The Leper in the Tree

by Robert Jacobs

My 14-month-old daughter loves to dance. Though still fine tuning her balance and coordination, she dances (as the saying goes) like no one is watching. Although she will dance to anything with a rhythm, including my more spirited readings of Hop on Pop, she prefers the upbeat kid’s songs they play at Sunday school. Snagging a few albums on-line for our dancing pleasure at home, I regularly clear the dance floor in our house for jam sessions that include favorites like “Jesus Loves Me,” “Father Abraham,” and “If You’re Saved and You Know It.”

As we listened and danced one afternoon, we came across a song I had not heard in a long time: “Zacchaeus Was A Wee Little Man.” It’s a silly little song from my childhood that tells the story of a minor character in the Gospel of Luke. Appearing in no other gospel account, the interaction between Zacchaeus and Jesus is a brief, 9 verses that is often glossed over. If not passed over like an appendix to the larger narrative of Luke, people simply remember the story as “the one about that short guy,” as the title of the song indicates. Yet as I listened to the song, I realized that there were many profound truths in Zacchaeus’ story.

Luke records that as Jesus was passing through Jericho, word of His presence in the city came to the chief tax collector, Zacchaeus. Desiring to see this Jesus that he had heard so much about, Zacchaeus ran out to the street where Christ was passing by. Unfortunately, “he was short [and] could not see over the crowd” (Lk 19:3). Determined to see this holy man he had heard so much about, he ended up climbing a tree to see over the crowd. When Jesus came to the tree, He called out “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Lk 19:5). This shocked the onlookers, for when “the people saw this [they] began to mutter, ‘He (Jesus) has gone to be the guest of a sinner’” (Lk 19:7).

As I thought about Zacchaeus sitting up in that tree, I realized that he was content to simply see Jesus rather than interact with Him. Though the text does not say so, I am sure he thought he would never be worthy of actually meeting Jesus and talking with Him. And based upon what I know about human nature, I bet he must have thought he did not deserve such an honor because he knew he was stained with sinful actions (see his reaction to Jesus in verse 8). Like a leper keeping his distance, Zacchaeus sat in the tree, grateful to even get the opportunity to see Christ. Yet Jesus was not satisfied with Zacchaeus simply seeing Him. No. He wanted Zacchaeus to experience Him on a personal level.

Many of us are sitting in our own trees. We think that because of our sin stained hands, Jesus does not want anything to do with us and that we are lucky that we even get to see Him from a distance. However, this is not how Christ works. He is calling out to us as we sit isolated in our trees. He wants us to not simply see Him or know about Him, but to experience Him, to intimately follow Him as His disciple. It is true humanity has a sin problem, yet we must remember that the solution to our sin problem is in the arms of Jesus and nowhere else.

As holiday decorations begin to fill our homes and churches, remember that the whole point of Christ’s advent was so that he could be Emanuel, God WITH Us. Whenever you see a Christmas tree this season, think of Zacchaeus—the man who was content to simply watch Jesus walk by but that Jesus desired to know personally, calling to him to Himself by name.