The scene of a portly, rich man who had been ostracized by the community, running in the middle of a crowd to climb a tree, being ordered to “come down” to host Jesus in his house and thereafter offering to give half of his wealth to the poor and repaying fourfold any irregularly acquired wealth makes Zacchaeus’ story one of the most dramatic conversion stories in the New Testament. But why exactly did he run to the sycamore tree and whats is the significance of the tree in today’s christian life? Here is the story from Luke 19:1-10;
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
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.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
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.”
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.”” Luke 19:1-10.
When I recently reflected on this story, it occurred to me that in most of the homilies that I have listened to and the commentaries I have read on this story, the reflections are usually based on the behaviour of three major players (characters, if you wish); Jesus the Saviour, Zacchaeus the sinner and the crowd which represents distractions/hindrances. Very little, if any, is said about the sycamore and this sent my brain into overdrive. What was its significance in this story? Does it matter that it was a sycamore tree or it could have been just any other tree or may be a rock? What became of it? Did it outlive Zacchaeus? After his conversion did Zacchaeus have any relationship with it again? Did he ever revisit the site? Are the claims by some writers that the sycamore tree still exists somewhere in Jericho factual? The tree…so many things about the tree and Zacchaeus are vague. And of course the bonus question: given its huge trunk and Zacchaeus short stature (the mental image I have of Zacchaeus is a stout man with short legs and arms and carrying some extra weight around the mid-section) how did he manage to climb the tree? Naturally, he couldn’t have jumped on the branches!
According to wikipedia, the sycamore grows to 20m tall and has a considerable spread, with a dense round crown of spreading branches and whose flowering and fruiting occurs year-round. The Bible Study Tools notes that the sycamore was a tree of great importance and with very extensive use in Egypt and Palestine and so great was its value in David’s kingdom that he had appointed a special overseer for sycamore and olive trees – 1 Chronicles 27:28. The sycamore tree is a very fruitful tree and it is said that it can have as many as six crops in a year.
In the absence of the sycamore tree, or any tree for that matter, would Zacchaeus story have been told? Would his conversion have been as dramatic? I don’t know. Going by other Gospel stories such as the ones for Batimaus and the lady who had bled for 13 years, it is a fact that Jesus had the power to spot Zacchaeus from the crowd even without the diminutive publican having to climb a tree. Right from the creation of the world, Jesus knew Zacchaeus and therefore by the time He made His journey to Jericho, He knew that Zacchaeus’ moment of salvation was ripe. On the other hand, Zacchaeus developed a strong desire to see Christ and I can only imagine his townsmen shock when they saw him go up the tree and thus affording himself a clear line of vision to see Jesus. The Biblical text does not tell us the distance that Zacchaeus ran in order to reach the sycamore tree but given his strong desire to see Jesus, one imagines that the distance was substantial and even in the absence of a tree he could have climbed on some rock or taken some piggyback ride on some stranger. In my view, therefore, the tree represents the environment in which, or the opportunity through which, God’s divine plan for man’s salvation and Zacchaeus’ human desire for God‘s love and salvation met.
For the believers, even today Jesus still walks in the dusty streets of our lives and He always shows up for those who have their spiritual eyes open. At the same time, just like Zaccheaus we have all compromised our character in various ways and may not be worthy to host Christ in our hearts. The story of Zacchaeus therefore, in a way, mirrors our own lives and struggles and seems to be an invitation for us to identify our own sycamore trees – that place, that opportunity, that environment that will enable us, and others, to see Jesus as He passes through our lives.
One property of the sycamore tree, as noted earlier, is its fruitfulness and this can be taken to symbolise rejuvenation/regeneration. It was on that tree that Zacchaeus was to meet Christ, acknowledge and repent his sins and also rediscover his mission in life – that of taking care of the poor. By climbing the tree, Zaccheaus had strategically positioned himself for a life-changing encounter. And Jesus did not disappoint. I can’t recall reading anything else about what became of Zacchaeus after this encounter but from Jesus’ concluding remarks “salvation has come to his house, it is evident that he lived a very happy and satisfying life thereafter. By going up the tree Zacchaeus got more than what he bargained for; he was requested to come down and not just to see or meet Jesus face-to-face and to host him for a meal in his house but, just like Paul on his way to Damascus, he was invited to a life-changing experience that completely transformed his mission in this world. We can also experience the same life-changing encounter with Christ the moment we identify our sycamore and positively respond to Christ’s request to host Him in our hearts.
Another important property of the sycamore tree worthy noting is its imposing nature over the crowds. As noted earlier, the crowds only served to distract Zaccheaus from the attainment of his heart’s desire. Compared to the sycamore tree, with its sturdy trunk and low –spreading branches which stood tall and strong in the midst of the crowd, the people in the crowd appeared insignificant, individually and collectively. Buttressed by this imposing nature of the tree and his strong desire to see Jesus, Zacchaeus’ short stature was no longer a limitation to the attainment of his goals.
We are called to identify our sycamore trees in all the areas where Jesus is passing through in our lives, families, places of work, relationships and so on. Once we identify our trees, we shall be able to position ourselves for the encounter and be able to have a clear line of sight to see Jesus. In addition we should pray for receptivity to His gentle presence so that He may help us not to be so deafened and desensitized by the world’s loud outcry that our receptivity fails to register him. For us to be able to achieve the rejuvenation symbolized by the sycamore tree as well as take advantage of its imposing nature, we are called to focus on the Lord and not the crowds. There is a human tendency to wonder what He will ask of us should we meet Him – what habits and what relationships will He ask us to drop or pick? From Zacchaeus experience, it’s clear that, once perched up on the tree Jesus takes over and His grace is sufficient and guides us to a life where we understand that we are nothing but stewards of any possessions or statuses in society and that we should only “glory in the cross”.
Looked at in another angle, the story of Zacchaeus also presents us with an opportunity as well as a challenge to be the sycamore tree in the lives of our brothers and sisters. It calls us to be the tree for people to come and climb; climb higher to witness, discover or research on the wonderful, may be shocking or extreme, claims of, and about, the Son of God. As noted earlier, the sycamore tree is monstrous in appearance, tall and wide and with its leaves growing to be up to 6 inches long thus making a fully grown one to be one of the densest trees. Consequently, for us to be the sycamore tree in other peoples’ lives, our spiritual trunks and branches must be very strong so that they can support the weight of the Zacchaeuses in our lives. In addition, unlike most trees, sycamores are highly resistant to pollution and salty soils and are also known to stand up well in stormy weather, such as strong winds and hail. This means that for us to be sycamores, we are called to be deeply rooted in the faith, love and service of Christ and God’s kingdom so that despite the many temptations and struggles of life we should rest with the knowledge that all these are temporary, as outlined in John 16:33 where Jesus informed the disciples that “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.””
In particular there is a special call today for Christians who can be sycamores to the teens and the youth; Christians who can lift these young sycamores above the crowds in order for them to see the approaching saviour. These youth ministers are especially called to emulate Jesus’ tone in His encounter with Zacchaeus. In Jesus’ voice, Zacchaeus hears offers for love, compassion, understanding, protection and a promise. Jesus seems to say “Zacchaeus, I know you and your circumstances. I know your past mistakes and your anguish. I know your deep desire to know me, to be my friend and to serve me so that we can walk together. I also know your temptations but my love is stronger than them. My Father sent me to come, to seek and save you; even if you were the only one in the world, I would still have come to die and save you. Accept my love, come down and my right hand will save you; I will wipe away all your tears and as for your sins, I will remember them no more. I will guide you.” This is Christ’s message to the youth today and the youth workers/ministers are called to go to Christ and be in service with Him, and in His way, so that His kingdom may become present in this world and especially in the world of the young people.
The good thing about being a sycamore is that their success is not necessarily measured in terms of the numbers of Zacchaeuses who climb them or the number of pats on the back but rather on the sound of one Zacchaeus shouting (or at least living the words) “I can see Him now. And I know he sees me” and repentance is done, forgiveness offered and salvation delivered. And what is a sycamore’s joy or reward? Occupying a front row seat to witness the miracle of a Zacchaeus’ life song being re-written afresh, being so much more fun to sing; a life changed, a broken relationship restored, an injury pardoned –basically receiving an answer to the St Francis prayer “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”