Part 3: Why Did Zacchaeus Climb a Tree?

When Zacchaeus realised that he was not able to see Jesus, he climbed into a tree. Have you ever wondered why he did that? Was it only so that he could get above the crowd, or is there a deeper meaning to his action?

In this five-part series, we are going to discover what it means to be a disciple and to do this we will use the encounter between Jesus and Zacchaeus as our blueprint. 

In this episode we are going to explore why Zacchaeus climbed into a tree.

Video Transcript

In our previous episode, we discovered why Zacchaeus was unable to see who Jesus was – and it really didn’t have anything to do with his height.

Zacchaeus’ inability to see who Jesus was was because of who Zacchaeus was… a sinner.

It is sin that separates us from God and which prevents us from seeing who Jesus really is. And if we can’t see Him it is impossible for us to follow Him, and therefore to become like Him.

It is our sin that prevents us from being a disciple of Jesus.

We also discovered why tax collectors were so despised… and it wasn’t only because of how they oppressed their fellow countrymen, but more importantly how they defrauded the God of Israel.

If you haven’t seen the previous episode I suggest you do so before continuing on.

In this episode we are going to examine what Zacchaeus did once he realised why he couldn’t see Jesus.

Let’s read the passage in Luke 19 and verse 4:

So [Zacchaeus] ran on ahead and climbed into a sycamore tree to see [Jesus], for he was about to pass that way.

Luke 19:4

Taking ownership

I believe that Zacchaeus climbing into the tree illustrates that he took ownership of what he was… a sinner, a defrauder – someone who not only defrauded his fellow countrymen but more importantly the God of Israel.

To get into the tree Zacchaeus does two things – he runs to it, and climbs up it.

But both of these things, running and climbing, are not what any self-respecting man would do in the first century. Children can run and climb, but grown men do not. In the honour and shame culture in which he lived both of these actions would bring him shame. 

Then by sitting up high in a tree Zacchaeus is inviting more shame onto himself. He is making himself visible to all those milling around, making it obvious to everyone that he does not occupy the position of honour at the front of the crowd. 

He is declaring to everyone “Look at who I am, here sits the one who defrauds”.

This idea, that the climbing of the tree illustrates Zacchaeus taking ownership of his state as a defrauder, is further supported by the kind of tree that Zacchaeus climbed into.

What is so special about the tree?

He didn’t just climb any random tree… he climbed a sycamore fig tree.

The Greek word for sycamore fig is συκομορέα (sukomorea)

Now a little later in the narrative we have Zacchaeus saying to Jesus:

“… if I have defrauded anyone…”

Luke 19:8

The Greek word that is used here for defrauded is συκοφαντέω (sukophanteō)

So there appears to be an interesting linguistic connection – with both the sycamore fig tree, συκομορέα, and the word defrauded, συκοφαντέω, sharing the same Greek lexical root συκο (suko), possibly suggesting a connection between the two.

Now there is a gentlemen, J Lee Magness, who has written an excellent article about this linguistic connection. I’ll include a link to the article in the resource section of this study guide.

J Lee Magness made the following statement:

“The point is not where Zacchaeus was but what he was, and what he was was highlighted by where he was.”

J Lee Magness

So the linguistic connection suggests that the sycamore-fig tree that Zacchaeus climbed was highlighting the fact that he was a defrauder.

Fig trees and defrauders

In the scriptures, there is another example that links a defrauder with a fig tree – the connection between Jacob and Israel.

Let’s look at this connection between Jacob and Israel, as I believe it will help us to better understand Zacchaeus.

The fig tree as a metaphor for Israel

The fig tree is often used as a metaphor for Israel – to describe the nation’s physical and spiritual health. When the nation is healthy or blessed, the fig trees are fruitful, however, when the nation is cursed, or not living up to its potential, its branches are stripped bare and the tree is barren.

Jacob the defrauder

The nation of Israel traces its origin to the patriarch Jacob – whose name was changed by God to Israel. It is from this patriarch that the nation derives its name.

In Hebrew the name Jacob means defrauder.

Jacob the defrauder became Israel the fig tree… this is our defrauder and fig tree connection.

Now let’s look at the moment that this change occurred for Jacob and see how we can relate this to Zacchaeus.

Jacob was a twin. He was the younger twin – with his brother Esau being born first.

In ancient Hebrew culture, the firstborn son held a special place in the family and he received a greater blessing than his other siblings.

However, before Jacob and Esau were born their mother, Rebekah was given a prophecy.

This prophecy is recorded in Genesis 25 verse 23, where the Lord said to Rebekah:

Two nations are in your womb, and two people from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.

Genesis 25:23

So here we see evidence of a role reversal. Rather than Esau receiving the blessing, this blessing would be given to the younger son Jacob.

Throughout his life Jacob considered Esau to be his adversary. Even though God had promised the blessing to Jacob, he believed that Esau was taking away the blessing that was due to him. So Jacob struggled and schemed in order to ensure that he received what he believed to be his. He was relying on his strength to secure that which God had already promised.

And that striving and scheming, the relying on his own strength, to force events his way, led to all sorts of trouble.

Jacob was living up to the meaning of his name… he would defraud if it meant he could secure what he believed to be his.

This behaviour was also displayed by Zacchaeus, he was also willing to defraud in order to become rich, even if this meant rejecting the God of Israel.

The night it all changed for Jacob

The night that Jacob received his new name of Israel is recorded in Genesis 32, and we will read verses 24 through 28:

…And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 

And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel”…

Genesis 32:24-28

Jacob wrestled all night.

Wrestling and dieing

The Hebrew word translated here as wrestle is אבק (abaq). This is the same word, just with different vowel pointing, as the word אבק (abaq), meaning dust. 

It’s what happens when you wrestle – you become covered in dust. 

In Hebrew thought being covered in dust is symbolic of death.

So as Jacob wrestles with the Lord, his old nature, that of a defrauder is being put to death.

At the end of his fight, Jacob will not let go. Something has changed in him. He recognises that it isn’t by his strength that his blessing is secured. Rather it is God who secures it.

Jacob’s confession

Now when, in verse 27, when God asks Jacob “what is your name?” He isn’t asking a question. 

The Lord doesn’t need to ask a question in order to gather information. Instead, he presents Jacob with an opportunity to confess not just his name, but who he is. 

So when Jacob answered he was saying more than just his name, he was confessing “I am Jacob, a defrauder”.

Everything changed from Jacob

With this, the new day broke and he received his new name. His old self, the one who defrauded and relied on his own strength, had died and the new life arose and with it, he received the promise of the new name of Israel – which means El Rules, or God Rules.

Jacob had removed himself from off the throne of God, and God’s authority had been restored.

As a result of this change, everything in Jacob’s life changed.

Jacob and his brother were no longer enemies, but they embraced each other. Their relationship was restored.

Let’s now relate this back to Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus the defrauder

Just as Jacob was a defrauder so was Zacchaeus. As Chief Tax Collector he was instrumental invalidating the claim of Rome that Caesar was God.

Jacob wrestles, Zacchaeus climbs

The wrestling of Jacob, leading to his declaration that he is a defrauder, is Zacchaeus’ climbing into the tree.

DEATH AND RESURRECTION

Just as there is a death and resurrection theme in the account of Jacob, we also see a death and resurrection theme in the account of Zacchaeus.

When Jesus passes the tree that Zacchaeus is sitting in he sees Zacchaeus and calls out to him, and invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house.

This brings honour to Zacchaeus, but at the same time shame to the leaders of Jericho who we see grumbling.

So when Jesus arrives at the house of Zacchaeus we can read between the lines that there will be the customary washing of the feet which happens as you welcome your guest, and the sharing of a meal most likely involving the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine.

We have all the symbols here of the Passover – representing the death and resurrection.

EVERYTHING CHANGED FOR ZACCHAEUS

Zacchaeus’ old identity is put to death. And just as everything changed for Jacob, so everything changes for Zacchaeus.

Just as the relationship between Jacob and his brother Esau was restored following the restoration of the relationship between Jacob and God, so the relationship between Zacchaeus and his fellow countrymen was restored, following the restoration of the relationship between Zacchaeus and Jesus.

The action of Jesus restores Zacchaeus to honour, and he is able to fulfill his God given destiny.

HOW DO WE APPLY THIS TODAY?

So far in this series we have discovered that living as a disciple of Jesus requires that we fully place our faith and trust in God. We can not follow Jesus fully if we are still relying on our own strength.

We can not follow Jesus if we can not see Him. It is our sin that impairs our sight and separates us from Him.

 In this episode we have seen that after discovering what our sin is we need to confess it.

Through this confession Jesus is able to invite himself in and restore us, opening up the way for us to follow Him and to fulfill our promised destiny.

In our next episode, we are going to see that Zacchaeus’ restoration was not merely cosmetic. Jesus did something radical, and Zacchaeus’ life was never the same again.

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