The Gospel of Luke is the only gospel that records Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus in the city of Jericho (19:1-10). As is characteristic of Luke, this story contains lots of details. For example, Luke gives his readers the occupation and financial status of his subject. This is understandable, as it is important to the overall story. Luke also describes Zacchaeus as short; and when Luke explains Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus, he also tells us what kind of tree it was (sycamore-fig, which happen to be very easy to climb). Pertinent or not, it was Luke’s style to record the details, and Luke lets us know exactly how Zacchaeus came to be in the tree when Jesus passed by.
This is all just set up, though, for the most important details to come – Luke tells us that when Jesus got to the tree he “looked up” and he addressed Zacchaeus by name. Jesus knew who Zacchaeus was and right where he was. It is possible Jesus knew who he was because he traveled the region and would have been aware of the tax collectors. Maybe that is why Luke included the detail that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector.” But Luke never offers us any clue about why or how Jesus knew to look up. Was it happenstance? A quick study of the history of the region informs us that sycamore-figs were once very prominent, because they were planted and grown intentionally; the roots were fed to local herds to increase milk supply. This is no longer practiced, and there is now only one sycamore-fig tree left in Jericho. However, they were once very popular and would not have seemed out of place and worthy of Jesus’ attention.
One of the points, I think, this passage illustrates is that Jesus knows who we are and where he can find us, and he uses our story to make his introduction. Zacchaeus may have been bitter about his height his whole life, but in the end, his stature is what led to getting to encounter the Lord and ultimately receive salvation.
Jesus operates within our story.
So many times we want Jesus to change our story, when in fact he is just waiting for the right moment to arrive in our story. This principle applies to people who have never received salvation, and it applies to believers who have been entrenched in the faith all their lives. This applies to people who are coasting through life, as well as those who are desperately praying for a miracle. Crisis, handicap, or bad hair, we are all just short people climbing trees when Jesus finds us and calls us by name. Only the details have been changed to protect the innocent. When we realize that he already knows who we are, it is not so necessary to understand how he knew to look for us. Instead, we understand Jesus has been tracking us the whole time. This is a tale of good news. This message is for anyone who needs to hear that God is after our hearts and he will go out of his way to stop under our tree. When all along we thought we were the ones trying to catch a glimpse of him, we find out he was navigating towards us with great intent the whole time.