Powers and Principalities

COVID-19 - Church Building and Ministry Update

Sun, Nov 03, 2019

Sycamore Trees

Duration:17 mins 41 secs

Our Second Reading this morning comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19, verses 1-10. We join Jesus on his way to Jerusalem where the cross awaits. The stakes in following Jesus are getting higher for in chapter 18 we find Jesus’ encounter with one we call the “Rich Ruler.” Despite the claim that he keeps all the commandments, this man will not sell all his possessions and follow Jesus when Jesus tells him he lacks one thing. Next, as Jesus approaches the city of Jericho, a blind beggar cries out asking Jesus to have mercy upon him. Jesus stops his journey and tells the man that his faith has made him well. The man then follows Jesus on the way.

In our text for today, Jesus enters Jericho but does not plan to make any more stops. However, things do not go according to plan either for Jesus or for the one he meets. Let us hear this Word of God.

1[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

I remember climbing a sycamore tree when I was young. I fell out of a maple tree a time or two – but that’s a story for a different sermon. The sycamore tree was easy to climb even though the Middle Eastern variety of sycamore is an all-together different kind of tree.

The Middle Eastern sycamore is an ancient species of the fig tree found in Madagascar, Egypt, and Israel and it can grow extremely large. With a beautiful, thick trunk the Sycamore tree produces several crops of figs a year. These trees are mentioned a handful of times in scripture. It seems that wood from the trunks were used for building, King David appoints someone to care for the olive and sycamore trees of the kingdom, and the prophet Amos declared that he was a “dresser of sycamore trees.” Yes, Amos was a sycamore fig picker before becoming a prophet. There is even speculation that as the sycamore tree’s leaves are so large, scaly, and leathery that these are the fig leaves Adam and Eve used to cover their nakedness after eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Now whether that is true or not, I cannot say, but it does lead to some interesting connections with our text this morning.

A few additional features of the sycamore tree are also important to note. With their thick leaves, sycamores were seen as a kind of tent. One could never tell what kind of “ceremonial uncleanness” or moral indiscretion might occur under a tree like that. Due to concern that others might be contaminated by whatever was going on under that tree, sycamore trees had to be at least seventy-five feet from any town. Of course, they could certainly be much farther as well. And finally, with its low branches and large leaves, sycamore trees are easy to climb and … easy to hide in.

Those who first heard this story would know all of these things about sycamore trees. For us it seems like an odd detail to include in the story. After all, this is the only occurrence of the word “sycamore” in the entire New Testament. And yet, all of these features of the sycamore tree seem to be quite important to Zacchaeus. Yes, he runs ahead and climbs into a sycamore tree because he wants to see Jesus. But it seems equally true that Zacchaeus chose specifically to climb this kind of tree growing outside of the city because after Jesus passed through the town the crowds would likely be thinning. Just like Adam and Eve so many years ago Zacchaeus did not want to be seen by God or by anyone else.

Because if Zacchaeus was rich and well liked, he could have just walked up to Jesus and demanded to talk to him. Remember the Rich Ruler from chapter 18? He just appears and has a conversation with Jesus. No matter how tall or short he or she might be, people with wealth and power can make their own way in the world. But Zacchaeus runs ahead of Jesus, finds a tree outside of town with connections to questionable activity and hiding from God, and climbs up. Yes, he’s trying to see Jesus without being noticed.

For rich and powerful men do not climb trees in the Middle East. As an example of how unusual this is John Badeau, the American Ambassador in Cairo, Egypt, in the early 1960s records in his memoirs that he once climbed a tree in the back garden of the ambassador’s walled residence in order to fix some lights for an embassy garden party. This private act became known and caused such a stir that Badeau was soon asked by a very puzzled Egyptian President Nasser (during a public meeting) if the story were true. Nasser had heard the unbelievable tale and was so amazed he felt the need to check its veracity with the ambassador himself. In the Middle East, powerful, prominent men do not climb trees, even in the privacy of their own walled gardens.

So, Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree to try to catch sight of Jesus without being seen himself. But it doesn’t work. He is spotted. Jesus comes to the place, looks up and calls Zacchaeus by name. But how does Jesus know his name?

The text doesn’t tell us. We could just assume that since Jesus is God that he knows everyone’s name. After all, Jesus knows your name and my name, right?

Or maybe it is a slip from the story’s author, Luke, who inserted the man’s name on Jesus’ lips before he really knew it.

And yet, reading between the lines, something else seems a bit more likely. New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey suggests that perhaps the crowd that was still following Jesus as he left Jericho spotted Zacchaeus up in that tree first. If the crowd saw the hated, rich, Roman collaborator, tax collector up in a sycamore tree, you can bet that the insults, catcalls, and four-letter words would start to flow. Yes, if Jesus can see Zacchaeus, then so can the crowd.

In the midst of this rapidly deteriorating situation, Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. He tells him that he needs to come down from that tree because Jesus is going to his house for dinner. This is most unexpected. After all, it was quite clear that Jesus was not planning to stop for any significant period of time in Jericho. He has already passed through the city. But now he has to go back to Jericho for dinner and probably will spend the night.

Even more unusual is that throughout Luke’s telling of Jesus life, Jesus has been pretty hard on those who are rich. Even before Jesus’ birth, his mother Mary sang, “[God] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In the Sermon on the Plain Jesus declares, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Jesus tells parables about a rich fool who tears down his barns to build bigger ones on the same day that he dies and a rich man who ends up in eternal punishment for ignoring the poor man who lies every day at his gate. We have already referenced the story of the rich ruler which concludes, “Indeed, 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.” So, inviting himself to eat dinner and spend the night at the house of the rich chief tax collector who has been hiding out in a sycamore tree seems to be a bit out of character for the Jesus we meet in the Gospel of Luke.

And yet, here is Jesus bringing salvation even to Zacchaeus today.

I guess what all of this says to me is that even our attempts to hide from Jesus just might become ways for Jesus to see us more clearly. So, we need to ask ourselves and even confess to God and one another, what sycamore trees are we climbing? Where are we hiding from Jesus?

Just like with Zacchaeus, it might be in our wealth. A recent study indicated that “after adjusting for cost-of-living differences, a typical American still earns an income that is 10 times the income received by the typical person in the world.” We may think that our wealth and our generosity help us to see Jesus, but perhaps our wealth also clouds our vision, helps us to stay an arm’s length away from our neighbors, and avoid the “least of these” who are in fact Jesus in our midst.

Or maybe we are hiding in our busy schedules. Yes, we are busy people - no doubt about that. I have shared with you before that so often the challenge is not in deciding between good and bad options for how we use our time. The challenge is deciding between too many good options. So, we cram our calendars and our days too full. We even throw in a few church activities on top because it must be better if we are busy for Jesus, right? But perhaps all this busyness actually draws our attention away from the one who comes and unexpectedly calls our name because he plans to have dinner with us today.

Or perhaps we are hiding from Jesus even as we try to follow all of God’s laws. Author Flannery O’Connor once wrote about one of her characters, Hazel Motes, that “he knew that the best way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” If we spend all of our efforts avoiding sin and living morally so that God will bless us because we are good, ironically, we don’t need Jesus to save us. We are trying so hard to save ourselves by following Jesus that we just might end up refusing the unexpected grace that comes.

Yes, I suspect all of us have climbed up a sycamore tree of one kind or another. We would like to see Jesus, but we really do not want him to see us. But, my friends, the good news of the gospel is that even when it seems most unlikely, Jesus stops and calls us by name. He invites himself into our homes and into our hearts so that we might eat with him. Because today salvation has come to this house, to your house and to mine. Not because we deserve it or have earned it. No, salvation has come because Jesus is calling even now.

The question is: Will you come down out of the tree?

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: