sees a man in the tree. To the man he says; Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today. To which Zacchaeus agrees and has Jesus stay at his house. After the visit, Zacchaeus a very rich tax collector states he will give half his wealth to the poor and any that he has defrauded, he will pay back four times.

On the surface, this seems like a simple conversion and change of heart created by Jesus. An interesting story that we pass through when reading the Gospel of Luke. But it isn’t so simple, especially when we consider the historical and deeper theological implications.

First, Zacchaeus was a tax collector and not only that, the chief tax collector in Jericho. Jericho was a very wealthy commercial center in the first century and as such a tax collector could and many did amass a fortune. Tax collectors were locals who worked for Rome and were given quotas to collect. Whatever they collected above the quota they got to keep. In Jericho, that could be a sizeable amount. Naturally, they were despised by their neighbors and considered to be no more than thieves who preyed on the local population.

Zacchaeus was not only a tax collector but the chief tax collector.

He amassed a large fortune through his own efforts and from the kick-backs he got from the other tax collectors. In his lifetime, he had defrauded many. He was considered to be the worst of society. Ironically, Zacchaeus means pure of heart in Hebrew.

Zacchaeus had heard Jesus was coming to Jericho and desperately wanted to see Jesus. But the crowds were so large, the only viewing place was in a sycamore tree. So, up he went into the tree. His goal was just to see Jesus, and was stunned when Jesus called him down from the tree.

The crowd grumbled when they heard Jesus wanted to stay with a tax collector. Amazed that someone of such ill-repute could be singled out by Jesus.

After the visit and when Zacchaeus stated he would give back a large sum of his wealth, Jesus declares; 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.

This statement by Jesus contains many thoughts.

For instance, note that Jesus said, this man too, is a son of Abraham. Implying that we are all worthy, regardless of our past. Which brings us back the meaning of Zacchaeus in Hebrew, pure of heart. This is what Jesus saw in Zacchaeus, a pure heart, and this is why Jesus searched him out.

We could ask and judge, how can this man be pure of heart after he bilked his neighbors? But that is the point of the story. We don’t really know where a person’s heart is, and it is not ours to judge. Jesus’s point is we have all fallen short at times in our lives, not because we are inherently bad, but because we made bad choices.

I can imagine, when Zacchaeus started his life journey as a young man, trapped by his ability to scheme and ploy. He turned to tax collecting to become rich. Not thinking about his impact on other peoples lives. Later, in life he became trapped by his wealth, left empty and unsatisfied.

But we could also ask, why did he want to see Jesus so badly that he climbed a tree? Simply, I suppose he wanted a change. Which leads to the age-old theological question, Do we find God or does God find us? In this story, it appears to be both. In a recent poll I took of believers, the overwhelming response I got was that both happened to them.

For Zacchaeus, he was ready to meet God and God met him.

Likely none of us has gotten as far off course as Zacchaeus and had such a dramatic change to make. But I think this makes the story more relevant for us. No matter how far we get off course, we can always find God and God will find us. And as believers we should try to help those returning to God and not judge.

Each person’s Journey with God is special and very personal to them. It takes turns and twists along the way. God never gives up on us, even the Chief Tax Collector.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, Blessed are the pure of heart, for they will see God. Does this mean Zacchaeus as well?

Listen to the Full Podcast – Finding Jesus in a Tree

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

By Niels Larsen Stevns – Own work (photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen) (Randers Museum of Art, Randers, Denmark), Public Domain,https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1428023

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