The Specificity of Zacchaeus

Luke 19:1-10 – The 24th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, October 30, 2016

“When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, ‘Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.’” (Luke 19:5)

zacchaeusI live in Fresno, California’s fifth most populous city. It’s closer to more National Parks than any other major city in the United States.

Even though my legal name is Lawrence, Larry is preferred. If called Lawrence, a bit of me cringes with childish guilt. When in trouble as a kid—say, for “hypothetically” cleaning my room by shoving toys, books, and other childhood paraphernalia under the bed—my parents shouted, “Lawrence George Patten, come here!”

Speaking of names, it’s PattEn rather than PattOn. I call it the “Curse of the General,” since the World War II officer has more name recognition (and more Oscar-winning films) than anyone on the “E” side of the genealogy.

"The Curse of the General"
“The Curse of the General”

A United Methodist clergy ordained in 1977, I currently serve at a hospice with the fancy title: Bereavement Support Specialist.

If you visit Fresno in January or February, we can pluck some fruit from one of our two backyard naval orange trees. Maybe we’ll squeeze fresh orange juice for your drinking pleasure. Delicious . . . how I like those trees!

What do you know about me? As with you, I live in a particular place, have a particular name, claim titles and affiliations, and (like or unlike you) have bright green citrus trees in my yard. Am I rich? That depends on whether you’re comparing me to a resident of San Francisco’s highfaluting Sea Cliff neighborhood or a small business owner in Florida after Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc with that region.


How much do we know about Zacchaeus of Luke, chapter 19? More than Philemon, who got an entire (albeit brief) book in Bible named after him. More than Simon the Zealot, one of Jesus’ top twelve disciples. And yet with Zacchaeus, we learn he’s from Jericho and a “ruler among tax collectors.” Rich, too. Also a short dude, but agile enough to clamber up a sycamore tree not too far from his home.


From the mythical Adam fixing a fig leaf over his family jewels to Gabriel reassuring Mary with Do not be afraid, the Biblical story is chock full of specificity. Oh sure, we can’t help but add details that aren’t really there: Adam and Eve’s bedeviled fruit is usually referenced as an apple (not true!) and artists frequently depict scriptural angels with feathery bird-like wings. (Do angels have hollow bones like birds too?)

Specificity invites debate. Those of you that believe Jesus’ birth took place in Bethlehem, please shuffle to the left side of the room. But if you suspect his original zip code as the less glamorous Nazareth, I’d like you to line up along the opposite wall. And, ah-oh, did I earlier label Adam as “mythical?” It’s an important and specific phrase for my theological understanding of Genesis. But there will be Biblical literalists out there who’ll want to specifically refute my interpretation. So it goes. Specificity can bring out the grumpiest in us.

But let it bring out the best.

The diminutive Zacchaeus is mentioned once in Luke’s gospel, and never appears in any other Biblical verse. But each time I stride into Jericho for his story, I’m fascinated with the account’s particulars. I sense his eagerness. I sense his anticipation. I sense his frustration. I sense his joy. Though I’ve read Luke 19 at least 999 times (from when I was a munchkin in Sunday school relating to Zacchaeus’ short stature to an ordained clergy challenging a congregation to embrace the Z-man’s four-times-as-much generosity), I’ll read it for the thousandth time with fresh eyes.

Why? Specificity!

The Z-man doesn’t just climb any tree. He scrambles up a sycamore. I don’t think of that tree as a metaphor or a hidden lesson. It doesn’t “sprout” in Luke’s gospel to compete with or compare to Buddha’s Bo tree or even Xerxes of Persia and his own bedazzling sycamore. I believe the tree simply proved useful for a better view of the visiting Nazarene because of its here-and-now accessibility and availability.

img_1990And so, in January or February, in the darkest stretch of winter in my California home, I simply enjoy wandering out to those very real backyard trees to seek a ripe orange. I love to share them with others.

Reading this familiar stretch of Luke invites me to remember that I’m a unique creation of the Creator. In this place, at this time, and with the gifts and graces (and faults) I have, I can make a difference. Unlike Buddha and the Bo tree, The Z-man clinging to his sycamore didn’t change the world. He merely had tuna melt and soup with Jesus and generously returned money he didn’t deserve. What he did was simple, possible, and it all took place in his neighborhood.

Not too far from an orange tree. Oops, I mean sycamore.


[Image of Joel Whitehead’s painting is from here.]

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