In Luke 19:1-9 we have a story about a tree, a sycamore fig tree to be precise, that in Palestine literally grows figs on its branches, unlike the sycamore tree in Europe and North America. The story behind this particular tree is tied in with Jesus travelling down to Jerusalem to die, which he knew was his Father’s will for him, and part of his journey meant a stop in Jericho because this too was on the Father’s itinerary for him, just as everything else in Jesus’ life on earth was.
It was totally intentional in the Father’s itinerary, therefore, that Jesus pass right by this sycamore fig tree in Jericho, because a little fat tax collector would be climbing it to get a glimpse ofJesus when he arrived. And fortunately for the tax collector the limbs of this type of tree spread outward very low down on the trunk so that even a child would find the tree easy to climb.
I wouldn’t be surprised, then, to discover that God himself had planted this tree, or made sure someone planted it – and at this very spot too, close to where Jesus would be walking – just as he’d planned for Zacchaeus the tax-collector to climb it. And that’s because of the message he wanted to get across about Jesus, that explained the reason why Zacchaeus found himself wanting to get a look at Jesus, and why he got desperate enough to climb a tree when the crowd blocked him out, and being so short he couldn’t see over them.
It was then, to Zacchaeus’ immense surprise, but exactly according to the Father’s plan, that when Jesus arrived at the tree he stopped, looked up at Zacchaeus and said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately: I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).
The fact that Jesus knew Zacchaeus by name, and that he was in the tree, and that out of that entire crowd he selected a much-despised agent of the hated Romans, clearly means something worth taking note of here. But what?
Well, when Jesus arrives at Zacchaeus’ house, followed by a grumbling crowd who were also surprised that Jesus would allow himself to be “the guest of a ‘sinner’” (verse 7), he says to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (verse 9).
And why was it so important to the Father that Jesus say that? “Because,” Jesus continues in verse 9, ”this man too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man,” verse 10, “came to seek and to save what was lost.”
As a Jew listening to that my mind would be reeling, I imagine, because Jesus had lumped this despicable ‘sinner’ in with them as being a “son of Abraham” too. To Jesus, however, Zacchaeus was no different to the rest of them, despite him choosing to work for the hated enemy.
It gets worse, though, because Jesus then says “the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost,” meaning, that although Zacchaeus was “a son of Abraham” he was lost and needed saving. Well, no Jew thought he was lost or needed saving, because as “Abraham’s descendants,” John 8:33, they thought they had it made as God’s children (verse 41).
But here Jesus is hinting – in Zacchaeus being lost and in need of saving – that so were the rest of the Jews, and the only route to salvation was Jesus himself. Which is why Jesus announced at Zacchaeus’ house, “Today salvation has come to this house” meaning himself being the source of salvation for Zacchaeus, and therefore himself as the only source of salvation for the rest of the Jewish nation too. But to lump them in twice now with that traitor Zacchaeus, as both a child of Abraham and a lost sinner in need of salvation, must have shocked them to their roots.
And for it to happen to a man who’d made himself rich at their expense, it must have been a bitter pill to swallow, but it certainly got their attention for Jesus to make his announcement that no matter what kind of person you were or what your ancestry was, salvation was possible through him.
But what kind of “salvation” was Jesus talking about? Well, that had become obvious in the remarkable change in Zacchaeus. The man really had been despicable, having deliberately chosen a job where he could make himself rich at his countrymen’s expense. He could overcharge for taxes owed and siphon off the extra for himself, and tax collectors were well-known for doing it. And Zacchaeus was “a chief tax collector” too, so he was probably getting a slice out of all the other tax collectors’ profits as well.
But here was Zacchaeus up a tree looking for Jesus, and when Jesus called out to him he “welcomed Jesus gladly.” So something dramatic had changed in Zacchaeus that had zeroed his mind on Jesus. This dramatic change in him then included a total turnaround in his attitude to his fellow countrymen too, because he was ready to give half his wealth to the poor and pay back fourfold to anyone he’d knowingly cheated.
It was clear evidence of what Jesus’ salvation did to a person. It gave them a love for God and love for neighbour, and in a person like Zacchaeus too, whose heart had been as cold as ice to both God and people.
It made me realize, then, that if the same dramatic change has been happening in me that “salvation” has come to my house too. Somehow the Father who calls us orchestrates circumstances so that Jesus becomes hugely important to us too, enough for us, like Zacchaeus, to seek out Jesus no matter how embarrassing that makes us look, or what other people think of us. And then we find our attitude toward people changing too, where reconciling with people we’ve had difficulties with, and healing old wounds, becomes top priority.
And wasn’t love for God and love for neighbour what God created humans to enjoy forever, that we so sadly “lost” back there in Genesis?
Zacchaeus up that sycamore fig tree, therefore, tells us just how merciful our Father is toward us, and why he had Jesus say these words to Zacchaeus on his way to die in Jerusalem to make the salvation that Zacchaeus was experiencing available to the whole world, no matter who or what we are.