Zacchaeus’ Sycamore Tree

July 5, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

July 5, 2015


Zacchaeus’ Sycamore Tree

Luke 19: 1-10


This week, Karen Nye sent a beautiful photo of a forest filled with trees to me.  Superimposed was this quote, from Ram Dass:


“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”


Today we finish our Biblical tree series with the story of Zacchaeus in a sycamore tree.  We are also beginning a new series of “build your own sermons” which will be topics each of you have suggested.  One person asked how it is that we are worthy of God’s love.  Today’s sermon is the segway between these two series.  It just so happens that Zacchaeus is a story about worthiness.


In the ordination liturgy, there is one tiny thing that bothers me.  The ordinand stands before the congregation and is introduced by those who know him/her best.  It is a humbling experience to stand on the chancel and hear your family, friends and colleagues speak about you.  And then comes the laying on of hands, where ministers and elders from the congregations come forward to pass the blessing of the Holy Spirit symbolically upon this new minister.  After the laying on of hands, the presiding minister proclaims ordination and then says these words: “____, you are worthy of the ministry to which you have been called.”  This sentence caused me great angst at my own ordination and every one since then.  Worthy?  Can anyone really be worthy to do God’s work?


Today’s tree is the famous sycamore tree in which Zacchaeus sat to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  When we think of a sycamore tree, we think of austere trees… big and tall, with stout trunks and huge branches and giant leaves that tumble to the ground each fall by the thousands.


But sycamore trees in the Holy Land are not the same as our sycamore trees.  In fact, a more accurate translation would be sycamore-fig tree.  These trees are diminutive and little – a scrubby sort of tree.  They bear a fig-like fruit… that isn’t really a fig, but you can make them taste a little like a fig, sort of.  At a certain time in the development of this fruit, a worker climbs into the tree and punches a hole in each piece of fruit.  Without this procedure, the fruit is inedible.  With the procedure, the fruit is tolerable.

The fruit of regular fig trees is better and higher priced than the altered fruit of these sycamore-fig trees.  That fruit is reserved for the poorer people.  Comparing the two would be like comparing fish sticks to fresh fish, or a soy processed product to real beef.  Knowing this makes the story a bit more interesting!


Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by.


When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?”


Zacchaeus just stood there, a little stunned. He stammered apologetically, “Master, I give away half my income to the poor—and if I’m caught cheating, I pay four times the damages.”


Jesus said, “Today is salvation day in this home! Here he is: Zacchaeus, son of Abraham! For the Son of Man came to find and restore the lost.”   Luke 19:1-10.


Zacchaeus and the sycamore-fig tree had a lot in common…. Both were short and both were looked down upon as low-lifes.  Yet Jesus offered special attention to Zacchaeus and even announced to the crowd that Zacchaeus was a blood brother.


It makes a nice story and a good children’s song… (have them sing along)

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.

He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see.

And as the Savior passed that way, He looked up in the tree.

And He said, “Zacchaeus, you come down!  For I’m going to your house today (2 x).”


What does that have to do with us, you ask?  Well, let’s look again at the things we’re told about Zacchaeus and the tree – they were short and they were looked down upon.


First, they were short.   Do you remember that song that hit the charts several years ago entitled “Short People”?  Some of the lyrics are:


Refrain:  Short people got no reason… to live

They got little hands
Little eyes
They walk around
Tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet

Well, I don’t want no short people
‘Round here

They got little baby legs
They stand so low
You got to pick ’em up
Just to say hello
They got little cars
That go beep, beep, beep
They got little voices
Goin’ peep, peep, peep
They got grubby little fingers
And dirty little minds
They’re gonna get you every time

Short people got no reason…. to live.


In Jesus’ day, short people were ridiculed even more, especially if they were male.  The value of a person was measured by their ability to work.  A small, short man was looked down upon, even shunned.  Even today, some short people say that their self-esteem suffers from growing up with cruel taunts and jabs because of their height.


When Jesus singled Zacchaeus out of the crowd, Zacchaeus must have thought to himself, “Oh no, another insult is coming my way!”  Instead, Jesus wanted to spend the evening with him.  Isn’t it just like Jesus to take time with a person others had no use for?


This is where it hits home – whether we are seen by the world as too tall, too short, too fat, too skinny, too ugly, too smart or too dumb, or just irritating in general – God values us.  The cruel things people say and the hateful messages projected onto us and the inner tapes that tell us we’re not good enough… these are all null & void for people of faith.  They may hurt because they dig into the core of who we are.  Yet, if Jesus can love a messed up guy like Zacchaeus, who was the butt of every joke and the worst kind of thief, then he can love you and me.


Another commonality between the sycamore tree and Zacchaeus was that they were looked down upon.  I’ve explained that the sycamore-fig tree was seen as substandard because its fruit tasted terrible and was only eaten by those who couldn’t afford the good fruit.  We know that Zacchaeus was a tax collector.  Remember that the Jewish people were slaves to the Romans.  The Roman government, to add insult to injury, taxed their slaves.  And they hired Jews to collect the taxes from other Jews.  How would you feel if one of your own came knocking to take the meager little you had to give to your oppressor?  For Jesus, a Jew, to give the time of day to a tax collector was unbelievable to all those in the crowd.  But isn’t it just like Jesus to reach out to someone who was looked down upon by others?


And once we are freed from the harsh judgment of others, we want to share that freedom and joy with others!  That’s why Christians are called to unconditional and frivolous love.  We are called to open our hearts and our actions to the Zacchaeus types in our lives – the traitors, the greedy, the outcast, and the downright annoying people.


Zacchaeus’ story is a story of faith and love.  Zacchaeus was made worthy – not by his own action – but by God’s action.  Jesus did more than affirm him.  He said that Zacchaeus was the “Son of Abraham”!  Since Jesus was also a Son of Abraham, this affirmation made them brothers.


How is it that Zacchaeus was worthy?  How is it that we are worthy?  We aren’t.  But love makes us so.