Now working for the IRS may not be the most admired job in our society -- especially at tax time -- but in ancient Israel tax-collecting was the lowest rung on the occupational ladder. Tax-collectors were the scum of their society for two reasons. First, they worked for the occupying power of Rome and were, therefore, considered traitors to Israel. Second, they were almost always greedy and dishonest, men who economically raped their own people. The idea of a 'good' tax collector was something of an oxymoron, In fact, it was so rare that one Roman writer told of a town that encountered an honest tax-collector and erected a statute in his honor. Luke's point is that Zacchaeus was a bad man and that local people hated and despised him.
We're not told much more about him other than the fact that he was rich and that he was, from our perspective, vertically challenged. But when he hears that Jesus, who had a reputation for being friendly with tax-collectors, prostitutes and the other ragged and unruly elements of society, was coming through town he wants to see Him (Luke 19:3-4
). So he tries but because he's short -- and I suspect also because of the hostility of the crowd towards him -- he can't, so he climbs a tree to see Jesus. And please note that Luke describes this as a sycamore fig tree. That is a very important little detail in this story. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible
says this about the sycamore fig tree: "Because the branches of the sycamore-fig are strong and wide-spreading, and because it produces many lateral branches, it was an easy tree for Zacchaeus to climb, and in which he could easily be hidden."1
He's curious and wants to see who Jesus is but he doesn't want Jesus to see him!
But then comes the surprise. Jesus walks down he street, looks up in the tree and says, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down because I'm coming over for lunch!" (Luke 19:5
). Zacchaeus had been running but Jesus had chased him. Zacchaeus had been hiding but now Jesus found him. Jesus wasn't so concerned with Zacchaeus' occupation or reputation, but was deeply concerned for his salvation because He loved him.
In a marvelous book entitled Love Beyond Reason
, John Ortberg tells the story of his sister Barbie, and her favorite doll, Pandy: "When Pandy was young and a looker, Barbie loved her. She loved her with a love that was too strong for Pandy's own good. When Barbie went to bed at night, Pandy lay next to her. When Barbie had lunch, Pandy ate beside her at the table. When Barbie could get away with it, Pandy took a bath with her. Barbie's love for that doll was, from Pandy's point of view, pretty nearly a fatal attraction."By the time I knew Pandy, she was not a particularly attractive doll. In fact, to tell the truth she was a mess. She was no longer a very valuable doll; I'm not sure we could have given her away. But for reasons that no one could ever quite figure out, in the way that kids sometimes do, my sister Barbie loved that little rag doll still. She loved her as strongly in the days of Pandy's raggedness as she ever had in her days of great beauty. Other dolls came and went. Pandy was family. Love Barbie, love her rag doll. It was a package deal.