And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. Luke 19:3-4
Here we see the man Zacchaeus seeking to see Jesus. It is likely that he would have heard of Jesus, and had an idea of who he was. Zacchaeus was a powerful man in his own right- well connected and as chief tax collector [an accurate translation would be commissioner.] he would be in the position to know certain things. Though its not like any of it was secret. Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead a short distance from there. He had spent the last three years making a name for himself across all of Judea, healing and performing miracles, inflaming the religious leaders and so forth. In fact, this whole encounter with Zacchaeus was recorded a few days before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where the multitudes wept and shouted “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” I doubt there was a person who had not heard of Jesus of Nazareth, and Zacchaeus would have been no exception.
In fact, Jesus performed his last miracle right before he came into Jericho. We see in the previous chapter that as he was coming into town, he healed a blind man. If that blind man was a fixture on that road, as many of them would have been with limited mobility, it is plausible that word had gotten to the town before Jesus arrived, which would have been the catalyst that sparked his interest in an immediate way. At the time, his profession excluded him from membership in the people of God who would benefit from Messiah’s coming.” The Pharisees had categorically excluded all publicans, and it could be that Zacchaeus had heard of Jesus’ calling the publican Matthew to the apostleship, or perhaps of Jesus’ compliment paid to the penitent publican in that parable of the Pharisee and the publican. These might well have been stimulants prompting his curiosity to see the Saviour.
Regardless of the reason, we know that he was seeking to know who Jesus was. We don’t know why and we are not told why. It could have been in interest regarding the miracles, a curiosity to see the man for himself, or perhaps he was aware that he has a dissatisfied heart. He knows he’s alienated from God. He knows he has no eternal life. He knows that he’s overwhelmed with guilt and sin, and perhaps he believes that this man can do something about that. As it were though, it was not a passing interest. The word ” sought” in Greek is zeteo, which means “to devote serious effort to realize one’s desire or objective” In other words, Zacchaeus really, really wants to see him.
But he had two problems. One was that the crowd was too large, and the second that he wasn’t tall enough to see past them. Throngs had come to see Jesus. We know from prior stories that these crowds could be massive. Whole towns would come out to see him. In Mark 3 Jesus had to get off land and start preaching from a boat because the crowds were pressing in on him so tightly. If the people were looking for healing, which they often were, you can imagine that the desire for his touch would have lent a dangerous air to the whole affair. Desperate men will do almost anything at times. They could be crushing, almost mob like at times. This was essentially the zenith of his notoriety and of his infamy. The crowds would be massive.
At the same time, Zacchaeus was a small man, so much so that he could not see past the crowds to see Jesus. Keep in mind that he would have been a notorious man too, but for different reasons. As the chief tax collector, his social status in that time would translate in our time to being a known paedophile. For this reason, it is unlikely that he would expose himself to large crowds very often, not wanting to take the abuse that came to him because of who he was. Crowds would not be his friend. The people despised his soul. And yet on this day, driven by need, a need to seek and know Jesus, he braved the crowds anyway. When he discovered that he could not see Jesus, could not see the throng, he did not give up and go home. His need was so great that instead of admitting defeat and going on his way, he came up with a plan.One evidence of his earnestness and purpose is the fact that he runs ahead to where he knows Jesus will pass. How did he know where Jesus would pass? He knew the route. Having his house in that area, he would have know the path that is through the street, up the hill, and on to Jerusalem.
Once ahead, he finds a large tree and therein establishes a reconnaissance outpost where he will be able to see Jesus without attracting unwanted attention. Its creative, which speaks of his need. His climbing feat is similar to the four men of Capernaum who climb the roof of a house in order to bypass the crowd gathered around Jesus and lower their paralytic friend to Him for healing [Mark 2:1-12] So it’s ingenious, but also potentially embarrassing. To attain the chief tax collector position Zacchaeus probably would have been an older man, and climbing trees was relegated to something that children do. If people saw him, it would have given them more ammunition to shame him and mock him. And yet it also speaks much of how desperately he wished to Jesus, so much that ultimately he was untroubled by any concern for dignity, and climbed it anyway. As for the tree itself, the sycamore-fig tree is a robust evergreen tree that grows to about 40 feet high, with branches spreading in every direction. Their many branches make them easy to climb, and as it is springtime, and almost passover, new leaves would have appeared among the old foliage of the tree so that he would not have too difficult a time climbing up and setting up a vantage point.
Thus the stage is set for the encounter with the Savior.