ZACCHEUS APPEARS JUST once in the New Testament, and his story is brief (Luke 19:1-10). It is also one of the few places in the Gospels where we're given any visual detail. Maybe that is part of what makes it stand out.
We're told that Zaccheus was a runt, for one thing. That is why when Jesus was reported to be en route into Jericho and the crowds gathered to see what they could see, Zaccheus had to climb a tree to get a look himself. Luke says the tree he climbed was a sycamore tree.
We're also told that Zaccheus was a crook—a Jewish legman for the Roman IRS who, following the practice of the day, raked in as much more than the going tax as he could get and pocketed the difference. When people saw Zaccheus oiling down the street, they crossed to the other side.
The story goes like this. The sawed-off shyster is perched in the sycamore tree. Jesus opens his mouth to speak. All Jericho hugs itself in anticipation of hearing him give the man Holy Hell. Woe unto you! Repent! Wise up! is the least of what they expect. What Jesus says is, "Come down on the double. I'm staying at your house." The mob points out that the man he's talking to is a public disaster. Jesus' silence is deafening.
It is not reported how Zaccheus got out of the sycamore, but the chances are good that he fell out in pure astonishment. He said, "I'm giving everything back. In spades." Maybe he even meant it. Jesus said, "Three cheers for the Irish!"
The unflagging lunacy of God. The unending seaminess of man. The meeting between them that is always a matter of life or death and usually both. The story of Zaccheus is the Gospel in sycamore. It is the best and oldest joke in the world.
- Originally published in Peculiar Treasures