The Sycamore Tree
Jericho was surrounded by rich farm land. One estate was once owned by Cleopatra - a gift from Mark Anthony. A large proportion of produce was taken in tax partly to help pay for local govenment but mostly for the city of Rome where the populace was given free bread every day. The responsibility of raising taxes fell to the governors - Pontius Pilate in Judah and Herod Antipas in Galilee. They created tax districts and put them out to tender - the highest bidder, the one who could extract most tax, won the contract. Anything extra they kept for themselves. So tax collecting was a lucrative business for those who knew how to raise most money without pushing the population into rebellion. The Jews were known as a stubborn and proud people willing to starve if necessary so the task of government and raising taxes was given to those who knew how to push hard and when to stop. The chief tax collector for Jericho was called Zacchaeus.
The tax collectors were loathed as cheats and traitors. Cheats because they bent the rules to make money and traitors because they were basically working for the Roman Empire. The heavy taxes produced crippling debt and many small farmers were losing their family farms and becoming tenant farmers. Rich landlords were buying up small farms and creating large estates. Unemployment, debt and banditry are part of the background in the gospels.
The 'Zacchaeus Tree' in Jericho
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
Luke 19 : 1 - 4
As a renowned teacher and healer Jesus was often invited to banquets by the men of standing in towns and villages either out of curiosity or respect. The leading men of Jericho will have agreed among themselves who would put together a feast and invite him to it. But Luke points out that Jesus was passing through on his way to Jerusalem. So Zacchaeus climbed up a sycamore fig tree in order to see him as he passed by.
The close housing inside a walled city meant that spreading trees such as the sycamore fig tree were not allowed to be grown within the town so this tree was outside the city walls along the road leading to Jerusalem.
A man like Zacchaeus, well known and widely despised, could not be seen in a crowd. Small daggers concealed in cloaks were used for assassinations and busy crowds were ideal for getting away. So he ran and climbed the sycamore fig tree.
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 down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”
Luke 19 : 5 - 7
Did the crowds walking with Jesus spot Zacchaeus in the tree? Did they tell Jesus who he was and what he did? Did they expect Jesus to rebuke Zacchaeus for oppressing the farming communities with crippling taxes and supporting the Roman overlords? And what did Jesus say when he walked up to him?
“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down;
for I must stay at your house today.”
Having declined any offers to dine with the leading men of the city Jesus invited himself to dine, and probably stay overnight, in the house of a tax collector. The crowds who had praised God when Jesus healed the blind man now grumbled at him.
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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Luke 19 : 7 - 10
The assumption is that Jesus went back with Zacchaeus who put on a banquet for his honoured guest. And who would Zacchaeus have invited to join them - other tax collectors: it was a common complaint against Jesus - 'this man eats with tax collectors and other sinners'.
We do not know what was said but Luke describes Zacchaeus' public act of repentance and restitution and Jesus' public declaration of forgiveness -
“Today salvation has come to this house,
because he too is a son of Abraham. "
Zacchaeus was an oppressor but he too, in his way, suffered oppression. Jesus brought him comfort, acceptance, and forgiveness. But there was a price to pay as forgiveness is costly. Some of Jesus' goodness rubbed off onto Zacchaeus bringing about the change in direction he must have been seeking. But at the same time some of the anger and loathing heaped on Zacchaeus rubbed off onto Jesus - the crowds that once praised him now grumbled against him.
He brought salvation, freedom, to the house of a sinner; now he continued his journey to Jerusalem where he was to fulfil his mission - to bring the possibility of salvation, forgiveness and freedom for everyone.