The Tree Climber

Dear Friends:

This is the third of three stories of men and their experience with Jesus that I’ve been pondering for the past six months. One was a virtuous leader who found his success to be more important than Jesus. The second was a blind beggar who possessed nothing but a desperate prayer. The third was a wealthy rogue who refused to let anything stand between him and seeing Jesus. Read together, their stories reveal the truth of what we want and what Christ wants and how our desire and his reality can be reconciled. These stories appear in sequence in Luke 18 and 19.

Do you recognize the foolishness of seeking fulfillment outside of Him? Do you understand that it’s impossible to please God in any way other than whole hearted surrender? Do you grasp the beauty and deep joy of walking in genuine intimacy with God, our holy Father and Friend? Do you want to see God more than you desire security? (Francis Chan, Crazy Love [Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008], p. 113)
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a Son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the Lost” (Lk 19:1-10).

It was a happy crowd that entered Jericho with Jesus. When the blind man heard Jesus’ word, “Receive your sight, your faith has saved you,” he received his sight instantly and the celebration was on. He followed Jesus shouting praises to God. “And all the people, when they saw it, praised God too” (Lk 18:42-43).

A chief tax collector makes it his business to know what’s going on. There’s profit in information about who’s successful, who’s experiencing a change in fortune, where someone may be hiding their gains. Zacchaeus is good at his business for he is rich.

There are three things that the people of Jericho know about Zacchaeus: he is short in stature; he is a chief tax collector loathed for gouging his fellow Jews while collecting taxes for the hated Roman occupiers; and he is rich from his cut of the revenues. He is despised.

A despised man lives by his wits. A wink, a shrug, folded arms, averted eyes, a clenched jaw–you learn to read every sign and nuance when open communication and acceptance are denied to you. But you get tired of watching from the walls of your guarded heart without relief. “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death!” (Rom 7:24).

The people are happy. He can hear them coming. The word has already come, passed ahead by sprinting children and the wildfire of gossip, that Jesus of Nazareth is coming this way.

He has heard of this “Jesus” –teacher, prophet, miracle worker. The Pharisees who hate Zacchaeus hate Jesus even more. He calls them out for their hypocrisy, shames them for their hard hearts and confounds them with simple answers to their complex hypothetical questions about the law. Zacchaeus has heard that they tried to trap Jesus’ disciple Peter over payment of the temple tax and Jesus produced a coin out of the mouth of a fish to end the argument–neat trick, that one (Mt 17:24-27). He even called a tax collector to be a disciple and ate dinner at his house (Lk 5:27-28). What kind of teacher would do such a thing?

It is said that Jesus claims to be the Son of God. “Blasphemy,” say the priests and Pharisees. Zacchaeus is not so sure. “If there is a God who accepts sinners and tax collectors, I’d want to worship him,” he thinks.

Zacchaeus is mulling the questions over when he hears the crowd coming up the street. More people rush around Zacchaeus to meet Jesus.

A wild, random thought rises from Zacchaeus’ calculating heart. It shocks him with a surge of emotion from a place where he has long since written off feelings. “I want to see this teacher who accepts men like me. I must see Jesus?” he thinks and when the thought enters his consciousness he is as certain of it as he is the exact tax on a sack of wheat on a miller’s cart.

The crowd is dense now. It blocks the street entirely and obscures his vision as it has so many times in his life. It is important to think whether there is a crowd standing between Jesus and us and take the necessary action to get to his side.

Zacchaeus realizes that he must leave the crowd to see Jesus and it is the most important decision of his life.

He turns and runs to a spot up the road where he knows that Jesus will pass and he climbs a sycamore tree so that he will not miss Jesus for the crowd. He waits.

“Running and tree-climbing! I haven’t done that since I was a child,” Zacchaeus thinks to himself as he catches his breath.

Jesus has a special affinity for those who run and climb trees. Not long ago, he said, “Truly I tell you, whoever, does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Lk 18:17). His child Zacchaeus who he spots up in the tree is no exception.

A guy who is willing to run and climb a tree to see Jesus is always going to delight the Savior. The rich, young ruler wanted salvation as the showpiece of his collection of virtues and blessings. He wouldn’t even set down his bank book to follow Jesus and the distraction left him lost and sad.

The blind man jumped up and threw off his coat to meet Jesus. He was itching to run and the first thing he did after receiving his sight was to follow Jesus down the road in joyous praise.

Now Jesus sees the eager little man go out on a limb for him and he is moved. “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

There are no adequate words to describe what if feels like when you learn someone who you love and adore from afar knows your name and wants to spend time with you. Most of us spend our lives looking for love and feeling unworthy of receiving it in unconditional purity. It is remarkably rare for men and women to pray their dissatisfaction and hunger and to admit their need for love.

We try very hard to be self-sufficient. We hoard our meager possessions and anxiously tend faulty relationships in the desperate pretense that this is as good as it’s ever going to get and we must make the best of it as our own “amateur providence” in Oswald Chambers’ incisive phrase.  “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing,” is our mask against the reality that we are all “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Rev 3:17). A rich man has his deposits and a beggar has his coat and both of them are loathe to give them up to receive Christ with open hands and heart.

Wealth itself is not the issue. Money has no inherent good or evil. It is the place that money occupies in one’s mind and heart that is the problem because for the rich it carries the illusion of self-sufficiency and for the poor it brings the temptation of self-sufficiency (Prov. 30:8). The “eagerness to be rich” is an enemy of faith (1 Tim 6:10).

The rich, young ruler saw his money as power and identity, yet, there was a longing in his heart that brought him to Jesus to seek salvation. If wealth is the driver in your life, you will never have enough because life is both hard and terminal (Lk. 12:16-21). The ruler went away sad for he couldn’t relax his grip to receive what he really wanted and needed.

Zacchaeus is also rich and he has authority as the “chief tax collector.” He suffers from no illusions, however. His occupation has made him a living, but it has not brought him a life. It takes love to have a life. Zacchaeus, in this moment, discovers that he is loved. When you are known for exactly who you are and yet the one who knows desires to be with you where you are, you are loved.

It is Jesus’ sacred mission to let Zacchaeus and you and me know that we are loved. “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way” (Lk 1:78-79).

It is the kind of thing that makes a grown man or woman hurry to welcome Love to their heart and home and that is what Zacchaeus does in response to Jesus.

What follows is a moment of real discernment. Everyone in the crowd who witnessed the exchange between Jesus and Zacchaeus was disappointed. They began to grumble–the sulking, angry murmur of the envious and the judgmental. “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

Even though Jesus and Zacchaeus are standing right there, the grumblers speak of them in the past tense, so quickly are they written off by those who want their Jesus reserved on an unreachable, untouchable pedestal safe from sinners. There are many problems with this thinking. It gives more credit to the power of sin than to the power of Christ. It is sinners who need a Savior and it is his kindness that leads them to repentance (Rom 2:4). Denying Jesus to sinners is to reject the possibility of transformation and therefore to reject the Gospel.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1-2). Those who condemn you as unworthy to answer the call of Jesus on your life are never, I repeat, never, doing God’s work. It’s Jesus’ job to set you free and to transform your life and home by his presence. What is required of you is to welcome his presence with a willing spirit and no part of your heart or home closed off to him. He will do the rest.

If you are waiting to vacuum, dust, repaint and take out the trash before you welcome him in, stop that now, and open the door to his knock. He knows that you aren’t perfect, but he wants to come in and share a meal with you anyway. He will clothe you, remove your shame and heal your blindness (Rev. 3:18-20). In fact that blindness that has you groping about in darkness and want results from you forgetting that you were cleansed from your past sins by Jesus(1 Pet 1:9).

Zacchaeus is the proof. He takes his stand right there in front of Jesus and the grumbling crowd and says to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” What a beautiful illustration of the cause and effect of the Gospel that “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).

Zacchaeus makes a startling confession. His use of the appellation, “Lord,” shows his surrender to Christ. A chief tax collector operated under authority of the Roman emperor. He is saying openly that he gives his allegiance to Jesus. Neither the Jewish leadership or the Roman authorities will be pleased by this for it is a threat to them both.

He is also yielding what would appear to keep the crowd at bay from him–his wealth and his pretense at rectitude. He is giving up half of his wealth to the poor and voluntarily waiving his Roman immunity to the law of Israel that fraud carried a four-fold penalty (Ex 22:1; Lev 6:5, Num 5:6-7). He is doing what the rich, young ruler would not do–letting go of the stuff. Holding on to the stuff and worrying about what the crowd will think if we “come clean” with our sins are two irrefutable signs that we have not surrendered to Jesus (Mt 6:24; Jn 5:44).

Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a Son of Abraham.”

I love the way that Jesus says this. The salvation that came to the house isn’t the right books on the shelf, a baptismal certificate, a method of prayer, or even payment of the pledged contributions to the poor and the defrauded. Salvation is neither a thing nor an effort. Salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ heart and home because Jesus is in the house–“Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'” (1 Cor 1:30).

Look no further–salvation is evoked and the kingdom of God comes in the presence of Jesus. If you have Jesus you have the whole package of God.

Another reason that I love what Jesus says to Zacchaeus is that he vindicates Zacchaeus against the grumblers. This explains the odd description by Luke that Jesus is speaking to Zacchaeus, but uses the third person pronoun “he” when he calls Zacchaeus “a Son of Abraham.” The reference was to the faith of Abraham in following God. Scripture makes it absolutely clear that God accounted Abraham as righteous as a gift because of his faithful trust in God (Rom 4:3, quoting Gen 17:5) and not because Abraham had done anything to earn that status with God (Rom 4:1-12; 6:23).

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus. Nothing else mattered–not his position, his wealth, his reputation, his pride, his dignity, the disapproval of the crowd. The ruthless tax collector was allowed nothing to get in the way of knowing the Lord.

Eternal life is to know the Father and Jesus Christ who he sent (Jn 17:3). That means the power of salvation is in a personal relationship with Jesus. If one is not following Jesus, one is lost (Jn 10:25-30). This is not a politically correct thing to say in the post-modern era but you either take Jesus in whole or not at all, based on his own claims. Jesus is not just some teacher giving helpful guidance. He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also” (Jn 14:6-7a). Jesus claims to be God and that is the claim that all of us must come to terms with if eternal life is a goal for us.

C.S. Lewis famously wrote of the statement often made by people that, “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.” Lewis said:

That is the one thing that we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to (Mere Christianity [New York: Macmillan, 1960], p. 56).

The short, rich, despised chief tax collector sees Jesus, accepts him as Lord and holds nothing back from him. In Jesus, he finds someone who stands up for him and  covers his vulnerability to those who accuse him of unworthiness. Jesus is undeterred by Zacchaeus’ critics. Love accepts and love protects.

Jesus is Zacchaeus’ worthiness. It is Jesus’ love that gives him new life. Zacchaeus now faces his future with the security of being a beloved man. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so we are in this world” (1 Jn. 16b-17).

The rich, young ruler had wanted to add salvation to his trophy collection and found it to be priceless, but pride would not let him accept the gift. The blind beggar cried out to Jesus for sight and what he came to see was Jesus. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus and found the wonderful truth that Jesus was looking for him with eyes of love.

What I take from these stories is that our salvation is in Christ alone and cannot be separated from the person of Jesus. He will stop to hear and answer an honest prayer. He will let himself be found by someone who looks for him honestly for his mission is to “seek and save the lost.”

Jesus fulfills the Word of God to the prophet Jeremiah: “When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, your will find me; if you seek me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord. . . .” (Jer. 29:12-14).

Our salvation is a “Who,” not a “what.” It’s amazing how we can complicate that, but making it a “what” gives a role to our pride and that’s where the trouble starts. The way to home and peace is to leave the “what” behind as a failed venture and receive Jesus who is not just our Savior but our salvation. I invite you to give up everything else, throw off the coat of your pretense, leave the crowd and run to him. He’s waiting. His loving embrace will mean the difference of eternity for you.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps. 34:8).

Under the mercy of Christ,


This entry was posted in Men & Interactions With Jesus. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.