One of my favorite texts in the entire Bible is the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. It would not be an overstatement to say that I have preached this text over 50 times. For me, the Jesus/Zacchaeus account is simply the most concrete example of God's love in the entire New Testament. It is such a powerful demonstration of Jesus' compassion for a man who is far, far, far from all that is acceptable (the law, morality, ethics, religiousness, the heart of God).
Because I have preached this text so many times, it is actually hard for me to find any new angle with which to approach it. However, this past weekend, I stumbled upon a very significant facet of this story that I had never explored before. In short, it is:
The gospel of Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a, "tax collector." But that is actually not entirely correct. Zacchaeus was more of a customs agent than a "tax collector." Zacchaeus is the one who who "taxed" or put "tariffs" on all goods and services that passed through the small town of Jericho. And what was Jericho's first century cash crop? It happens to have have been a tree. The harvest and cultivation of the - Balsam tree - was the largest source of income in Jericho in the first century. Balsam oils could be boiled down and made into perfumes and medicines. Balsam was a valuable commodity which could only be cultivated in the region around Jericho. Zacchaeus as the "chief tax collector" (PUBLICANUM - in Latin), taxed every single Balsam tree that came into and and went out of Jericho. Zacchaeus literally made millions of dollars (in modern terms) from the taxation of the Balsam tree.
Zacchaeus was like the character the "Once-ler" in the fictional book by Dr. Seuss, "Last of the Lorax". Once-ler made millions off of the cultivation of the Truffula tree seed. Zacchaeus made millions off of the cultivation of the Balsam seed.
The part that you surely remember from Sunday school is that in order to see Jesus, who was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus; "climbed up in a Sycamore tree to see what he could see." The actual quote is, "Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, 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." (Luke 19:3-4).
Now, because Zacchaeus earned all of his money on the black market taxing trees, it is very significant in this story that his fall back plan, so to speak, when he wants a quick answer, when he wants to quickly remedy his need to see Jesus is to - climb a tree. It was, if you will:
Whenever we are in a challenging situation, you and I tend to do the same kind of thing. We tend to fall back on our comfort zone. For example, when I am stressed out, I tend to work too hard. Working too hard is my "tree". All of us do this in some way or another. When we are faced with difficulty, we rely on "old tricks", "old customs", "tried and true habits", "customary sins", and "previously relied upon behaviors".
But what is even more significant is that upon encountering Jesus, the Son of God, Zacchaeus, in a moment of instantaneous transformation, comes down out of his tree. But it isn't just a tree that Zacchaeus shimmies down, it is his entire previous way of being. The tree for Zacchaeus represents so much more than simply a means by which to more easily see Jesus. It becomes the central motif of his life. And coming down out of the tree means that Zacchaeus is abandoning all of the illegitimate and corrupting behaviors which dominated his life up until that point.
So, here's my question for this week? What is the tree of your life? What is that previous behavior, or activity, sin, or central theme of your life which you have relied upon up until a certain point, but which upon examination no longer holds the value or power that it once did? For everyone the "tree" is different. For some it's money. For others it's work. For others it's control. For still others it's a particular sinful activity, or a bad habit. Like Zacchaeus we must come down out of that tree, in order for "salvation" to come into our house.
All For Now,
PS. For the next two Mondays, my family and I will be taking a summer vacation in the San Juan islands of the Puget Sound in Washington, where there will be no internet service. So, I will write my next blogpost on Monday, July 6th:-)