by Erin Bird
Today, I want to start a new series here on the blog from Luke 19:1-10. You possibly know this section of Scripture as the story of Zacchaeus, made famous by the children’s song. If you aren’t familiar with the story or need a refresher, I encourage you to take a moment to read it. (Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you.)
Here’s what we’ll do during this short series: Next week, we’ll look at the reaction of the crowds to Zacchaeus, then in two weeks, we’ll end the series by looking at Jesus’ view of Zacchaeus.
But this week, I want to look at Zacchaeus himself. He was a fascinating man that I think you and I can learn from.
Get to know Zacchaeus
Here is what we know about Zacchaeus from Luke 19:
1. He lived in Jericho.
Jericho was a city just north of the Dead Sea near the Jordan River (map). This location would have been a couple days walk south of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus spent the majority of his life and ministry. Which means, Jesus didn’t spend much time around Jericho. Word had been spreading around Israel about the miracle-worker from Nazareth, so to have Jesus arrive in Jericho would have been like the arrival of a celebrity. The whole city would have turned out trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.
2. He was a wealthy tax collector.
Tax collectors were some of the most despised individuals in Israel, because they were Jewish men who were working for the Roman government. But not only were tax collectors “sellouts” who obtained required taxes for the Roman Empire, they often took more than necessary, keeping the extra for themselves. In other words, they were thieves. That’s how Zacchaeus had become so wealthy.
3. He was short.
An average Jewish man in Jesus’ day would have been about 5 foot 5 inches, meaning Zacchaeus must have been significantly under this mark. So Zacchaeus was most likely five foot tall at most. While we don’t know his exact height, we do know he was short enough that when Jesus was walking down the streets of Jericho, Zacchaeus couldn’t see over those in front of him. Which is why he opted to take desperate measures, as we see next…
4. He was desperate for Jesus.
In verse 4, we see Zacchaeus climb a sycamore tree. The Israeli variety of sycamore is a bit different than the North American variety. The sycamore Zacchaeus climbed was probably shorter than if he’d climbed one in Iowa. Also, the branches were probably low enough for him to grab. The branches then probably created a “nest” where he could sit or stand (instead of just one trunk going skyward with branches coming off the trunk).
But here are two reasons why climbing a tree reveals Zacchaeus’ desperation:
#1. Jewish men in the first century did nothing publicly that would bring make them look undignified. They didn’t run. They didn’t pursue recreational activities. And the most certainly didn’t climb trees. By climbing a tree, Zacchaeus (who is already hated by the majority of the city, which we’ll talk about more next week) is drawing even more attention to himself, furthering to ruin his horrible reputation even further.
#2. Jewish men wore robes/tunics with nothing underneath. We don’t know how high Zacchaeus climbed, but it’s possible he risked people (or at least curious kids) seeing his privates, even FURTHER ruining his reputation within the community.
And yet, while the crowd emotionally looked down upon this desperate htree-climbing tax collector, Jesus stops, calls him down, and invites himself over to hang out with Zacchaeus, a sign of tremendous respect.
Why did Jesus honor this traitorous thief? Because he saw Zacchaeus’ desperation, and knew Zacchaeus no longer wanted the riches of this world, but wanted the spiritual riches found in Christ.
I Want to Be Like Zacchaeus
I am like Zacchaeus. No, I am not a wealthy, thieving, Jewish short man from Jericho. I have never worked for the IRS. I have never betrayed my fellow countrymen by working for a foreign government. I have never extorted someone for money. And while my taller friends have made fun of my almost-5-foot-9-inch frame, I have never had to climb a tree to see a parade.
Despite these differences, I am like Zacchaeus. My worldly pursuits have never fully satisfied. Like Zacchaeus, I need the spiritual riches of Christ.
But while I am like Zacchaeus in some regards, I want to be like him in a different regard. I, too, want to be desperate. I want to live with a desperate desire to know and follow Jesus.
Now I will admit: I don’t want to look weird in the eyes of our culture. But I want to want Jesus more than I want respect and admiration of my fellow man. Which means if my spiritual desperation makes me look foolish in the eyes of others, then so be it.
But that’s not all. I want you to be desperate for Jesus, too. I want you to realize Jesus is worth everything: worth running for, worth climbing trees for, worth being embarrassed for. You and I might live in a culture that thinks we are wasting our time gathering to worship Jesus on Sundays, or looks weird taking a moment in prayer to thank God for our food while at a restaurant, or views us as odd for choosing to say “no” to certain activities our culture deems as perfectly acceptable. Your reputation might take a hit if you reveal a Christ-centered desperation.
But when you live with a desperate heart that longs for Jesus like a deer pants for water, He rewards you with his full presence, changing your heart and perspective on life.
So I am Zacchaeus, or at least I want to be. And I hope you will be a Zacchaeus as well.