Sermon: I Think I’ll Climb a Tree

A tree stump with several cut limbs inside a glass enclosure.

November 3, 2019
Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 19:1-10

by Eric Anderson

You might remember that last week, we heard a story in which Jesus praised the prayer of a tax collector rather than the prayer of a deeply religious leader. That’s the beginning of chapter 18 of Luke’s gospel. Just after that, Luke told the story of Jesus insisting, “Let the little children come to me.” Children. People who aren’t very tall.

Then Luke told about an encounter between Jesus and a wealthy man. Jesus told him to give away his possessions to the poor, and the man went away sadly. It prompted Jesus to tell his friends that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Luke then recounted Jesus healing a blind man as he approached Jericho. And all the people, when they saw that the man could see (there’s some fun wordplay there), praised God.

Thus Jesus arrived at the city that was the gateway to the road to Jerusalem.

In Jericho, Zacchaeus ought to have been satisfied with the way things were going.

He had position and title – chief tax collector for Jericho, a good sized city near the banks of the Jordan River. He had money and security. He’d probably already had money, because tax collector positions usually had to be purchased, and tax collection was a lucrative activity in the first century. It also gave him the protection of the Roman authorities. Certainly he felt safe enough on the streets of Jericho.

Something, however, had him yearning for a change. Tax collecting, as we heard last week, was a dirty business in the Roman Empire of the first century. Imposed by conquerors on the conquered, it separated Zacchaeus from his community. Gaming the system to squeeze more money out of the populace and lining your pockets with it was not merely tolerated, it was expected.

When the rumors of a visit from the preacher and healer of Nazareth became an event, however, he hurried through the city. He had to find a way to see Jesus despite the crowds, despite their raised heads and shoulders that blocked his less lofty view. I don’t know why he didn’t find a second story window somewhere, or a nice flat roof. Instead, he told himself, “I think I’ll climb a tree.” He chose to scramble into the creaking branches of a convenient tree, clinging desperately as they wavered back and forth. There he waited for Jesus of Nazareth to pass by.

What did he expect to happen then?

Not much, probably. There were enough people about that I’m sure he didn’t expect even to meet the teacher’s eyes. I’m sure he wasn’t the only person hovering in a tree that day. He may even have shared his branch with a child or two. Meda Stamper writes at Working Preacher, “The good news about Zacchaeus might also be presaged by the use of the term short or little. On the one hand, this is simply a short person, and that is how he ends up in a sycamore tree. But this term, in the superlative, is translated least, as in 9:48, ‘Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.’ And so there may be a sense in which Zacchaeus by climbing that tree in the manner of a child and embracing his littleness, so to speak, becomes one of the least of these. It is precisely because he humbles himself in this way that he is in a position to welcome Jesus just two verses later.”

Childlike, he climbed. Hoping for something to change, he hung on. Startled by being called, he descended. Joyfully, he heard that he, too, was worth saving.

He, too, was worth saving.

Just a few verses ago, Jesus compared the wealthy and powerful with camels and needles. In Zacchaeus, he met a camel that threaded that needle. All by climbing a tree.

Where do you see yourself in this story? At this moment, at least? I think I’ve found myself in most of these places at one or more times in my life.

I’ve probably spent most of my time among the crowds, rather shocked at the notion that I have any relationship, let along kinship, with the powerful people who lay such burdens on their neighbors as Zacchaeus and his associates – I’m more likely to think of them as “cronies” – did. I’m far more impressed by the fourth century words of Basil the Great, who preached, “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

(From Basil of Caesarea’s Homily on the Saying in the Gospel of Luke ‘I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones’ and on Greed)

That wouldn’t have gone over well among the tax collectors of the first century. It doesn’t go over well in the corporate boardrooms of the twenty-first century. It doesn’t go over well among the prosperity gospel preachers so popular in some circles. It doesn’t go over well among policy makers. In 2016, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, ten percent of Americans possessed 77% of the nation’s wealth. The next forty percent of Americans held 22%. If you’re really good at doing math in your head, you’ve figured out that half of the country’s population is dividing up the remaining 1% of the total wealth. The Fed noted that about 10% of families actually had negative net worth.

Oh, Basil, how we have forgotten you.

So count me among the crowds who are appalled that Jesus would invite himself to Zacchaeus’ home. Count me among those struggling to hear that salvation can come to those who seem not to need it, to those whose power seems to have saved themselves.

Count me also as Zacchaeus at times. I’ve known a sense of lostness, of mounting frustration that my life wasn’t following a course that satisfied my soul. I’ve known the hollowness of apparent success and the desperation to make some change, to find a fulfillment based in something deeper than money, or title, or safety. I’ve looked around and wondered what to do, and once or twice I’ve even said, “I think I’ll climb a tree.”

I think I’ll climb a tree.

There are a lot of people in the world clinging to their own version of sycamore branches. There are more who are gazing, rather woefully, at the trunk they’ve chosen to climb. I feel sorriest for those whose metaphorical tree is a coconut palm. There are more who are running along, looking for something to lift them up from the crowd. None of them have much hope of anything more than a glimpse of something different, a profile of a new guide, an inkling that change can happen.

Some of those have been you, perhaps are you in this moment, and may yet be you in some day to come. The Zacchaeus story shows that there is more possibility in climbing those trees than we fear. It shows us that we might yet experience more than a brief sight of a savior, that we might in fact fully receive our salvation.

Sometimes, we might get to fill the role of Jesus. To say to the tree climbers, come down. You are safe. You are worthy. You are loved. To say to the crowds, it’s all right. We are human. We are family. We are one. To say, God’s beloved child came to seek and to save the lost among all of God’s beloved children.

In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s precisely what I’m doing right now.

Laura S. Sugg writes in Feasting on the Word (Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 4 (Knoxville, Westminster John Knox Press), 2010), “The story of Zacchaeus tells us that the gospel is about serious commitment to God, but it is also about joy. We good church folk do not always do joy very well. Zacchaeus’s little stand and big smile convict us to do better. Communion is a serious business, but it is also a celebration. The word ‘Eucharist’ means thanksgiving. As we share the elements with each other and say words like ‘bread of heaven’ and ‘cup of salvation,’ a good response is, ‘Thanks be to God!’ We respond to Jesus’ invitation to the table with joy because we are included in God’s family.”

Let us, tree climbers, crowd, and messengers of love, let us as one family come to the table and celebrate in joy.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Yes, there are differences between the prepared and recorded sermon. We pray that’s not so great a sin as being a first century tax collector – and that both may be forgiven.

The photo is of the “Sycamore of Zacchaeus,” preserved in the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Prophet Elisha, Jericho, Palestine. Tradition says Zacchaeus climbed this tree to see Jesus. Photo by ProtoplasmaKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on November 3, 2019

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