Climbing Trees

Luke 19. 1-10

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“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.”

Back in August my friend and I found ourselves in the middle of a rowdy crowd in East Rutherford, New Jersey. There was shouting, cursing, and jostling for position, because the gates to the stadium were about to open. People had lined up since the crack of dawn, some even the day before, and no one wanted to miss out on a chance of getting in front row. Vigilance was high, elbows were at the ready, line cutters were boxed out at all costs. When the gates finally opened the rush was on and civility went out the window. Everyone wanted to get as close as possible to The Boss. Maybe, in the middle of Born to Run or Badlands, one of us might lay a hand on him. Maybe, if we were lucky, we’d catch a harmonica, tossed mid-show. A fever had descended on the people of New Jersey that night – Bruce Springsteen was playing a hometown show. It’s a long story as to how I ended up in the crowd that night, so that’s for another time. All to say, the day Springsteen played Jersey was in some ways very similar to the day Jesus entered Jericho.

Often in the gospels we’re told that large crowds followed Jesus, word spreading rapidly from place to place about where he might go next. How many people are we talking? Well, on a couple of occasions the gospels give us numbers like five thousand, which may only mean five-thousand men, not even counting women and children. So when we hear of crowds surrounding Jesus, we’re not talking a half-dozen scattered here and there, but more like heaving, loud, desperate groups of people, all scrambling on top of each other to get near Jesus. So chaotic was it at times that Jesus would end up offshore in a fishing boat, the crowd having packed the beach, he and his disciples forced to work from the water. There may have been the occasional serene moment, but usually things felt less like an orderly line for tea in a church lobby, and more like the scene I described outside the stadium in Jersey. After all, people heard that Jesus could heal you, or someone you loved. Jesus was teaching with an authority no one had witnessed before. There was a momentum behind him which looked enough like a revolution to the authorities that they were plotting ways to kill him. This is the temperature in Jericho on the day Jesus arrived.

“A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.”

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, which is where he expects to give up his life and take it back up again. The approach to Jerusalem was via Jericho, laying forty kilometers north. An economic hub of the region, with plenty of goods and trade flowing through, Jericho was a kind of gateway town to the big city, thus making it a prime spot for taxation. There was no better place for the government to get paid than Jericho.

If you think taxes are unpopular now, you can’t imagine how unpopular they were in first century Judea. The whole region was subject to the staggeringly vast Roman Empire. By this point the empire stretched south from Italy over the Mediterranean Sea, dominating most of North Africa. It reached west covering modern-day Switzerland, Spain, France, parts of Germany, and would leap over the channel to conquer Britain within ten years. The empire also spread east, covering modern-day Greece, Turkey and Iraq. The Roman Empire was the dominant world power, and a little stretch of land on the western shore of the Mediterranean Sea had been swallowed up too. This is where we find Jerusalem and Jericho, two cities in a distant province caught up in the great machinery a colonial superpower. Now, as you might expect, paying for an empire, staying in poll position as a superpower, isn’t cheap: feeding, clothing and paying armies; resourcing military might; building roads and infrastructure; maintaining and protecting trade routes. The entire system needed funding. Not to mention that superpowers don’t play ball just to break even, but tend to hoard wealth. All this meant that the Romans also had become very good at taxation. They developed systems and structures to gobble up everything required to fund the enormous project. And the empire was so good at taxation that they devised ways of getting the people they subjugated to tax themselves. Once an area was conquered, the great system would roll into place. A local government was set up, maybe with a Roman governor, maybe with a puppet king and the Romans working the strings, maybe a combination of the two – whatever caused the least fuss. Pax Romana was declared, which in Latin means, “Roman peace”. Only it wasn’t very peaceful or pleasant for anyone but a handful of politicians back in Rome, and if you chose to upset the established order, you’d usually end up dead or enslaved. And you didn’t become a Roman citizen if Rome conquered your region, you became a subject, and subjects paid taxes. Meaning, subjects of the empire were quite literally paying to fund their own occupation and oppression.

Some subjects, however, smelt an opportunity. Some subjects saw within the great system a chance, not wallow under the empire’s thumb, but to climb into bed with Rome and get busy. As mentioned, the Romans didn’t tax the provinces themselves. Why would they do the dirty work? Instead, they organized contracts, where powerful collaborators from occupied regions could bid for the business of taxation. Once the contract was won, the money would be paid up front to the empire, and then the tax farmers would get to work. And of course, when you’re in bed with Rome, you do as the Romans. So, taxation collection was not a non-profit enterprise. Winning a taxation contract was only worthwhile if you turned a profit, which meant people in that sort of business often got greedy. In fact, about a century before Jesus, taxation had become so corrupt in the provinces that Rome set up extensive regulation to ensure corruption didn’t get totally out of hand, potentially inciting revolts far and wide. Later, under emperor Augustus, right around the time of Jesus’ birth, the taxation system was reformed, Rome taking a more central role. But even with these changes the tax collectors still held a great deal of economic influence, and the system continued to keep them rich. The point is, everyone wanted to get paid, get paid more efficiently, and the powers that be weren’t concerned about who they stepped on to meet those ends. 

Is the picture coming together? In much of the Roman empire, the people working the system and squeezing the locals for every penny they could, were often locals themselves. And it was the same story in Jericho and Jerusalem. Now you know why tax collectors are sometimes described in the gospels as “despised”. Also, consider this in light of Israel’s history and worship of their one true God. Here were the people of Israel, conquered, oppressed and taxed by a pagan superpower. And taxed by some of their own, fellow Israelites who’d sold their birthright for a lump sum, betrayed their family for a profit. Sellouts, turncoats (those are just the terms we’ll use in church, but I bet you can imagine some less polite labels). And Jericho was an economic hub of the region. Jericho was a taxation centre. Jericho is where we meet Zacchaeus, whom the gospel describes as a “chief tax collector”. In the eyes of the crowds surrounding Jesus, in the eyes of every God-fearing Israelite in Jericho, Zacchaeus was a chief opportunist in the worst sense of the word.  

I don’t know where you first heard the name Zacchaeus. It might be right now, which is good, because you’re getting a clear picture. But others of you first heard his name in Sunday school, introduced as comical little character who scampers up a tree and ends up as one of Jesus’ friends after throwing him a nice dinner party. We probably tone down the harsh reality of Zacchaeus’ background because it’s difficult to explain a version first century organized crime to four-year-olds. But the truth is that tax collectors had a very bad reputation, and the crowd’s reaction to Zacchaeus which we’ll read about later is understandable. He certainly wasn’t low in the taxation pecking order, either. Zacchaeus was a, if not the, top dog in Jericho, very wealthy, possibly very corrupt. Who dreamt up the business plan to squeeze even more out of Jericho if the whole enterprise could be made a little savvier, a little more sinister? We don’t know the details, but we know enough. As far as most people were concerned, Zacchaeus had sold his soul to the devil. He wasn’t welcome anywhere near the synagogues, the Temple, or in polite Jewish circles. And are you ready for the cherry on top? The Hebrew root word of the name Zacchaeus can be translated pure. That’s right. Zacchaeus the tax boss was a walking contradiction to his very own name. Can you imagine the murmurs in the street as he passed you by? “There goes the pure one”. Pure. Zacchaeus was anything but. 

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.

This is the part of the story which probably destined Zacchaeus for the Sunday school room. I don’t think that’s wrong, just so long as we don’t leave him there. There’s an element to the story which is familiar to children and that’s helpful. Children can relate to a life of poor visibility. We pick them up so they can see the parade or into the fish tank, so the note about Zacchaeus being short in stature is a connection for kids. Also, many kids like climbing trees. So you can’t blame your Sunday school teacher for thumbing through the Bible in hopes of finding something that might capture your attention and connect you to Jesus.

The difference between a child up a tree, however, and Zacchaeus up a tree is significant. His was no playful scamper, nor the note about climbing entirely to do with his size. Do you remember the story from the last couple of weeks about Bartimaeus the blind man outside Jericho shouting Jesus’ name, and everyone telling him to shut up until Jesus called him over and healed him? We saw a desperation, a lack of dignity in Bartimaeus in his shouting for Jesus. Well, here the tax man “ran ahead and climbed” a tree. Are we seeing a similar indignity, another shade of desperation in Zacchaeus? In those days a person of his power and position shouldn’t be running ahead to scurry up a tree. Zacchaeus should be held up in his mansion, and if anyone came to town they should be coming to pay homage to him. But just like Jesus’ story of the return of a wayward son, there’s something about climbing a tree which feels undignified. The lost son returns, desperate, cap in hand. Bartimaeus won’t shut up as the crowd passes him by. And Zacchaeus is up a tree, in his own way as improper and undignified. How curious is Zacchaeus about Jesus? Is he weary of a life in the sewer? We only know he climbed a tree because he wanted see Jesus. But his actions lack decorum and ring of change. Even more surprisingly, if this is the beginning of some kind of repentance, it seems to be enough for Jesus.

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.

What in the world does Zacchaeus think he’s doing? What in the world does Jesus think he’s doing? We’ve only just begun to unravel this story. Over the next weeks we’re taking our time through the Jesus and Zacchaeus episode. It’s an incredible story of how we relate to Jesus, how Jesus relates to us, and what change is possible when we’re in Jesus’ circle. 

What I want you to understand today, however, is that the world in which Jesus lived was not some fairy tale setting. And the people we read about in the gospels were not cute or sanitary figures. They were desperate, like we can be desperate. Curious, like we can be curious. Lost, like we can be lost. And they could be filthy like Zacchaeus. They could look like the furthest thing from holy that you could imagine. They could seem beyond hope. And yet, there’s Jesus at the foot of that tree, somehow knowing and saying their name. There’s Jesus who wants to be their friend. 

In my experience as a pastor, many people I talk to don’t think they’re very holy. Rarely, some do, but that’s usually an overcompensating projection because of what really lies beneath. Many people carry some shame or embarrassment about their past, whether they’ve been a Christian for much of it, or not. And that means many people are also on some level afraid. They’re worried God can’t love them as much as they need to be loved, or give them the kind of connection or reconciliation they crave down deep. They expect a version of rejection from God, be it subtle or overt, not welcome. And so they keep their distance. They keep God at arm’s length and play around with religion instead, because it’s safer that way. Maybe they think that if they can get a few more months or years of good behaviour under their belts, then they’ll be ready to really let God in. Maybe they think God can’t be all that interested in them because they’re a bit of a mess or a lot of a mess. I know because I’ve talked to people who feel this way. I know because sometimes I can feel this way. 

The trouble with all that, is it’s wrong. Not that those feelings are wrong, but how those thoughts and feelings direct our relation to God. Because that way of thinking and living – of having to be controlled by shame, or having to get your act together before you let God in – is made obsolete by Jesus. And my job, very simply today, is to tell you that you don’t have to clean up for dinner. My job is to tell you the good news. And the good news is that if you take a step towards Jesus, he’ll come right on over. Give Jesus an inch, and he’ll take a mile. Open your heart in a moment of desperation, and that’s enough for him. It takes some guts, but when you’re tired of keeping up appearances, willing to shout out on the roadside, or climb up a tree, or to try praying with someone – you won’t find Jesus standing over you with a list of demands before he’s willing to associate with you. Having climbed that tree, you’ll hear Jesus saying your name in a way you’ve never heard before. Because Jesus wants to come for dinner, even if, especially if, the house is a mess. He’ll get the house in order, but first we need to open the door. You see, we don’t contaminate Jesus with sin and shame. He infects us with life and holiness. This is what Zacchaeus was about to discover in the very depth of his being, and he would never be the same.

Are you prim, proper, polished, projecting? It doesn’t impress or fool Jesus. Lose the decorum and climb the tree. Brothers and sisters, decorum won’t help you in a life of faith. Desperation, dependence is the name of the game. 

Conversely, are you ashamed, afraid you’re too much for God to handle? Climb the tree. Dare to risk and trust someone who’s in no way intimated by you or your past. He’ll walk right up to where your perched and in front of everyone say, “Hey, you there! We’re going to be friends.” Because he is just that good and holy and capable of taking you in.

Because the good news is that Jesus already climbed another tree for you, it was his cross. That tree stood outside of Jerusalem and is where Jesus gave up his life for yours. That tree was burdened with all of humanity’s sin and shame and fear and hatred. It took it all, Jesus took it all, so we needn’t grip onto it today. And the fruit of this tree – mercy, kindness and forgiveness – is in in season for you now.