“Silent witness: a sycamore tree”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.
Have you ever heard of Peter Dinklage? Of course, you have! He’s one of the most famous short persons in the world! Standing at four-feet, four-inches tall, he’s played characters like Tyrion Lannister in the Game of Thrones or, a few years back, Miles Finch in the movie, Elf. Remember his line? “Call me ‘Elf’ one more time.”
And speaking of short people, think of three-foot, eight-inch tall, Kenny Baker. He played R2D2 in Star Wars. Or there’s two-foot, eight-inch tall, Verne Troyer. He played “Mini-Me” in Austin Powers. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was five-feet, five-inches tall, Beethoven was five-foot, three. World-famous singer and entertainer Dolly Parton is, believe it or not, five feet tall. And Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, was four-foot, ten.
Which just goes to show--you don’t have to be tall to do big things in this world.
But being short does have its downside. For example, you have trouble reaching things when they’re on the top shelf and your clothes never fit quite right--not even the petite ones. You can’t see over people in class or at concerts, T-shirts become dresses, and step stools are a necessary part of your life. When you sit in a chair, your feet can’t quite reach the floor, and when you drive, the steering wheel is in your lap. Or maybe worst of all, if one of your friends drops something, they ask you to pick it up, because, after all, you’re closer to the ground.
Thanks a lot!
The book of Luke chapter 19 introduces us to a short person, certainly one of the most famous short people of all time. I’ll begin at verse 1: “He, (that’s Jesus), entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was about to pass that way” (Luke 19:1-4).
Let’s stop there for just a moment to see what’s going on.
Just a few verses before, in Luke chapter 18, Jesus had foretold His death a third time. He said in verse 31: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, they will kill Him, and on the third day He will rise” (Luke 18:31-33).
Then in verse 35, just as He was coming into Jericho, He saw a blind man sitting by the side of the road. He said, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” “And immediately,” the Bible says, “he recovered his sight and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God” (Luke 18:43).
Now here in chapter 19, verse 1, the Bible says He came to the city of Jericho.
So what do we know about Jericho? It’s a town that lies just north of the Dead Sea and east of the city of Jerusalem. With a current population of twenty thousand people, some say it’s the oldest city in the world.
In its time, it was beautiful, like an oasis in the wilderness--think Palm Springs, California. A first century historian named Josephus called it, “a divine region,” and “the fattest in Palestine.” And since it was so beautiful, it was a great place to live and work and, dare I mention, collect taxes.
And speaking of taxes, today, tax collectors are paid by the U.S. government, the IRS. But in Jesus’ day, it just wasn’t that way. Back then, the Romans issued contracts not always to the best qualified, but to the highest bidder. And the way they made their living was to collect taxes for Rome and, naturally, keep some for themselves. And since there were no laws as to exactly how much they could collect, most became extortionists, and pretty good ones at that.
Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived at the time of Christ, wrote this: “The Romans deliberately chose as tax collectors men who were absolutely ruthless and savage, and gave them the means of satisfying their greed. These people were mischief-makers by nature, subservient to their masters, and left undone no cruelty of any kind...And as they collected taxes, they spread confusion and chaos everywhere.” And he wrote, “They exacted money not only from people’s property, but also from their bodies by means of personal injuries, assault, and completely unheard of forms of torture.”
No wonder the Jews lumped them all together with the lowest of the low: “Tax collectors and sinners.”
Now verse 2: “And behold,” Luke writes, “there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich.”
Now notice that he didn’t simply say Zacchaeus was a “tax collector,” though that would have been enough. Instead, he said he was a chief tax collector--top dog, head honcho, the big kahuna, district manager, the man in charge. He was like a mafia boss, loan shark, and vulture all rolled into one.
As one author put it: “That Zacchaeus was a ‘chief tax collector’ implicates him even more deeply in the corrupt tax system of the Roman government. In a corrupt system, the loftier one’s position, the greater one’s complicity in that system.”
To put it another way, if you think Jews hated tax collectors, (they did, after all, speak of robbers, murderers and tax collectors in the same breath!), imagine what they must have thought of a chief tax collector! He was the man everyone loved to hate.
But wonder of wonders, as Luke writes in verse 3: “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was…”
That’s interesting. Why did he seek to see who Jesus was? After all, he was rich, the Bible said. He had a lot of money, and was very likely the richest man in town! Besides, he had all that the world had to offer--a beautiful home, obedient servants, the finest foods, and the most luxurious clothes.
But maybe that’s the reason why he wanted to see Jesus. Sure, he had all that the world had to offer, but he knew, deep down inside, that it wasn’t enough. He knew he needed Jesus.
Even more, he wasn’t the only one who wanted to see Jesus that day, for Luke also wrote: “...but on account of the crowd he could not…”
Why did so many people want to see Him? Was it because of the miracles, the parables, or His divine teachings? Was it because He could make the lame walk and the blind see?
And for that matter, why do people still seek Him today? And why do they give of their time, their talents, their treasures, and even their lives all for Him?
The reason is simply--there’s no one like our Savior Jesus.
And that’s why Zacchaeus ran down the street, pushed past the crowd, and scurried up that tree, just to see Jesus.
Can you picture it in your minds? It must have been quite a sight! There he was--little Zacchaeus gathering up his robes, (and probably pretty nice robes too), and racing madly down the street, running as fast as his little legs could carry him. But no matter how fast he ran, he still couldn’t see over the crowd.
Until finally, off to the side, there it was--a sycamore tree! Its low trunk and spreading branches made it the perfect place to go. So he lifted up his robes and shinnied up that tree.
Can you imagine? You try climbing a tree while wearing a bathrobe, or better yet, an evening gown. It’s silly. It’s undignified. It’s not something any self-respecting man or woman would ever do!
But it’s exactly what Zacchaeus did, for even though he was so rich, a chief tax collector no less, he would do anything to see his Savior Jesus.
And what happened when he climbed that tree? Verse 5: “And 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.’ So he hurried and came down and received Him joyfully.”
Just like Zacchaeus, every one of us has something that keeps us from seeing Jesus. Maybe you grew up in a home that never took time for religion. Maybe the name “Jesus” was just a curse word, and nothing more. Or maybe you never took the opportunity or the time.
And just like Zacchaeus, you too are up a tree today, trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus. It may not be a sycamore tree, but it is a tree of guilt or pain.
And do you know what He says? Do you know what He does? He says, “Hurry! Come down! For I must stay at your house today.”
And when you come down, by the grace of God, you’ll hear Him say, just like He once said to Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:9-10).
It was just a small river flowing over a dam, but to little, five-year-old Saroo, it felt like a waterfall. He played barefoot under the downpour as trains passed nearby. When night fell, he walked the two miles home.
Home was a tiny mud-brick house with a tin roof. He lived there with his mother who worked long hours carrying bricks and cement, along with his two older brothers and younger sister. His father had left the family two years before.
One night, one of his brothers, Guddu, took him to a railway station where they boarded a train to look for spare change. Two hours later, after finding nothing more than peanut shells, Saroo was exhausted. He said he needed to take a nap before they caught the next train back.
But when he woke up, the train was moving quickly through the countryside, sunlight was streaming through the windows, and his brother was nowhere to be found. With no food, no money, and no idea where he was or how far he had gone, he said, “It was a lot like being in a prison, and I was just crying and crying.”
When the train finally came to a stop, he couldn’t read the signs on the platform. When he asked strangers for help, they ignored him because they couldn’t understand him. No one there spoke Hindi.
After living on the streets for a few weeks, eating whatever he could find, a man took pity on him and took him to a juvenile home, the usual place for vagrant youth. That’s when an adoption agency, the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, agreed to find him a new home. Cleaned up and taught how to eat with a knife and a fork instead of his hands, he was given a little red photo album. “This is your new family,” they said. “They will love you, and they will take care of you.”
He had never heard of Australia. But in his six months away from home, he knew there was no way he could ever find his way back. He wondered if he would ever see his family again.
Twenty-three years later, in 2009, he turned on his laptop and opened Google Earth, in hopes of finding his way home. His memories were sparse--there was a train station, a fountain where he once cut himself climbing over a fence, a bridge, a large industrial tank, and a dam that flowed like a waterfall. But would it be enough? And where should he start?
After spending weeks at it, he gave up his search.
Three more years went by, and he thought he would try once more. Then finally, after spending months of searching, something familiar caught his eye--a bridge, next to a large industrial tank, by a train station. As his heart raced, he zoomed around the screen to find the name of the town: “Khandwa.” “That’s it!” he said. “That’s my home town!” And as he moved his cursor over the streets on-screen, he saw the same fountain he had known twenty-five years before.
In February of 2012, after travelling all the way from Australia to Khandwa, he found himself standing outside of his family’s front door. Wearing a bright-yellow robe with flowers, with her gray hair pulled back in a bun, his mother stepped forward and hugged him.
He had finally found his way home.
When we were lost, confused, and hurting, our Savior Jesus came searching for us. And by His rich, unfathomable grace, He found us and brought us to our eternal home.
When He came to live among us, He wasn’t born in a king’s palace or wrapped in royal robes. He was born in a stable and laid in a manger. As a Man, He slept in cold, desolate places and in the stern of a crude fishing boat. And on Good Friday, He died on an old, rugged cross and was buried in another man’s tomb.
And that’s the good news for every one of us. For no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, He calls you, by His Word and Spirit, to come and follow Him.
We thank You, dear Father, for calling Zacchaeus, a tax collector. Help us, in our time and place, to faithfully follow You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen