A wealthy tax collector named Zachaeus desires to catch a glimpse of Jesus as the famed teacher passes through Jericho (Luke 19:1-2). A short man, Zacchaeus’ vision is obstructed by the crowd (Luke 19:3). The admittedly unscrupulous publican is presumably unpopular and not someone the masses would accommodate (Luke 19:8). Undeterred, the diminutive tax collector casts his dignity aside, scurries and scales a nearby tree to spot Jesus (Luke 19:4).
The story, found only in Luke’s gospel, provides a curious detail: The tree that Zacchaeus scales in the City of Palms (Deuteronomy 34:3, Judges 1:16, 3:13, II Chronicles 28:15) is a sycamore.
So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. (Luke 19:4 NASB)Sharon H. Ringe (b. 1946) sees the humor in Luke’s setting:
The story begins as a comedy. Zacchaeus is drawn, not by devotion to Jesus or any high-sounding confession of faith, but by simple curiosity to try to get a glimpse of him. Being short, he decides to climb a tree to get a better view. A sycamore tree should provide good cover and let him get away with his covert surveillance without jeopardizing his dignity. No such luck. Jesus not only spots Zacchaeus, but makes a spectacle of him by inviting himself to Zacchaeus’s home. You have to chuckle (unless you happen to be Mrs. Zacchaeus, left with the problem of rearranging household plans to provide dinner for the unexpected guest and his entourage). (Ringe, Luke (Westminster Bible Companion), 232)This is the only time the word sycamore (Greek: συκομμρέα, sukomōraia) appears in the New Testament, though Luke uses the similar sykaminos in Luke 17:6. The sycamore is native to Egypt and Asia minor and thrives in the warm lowland areas of Palestine. It produces sweet, edible fruit.
Bruce J. Malina (b. 1933) and Richard L. Rohrbaugh (b. 1936) identify:
The sycamore (or, more correctly, sycomore) referred to here is a type of fig tree, Ficus sycomorous. (Sycamore, spelled with an a, is an American name for a plane tree, genus Platanus. Though the fruit was considered inferior to the true fig (Ficus carica) it was widely consumed and cultivated by some (e.g. the prophet Amos identified himself as a trimmer of sycomore trees [Amos 7:14]). (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 303)Philip W. Comfort (b. 1950) and Walter A. Elwell (b. 1937) determine:
The word translated “sycamore” in I Kings 10:27; I Chronicles 27:28; II Chronicles 1:15, 9:27; Psalm 78:47; Isaiah 9:10; Amos 7:14; and Luke 19:4 undoubtedly refers to the well-known sycamore-fig, which is also known as the mulberry-fig or fig-mulberry...The sycamore-fig of the Bible is a strong-growing, robust, wide-spreading tree growing 30 to 40 feet (9.1 to 12.2 meters) tall and sometimes attaining a trunk circumference of 20 feet (6.1 meters) or more with a crown 120 feet (36.6 meters) in diameter. It is a tree that is easily climbed and is frequently planted along roadsides, which accounts for the reference in Luke 19:4. It produces an abundant amount of fruit in clusters on all parts of the tree, on both young and old branches and even on the trunk itself. It is very similar to the common fig, only smaller and much inferior in quality. In David’s day it was so valuable that he appointed a special overseer for the sycamore trees (I Chronicles 27:28). (Comfort and Elwell, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, 1058)Megan Bishop Moore (b. 1972) adds:
This tropical tree grew abundantly in the Shepelah (I Kings 10:27; II Chronicles 1:15, 9:27). It is not the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), the Old World sycamore (Platanus orientalis), or the sycamine (mulberry, Morus Nigra L.), as earlier thought...Both the wood and the fruit of the sycamore tree are valuable. The soft, porous wood was used in construction of Egyptian tombs and coffins. The sycamore fig is inferior to the common fig, Ficus carica L., but was cultivated and eaten in ancient times. About three days before the sycamore fig harvest, a gash was made in the fruit to hasten ripening...The sycamore fig of biblical times was fertilized by wasps. Modern sycamores produce seedless figs and grow only in cultivated form. (David Noel Freeman, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, 1260)Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) sees a connection between the tree and Zacchaeus’ later confession (Luke 19:8):
In Luke’s original Greek there may be a wordplay between “I’ve extorted” (esykophatēsa) and “sycamore tree” (sykomorean), as though before God his extortions “put him up a tree” from which he has now come down in repentance. (Gundry, Commentary on Luke)Desperate times call for desperate measures and for Zacchaeus, the sycamore tree is a means to an end. His willingness to climb the sycamore is evidence that the resourceful and determined tax collector will stop at nothing to see Jesus.
What types of trees have you climbed? How old were you the last time that you did climb a tree? What would it take to get you to climb a tree today? When has your vision been obstructed from something that you really wanted to see? What would you have done had you been Zacchaeus? Why does Zacchaeus climb the sycamore tree?
Climbing a tree in public would have been deemed highly undignified. Depicting the tax collector in this act is one of many ways that Luke features Zacchaeus in the most embarrassing light possible.
Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) explains:
Luke has spared no insulting image to portray Zacchaeus as a pathetic, even despicable character. He paints a derisive and mocking picture of a traitorous, small-minded, greedy, physically deformed tax collector sprinting awkwardly ahead of the crowd and climbing a sycamore tree like an ape. But Luke exploits these conventional tropes only for the purpose of reversing them in the conclusion of the story. (Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity, 107)Some have viewed Zacchaeus’ scaling the sycamore as an attempt to remain inconspicuous; he is attempting to maintain dignity while performing an undignified act.
R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) interprets:
The picture of this tiny, rejected man sitting alone, hidden in order to get a glimpse of Jesus, is very touching. He certainly did not want the crowd to know he was there. He had dignity! He would get a private view of Jesus. The crowd would pass, and he would remain unseen, like an orphan peering through a lighted window on a dark cold night. (Hughes, Luke, Volume Two: That You May Know the Truth (Preaching the Word), 223)Some have accused Zacchaeus of nothing less than hiding in the sycamore. Kenneth E. Bailey (b. 1930) argues:
Luke 19:4...records Zacchaeus’s first action with the words “So he ran on ahead.” Middle Eastern adults do not run in public if they wish to avoid public shame. Furthermore, powerful, rich men do not climb trees at public parades anywhere in the world. Zacchaeus knew this only too well. So he ran ahead of the crowd and, trying to hide, climbed into a tree with dense foliage hoping no one would see him. Why is a sycamore fig mentioned?...Sycamore fig trees have large leaves and low branches. One can climb into them easily and just as easily hide among their thickly clustered broad leaves. Both of these features were important to Zacchaeus. Additionally, such trees were only allowed some distance from town. Zacchaeus chose to climb a tree growing outside Jericho, assuming the crowd would have dispersed by the time Jesus reached Jericho. (Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, 177)
Whatever his motive for climbing the tree, it can be certain that Zacchaeus is determined to glimpse Jesus. Robert H. Stein (b. 1935) deduces:
Such undignified behavior, according to that culture, indicates that more than curiosity was at play here. (Stein, Luke (The New American Commentary), 467)David E. Garland (b. 1947) concurs:
The crowd might make way for someone who was respected in the community, but it would not do so for someone like Zacchaeus. Running ahead, he shamelessly scurries up a tree and perches on a limb. Zacchaeus’s resolve means that he does not mind looking ridiculous in his quest. (Garland, Luke (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 747-48)Zacchaeus receives more than he bargains for as Jesus will summon Zacchaeus from his perch atop the Sycamore and invite himself to dine at the reviled tax collector’s home (Luke 19:5-6). This awkward position atop a sycamore tree is where Zacchaeus meets Jesus and finds acceptance.
Augustine of Hippo (354-430) charges:
The crowd laughs at the lowly, to people walking the way of humility, who leave the wrongs they suffer in God’s hands and do not insist on getting back at their enemies...Say what you like, but for our part, let us climb the sycamore tree and see Jesus. The reason you cannot see Jesus is that you are ashamed to climb the sycamore tree. (Arthur A. Just, Jr., New Testament, III: Luke (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), 290)Have you ever functioned as an obstacle to someone else seeing Jesus? What would you be willing to do to catch a glimpse of Jesus? Have you ever sacrificed your dignity in the name of Jesus?
“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.” - Michael Jordan (b. 1963)