I must have been about six years old when my younger brother Jon and I were playing in the backyard on a Saturday morning — when Jon had climbed too far up into a tree and became too afraid to come down. I didn’t know what to do – so I went in and got mom. So mom came out and climbed up to where Jon was, but quickly discovered that she couldn’t hold my brother and climb down safely – so I had to go get my dad . . . to get my mom . . . to get my brother. So I know a little something about what it means to be stuck up a tree.
But I suppose we all know, to varying degrees, what it means to be out on a limb, as the metaphor goes – to discover we’ve placed ourselves in a vulnerable and intractable position . . . wondering how we’re going to back ourselves out of the mess we’ve made. And very often it has been the short-sightedness of our choices that have placed us in our predicament. Because sometimes we see what we want to see, and everything else fades into the background . . . until what we’ve blinded ourselves to, makes itself so conspicuous, that we can’t ignore it any longer.
This is how I imagine Zacchaeus ended up becoming a tax-collector for the Romans. There’s a lot of money to be made working for the most powerful empire to have ever existed – besides, it’s better to walk in step with the powers that be than to be crushed under their heel . . . and a man of small physical stature, living in such cruel times, needs to look after his own. So if he doesn’t seize this opportunity, the Romans will just find someone else to do the job . . . someone else to enjoy those benefits. Surely, everyone could see he had little choice . . .
But then the reality of his choice began to settle in – he had become a pariah to his own people, a traitor profiting from their oppression, bloodlessly shaking them down, regularly stealing from them their dignity . . . and no amount of money could ever hope to rid him of the shame, and loneliness that now haunted his every waking hour. So what had once seemed like a simple matter of common sense to him had become a life of dread and regret. In this way, Zacchaeus found himself out on a limb long before he ever climbed that tree.
I like to think Zacchaeus had heard about Matthew (Matthew 9:9) and wondered what it would be like to just walk away from the comfortable prison he had created for himself. I also like to think Jesus was thinking of Zacchaeus when he told the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector (Luke 18:9-14) – that somehow he could hear his quiet cry for God’s mercy to save him from himself. So that by the time Jesus was standing underneath that sycamore tree inviting Zacchaeus to climb down, the mercy of Jesus was on full display . . . to the grumblings of the crowd gathered there (Luke 19:1-10). And that’s the same mercy, inviting you and me to let go of that limb . . . and let Jesus make his home within us.
I can’t help but imagine Zacchaeus’ reaction was similar to Matthew’s in this clip from The Chosen